Review- Jamba, “Patriots”


Sousa Jamba, “Patriots” (1990) – As John Dolan (from whom I learned about this book) has observed, the messier a war is, the more productive it typically is in literary terms. World War I was pointless and inconclusive compared to World War II, but writings from the former is definitive to modern literature and writing from the latter isn’t. The Vietnam War was better for literature than the Persian Gulf War, and so on.

The Angolan Civil War from 1975 to 1990 (and with subsidiary fighting lasting until 2002) was profoundly messy. Three major factions, spillovers into neighboring countries, foreign boots on the ground, funding and support from actors ranging from the US to China to Israel to Mobutu’s regime in Zaire, tribal politics, somewhere around a million dead and the country littered with landmines… Alas, Angolan writers have fewer connections with the rich-country publishing world than those involved in America’s sticky wars.

So we’re lucky to have Sousa Jamba, who got out of Angola and told his story. Like some of the best books to come out of internecine wars — I’m thinking of Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk” and Babel’s “Red Cavalry” — much of it consists of stories people tell that the narrator collects. Wars — especially the sort of wars that rove widely across a country and generate refugee flows — pick people up and move them around, and when they stop for a minute, many want to tell what happened to them. Hosi, the narrator, is a good straight man for these various taletellers. He had been in a refugee camp in Zambia for much of the war, and came back to Angola to fight for UNITA (the US-backed side) both with considerable resources his peers lack (mainly education) and a lot of misapprehensions about Angolan reality. So many of the people he meets traveling to the UNITA camp, or those in it, relish in telling him about Angolan reality, and he’s not shy about giving his own opinions, equal parts blinkered and perceptive, back.

It’d be too much to even give an overview of the stories exchanged. Jamba has a superb ear for them. Often they’re fascinating mixes of the dreams the post-independence moment have birth to and the harsh realities of division, poverty, and war that Angolans faced. Angolans are always people, first and foremost, in “Patriots.” They’re not objects for pity or scorn. Maybe that’s why Jamba isn’t as well known as should be…

Non-Africans often reduce civil wars in African countries to tribal conflicts. Tribe is very important in many of these wars but it’s possible to overstate. There was certainly a tribal dimension to the Angolan civil war. One of the three major factions, FNLA, was more-or-less the tribal army of the Bakongo (who used to have an important kingdom before the coming of the Portuguese). UNITA got a lot of its backing from the Ovimbundu, many of whom thought the Marxist MPLA (the eventual winner) was a force for the Kimbundu and worse still, mixed-race, deracinated urban dwellers to lord it over them. But one thing Jamba drives home is that for all the vociferousness of tribal conflict, those who fought the war thought of themselves as Angolans, and want to define a future for Angola as a whole. That makes it all the sadder that all of these patriots tear the country apart, allow foreign interventions (especially UNITA’s devil’s bargain with apartheid South Africa), sow their country with landmines, etc.

Hosi considers what to make of a country in many respects defined by civil war as he takes in the perspectives of his comrades on the matter. He quickly grows alienated from UNITA, where worship of the leader (referred to only as The Elder- MPLA leader Agostinho Neto gets namechecked by Savimbi was still alive and vengeful when this was being written), support from the US and South Africa, and indulgence in customs like witch-burning compound the irrationality that comes with any war. Hosi is a familiar type from this sort of literature- clever, feckless, wanting what most young men want — adventure, glory, attention — but increasingly disengaged from what would allow him to get it, mainly unswerving support for the party line and willingness to suffer and make others suffer.

Nearly everyone Hosi talks to has a heroic vision of Angola. This typically involves a heroic version of themselves. But in the end, people have to deal with the reality, both of Angola and themselves, and the normal, unheroic nature of life. This is especially a problem for UNITA, which Jamba depicts as more or less an extension of Jonas Savimbi’s power fantasies, with a little bit of Ovimbundu particularism to back it up. The MPLA, whatever its weaknesses, can at least present a somewhat more realistic and appealing vision of a free Angola.

In the end, this leads Hosi away from his own heroic fantasies — where he is minister of culture or tourism in some future UNITA government — and towards something more prosaic: escape. In the end, what both Hosi and his opposite number (his half-brother Osvaldo, an MPLA fighter who takes over the viewpoint role for some chapters at the end) want is to get out of Angola. In 1990, with the war still going, that must have seemed like the only solution to someone like Jamba who wanted to write freely and live well. Jamba managed to do so- apparently he lives in Jacksonville today. Among the many tragedies of the Angolan Civil War and other legacies of colonialism and the Cold War were the many people, proud of their countries and cultures, turned into exiles (or worse) because of the struggles to define what their societies would be. *****

Review- Jamba, “Patriots”

Review- Allen and Parnes, “Shattered”


Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” (2017) – Allen and Parnes say up front that when they began writing about the Clinton campaign, they expected to write a very different book. Like most people and virtually everyone in their world (centrist high-end journalism), they expected Clinton to win. I think it’s pretty likely that they stitched together earlier chapters, written in an “overcoming adversity but she pulled it off” mode, to later chapters written quickly.

On its own, the book is unremarkable political journalism. The analysis doesn’t go much deeper than “this or that person succeeded or failed” or “this or that broad swath of the electorate felt/thought such and such.” The prose is forgettable except where it’s godawful, which it is in a number of places (for instance, some Clinton flunkies described as doing something like “going through the haystack of wikileaks emails looking for needles that could break her skin- or worse, landmines that could blow up her campaign”). They do a pretty good job at getting Clinton campaign people to reveal their thoughts, but that’s kind of a low bar to clear when you’re dealing mostly with millennials who had just been through something bad and very much public.

If you’re looking for a real postmortem of a campaign destined to join the Pentagon Whiz Kids circa 1968 in the pantheon of a certain kind of technocratic liberal hubris and failure, “Shattered” isn’t it. It managed to upset voluble internet people who think Hillary is Mom by indicating maybe she made some mistakes (along with heaping plenty of blame on Comey, et al), but doesn’t really go deeper into the why. Clinton isn’t stupid as in cognitively impaired or uneducated. Her worldview — and the worldview of everyone around her and an entire class who she represented — made her (and them) act stupid. It wasn’t just one person’s failure- it was the failure of a whole class, a whole idea of politics and governance, a whole way of life. Moments like that are key, both for the societies that go through them and for historians wanting to understand those societies.

Allen and Parnes don’t get nearer to a system critique than saying “people were mad and Clinton and her data-blinkered gnomes/doomsday cult were just too wonky to get it.” That, combined with the writing, makes it frustrating at times- like, we all know how this story goes, why not tell us something more? But to a certain extent, it’s fitting that the first draft of that story comes from people who more or less accept the premises of that class-based worldview. This could become a reasonably important primary document for whoever comes along and does for this fuck-up what Gabriel Kolko, David Halberstam, or Richard Barnet did for Vietnam. ***

Review- Allen and Parnes, “Shattered”

Review- Amis, “Lucky Jim”


Kingsley Amis, “Lucky Jim” (1954) – It’s probably for the best I read the great comic novel of academic fecklessness at the end of my grad student career (and, odds are, my academic career more generally) rather than at the beginning. I’ve spoken with people who say “Lucky Jim” speaks to their contemporary academic experience, and more-or-less believe them. But truth be told, the actual action in the novel is pretty far from my experience. Not that much happens, I find, and I’ve probably been lucky but the faculty I’ve worked with have all been very encouraging of me (probably a little more than makes sense given the market, but hey- I still appreciate it) and I don’t hate any of them.

But the overarching themes ring pretty true. Above all, there’s contrast between the high-minded idealistic palaver of what the university is all about, and the grubby reality based in very material things- money, sex, status, power in the most basic sense of being able to impose one’s will on others. I’m not sure that the actual grubbiness is any more grubby than any other field. But the contrast is as strong as any… though I get the idea that tech might give it a run for its money these days.

Maybe some of the difference is context. I have to admit, I find it a little hard to feel bad for our hero Jim, even beyond his own flaws, because the profession as it was ascending in the early 1950s can’t possibly be as grim as the 2010s, as humanities academia is slowly dying out. But Amis sells it pretty well. I get the impression he fell off after his first novel, but he has a sharp caricaturist’s eye. He also has the amoral sensibility with the tiny seed (or maybe infection) of moral outrage that makes classical satire work from Juvenal’s day onward. This results in a near-equal number of people who deserve it and those who don’t getting cuttingly caricatured. Amis operates in a target-rich environment of the first category — pompous academics, careerist snitches, pretensious artists — and he doesn’t spare the second category, either, mainly consisting of women just in general. Amis is a misanthrope, but the thing with misanthropy (in men anyway) is that it usually turns out to be misogyny with extra steps.

“Lucky Jim” was written while Amis was still at least drifting along with the far-left politics fashionable in British cultural circles at the time, though he quickly turned rightward, hard. There’s a vulgar class politics at work in the novel. Jim and the few people he likes are by-and-large working class people attempting to climb one or another pole greased not just by class hierarchy but by the very pretenses of progressiveness the notionally-more-cultured ends of that hierarchy like to display. Though it’s hard to say why Jim was in academia in the first place- he clearly hates history (though Amis gets across the fact, as true today as it was then, that actually giving a shit about your topic is by no means necessary for academic success). Why is he bothering?

Short answer- he doesn’t, for long. In the end, Jim is basically saved from the consequences of his own fuck-ups via the deus-ex-machina of an independently wealthy guy who finds him funny. This gets to an important pattern. The problem isn’t really with the social order- it’s with the wrong people (signified by wrong taste, which usually follows a wrong soul) being empowered by it. This is the message of most right-leaning satire, from South Park to Amis and, not that right-left distinctions mean much in such a distant past, but it was basically Juvenal’s point too. Maybe this is more a reflection of my own (historical) experience than anything else, but I think that’s a powerful rhetorical mode we can’t just wish away in the hopes something fairer and more structurally-woke will take its place. I’m not so sure we should, either. ****

Review- Amis, “Lucky Jim”

Review- Liu, “The Dark Forest”


Liu Cixin, “The Dark Forest” (2008) (translated from the Chinese by Joel Martinsen) – At the end of “The Dark Forest,” we’re something like 900 pages in to Liu’s trilogy of contact between Earth and an alien civilization, and no Earthling has laid eyes on a Trisolaran! But in many respects, that’s beside the point. Here, Liu provides a new take on one of the classic themes that scifi tackles and that literary fiction occasionally dips a dilatory toe in: the horror of scale, the disjuncture between the sense of proportion — in terms of space, time, complexity, diversity, our own expectations, you name it — that we carry with us and what our discoveries tell us about the universe.

The book sprawls across multiple centuries and a number of attempts to come to grips with the coming invasion. They call Liu a “hard” scifi writer, as in he tries to keep things closely tethered to real science. I don’t know science well enough to say how much he does or doesn’t, but it seems science-y enough… though major new technologies come about at pretty convenient times. So cryogenic hibernation allows viewpoint characters — like feckless sociologist and possible savior Luo Ji — to hang around various important points in the four hundred years between when Earth discovers the aliens and when they show up.

A lot of interesting stuff — anti-alien schemes mooted (by “Wallfacers,” charged with coming up with planetary defense schemes in secret) and betrayed (by “Wallbreakers,” who aren’t the Kool-Aid Man no matter how much it sounds like it), tragic failures, rises and falls of global societies, terrible space massacres — occurs but the broad scale is also setup for the point Liu it trying to make. Jeet Heer, of all people, wrote something interesting recently where he said “hard” scifi, even more than “soft,” almost invariably has a religious charge to it. It reflects the desire to see science and technology take the role religion once did in promising transcendence.

Liu is deeply skeptical of humanist values in the face of the problems of scale upon which he built this series. The thing that saves Earth — for a time — isn’t any particularly clever scheme or bold move. It’s Luo Ji, the last Wallfacer (who mostly used his powers to acquire a waifu — Liu’s gender perspective isn’t much more encouraging than the rest of his worldview — and mess around) who comes to see the Hobbesian nature of galactic-scale life. He saves the day by essentially holding both Earth and Trisolaris hostage by the simple expedient of threatening to advertise their position to the wider universe and all of its predators. This is the titular “Dark Forest” — the universe.

That sounds depressing — it is depressing — but from Augustine’s day to Flannery O’Connor’s to Liu’s, some of the people with the most depressing worldviews hold out some of the highest hopes of existential deliverance from outside of consciousness and ego. Somewhere between emptiness and love, Liu carves out a space for hope at the end of this generally quite dark, “Empire Strikes Back” part of his trilogy. All of that is a little too Buddhist for me to really get whether it makes sense or not but it works pretty well as far as these novels go. ****’

Review- Liu, “The Dark Forest”

Review- Singh, “Race and America’s Long War”


Nikhil Pal Singh, “Race and America’s Long War” (2017) – I picked this up because I think one of the missing pieces — one of many — in our discussion of the rise of the far-right in the era of Trump is its relationship to America’s role in the broader world. Diplomatic history has, for the last twenty years or so, been working on the relationship between domestic politics and American foreign policy, but it’s still pretty specialized and under-developed. Consider how much angst and ink has been split over the relationship between college campus politics and the rise of the right, and how little of both we see how the fact we’ve been at war for more or less the entire time undergrads today have been alive might condition the situation. This imbalance tells us a lot.

In the essays collected in “Race and America’s Long War,” Singh works to put America’s current wars in the framework of the long war of settler colonialism and capitalist accumulation. War and policing inform each other in a never-ending cycle going back to the wars against the Native Americans and the policing of slaves. Singh argues that in many respects race (and, he alludes, other identity categories, but he spends less time with them) is continually created by an array of policy decisions and the violence that goes into backing them up. If the post-WWII era changed the normative background of how America’s war-police complex was justified — eventually making its peace with a notionally color-blind liberalism while still maintaining deeply racialized structures of inequality — liberal policymakers (like Obama) never challenged the underlying logic of the system. This left the whole thing open to being taken over and rolled back by openly revanchist elements, like Trump.

The devil, of course, in the details. The crises — either spun off or accelerated by the ur-crisis of climate change — are mounting in intensity at a time when the US is, relatively (and maybe absolutely) speaking,declining in power. You have to figure that’s going to make a difference in terms of the type of freak-out we’re likely to see from those in power and those who hold dear to the tropes and methods of racialized power Singh illuminates. Singh offers provocative examples and short case studies, but by and large devotes himself to the big picture in this book. In part that’s probably due to the book’s provenance (essays published elsewhere) and Singh’s efforts to theorize the relationship between America’s foreign and domestic politics. It can be dense going at times (though a lot less so than many theory-inflected writers) but it’s a pretty good start. ****’

Review- Singh, “Race and America’s Long War”

Review- Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”


Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1986) – Expectation management is always a factor when first reading a popular classic. I know a lot of fans of this book, but also know that the high school/college classics are often best read in high school or college, if then (have a look at “Ender’s Game” recently? You can still sense what’s good in it, but still).

“Handmaid’s Tale” delivered in an unexpected way. Structurally, it’s much more similar to the classic dystopias, like the big three of “1984,” “Brave New World,” and “We,” than I was expecting. If you told me that before starting, it would have dampened my enthusiasm. But it actually works out pretty well. It shows up some of the gaps in the classics (especially their depictions of women, a pretty serious gap in all three). Literary dystopias are always more about interventions in (and evocations of) the present than they are predictions or even really looking forward at possibilities (scifi writers get that stuff “right” much more often than their literary cousins).

The Republic of Gilead works pretty well as a nightmare pastiche- the disparate elements drawn from the evangelical revival of the 1980s, biblical and Puritan imagery, post-revolutionary Iran, and aspects of consumerist and pop culture of the period age well together and remain relevant (unfortunately). The particular configuration of elements — the castes, the costumes, the infertility, it all apparently occurring in Boston? — aren’t likely, but if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the dystopia will hardly be likely, except perhaps in retrospect.

Atwood’s prose is very fine, though with a lot of the sort of description that should wow me but never does (makes 19th century novels pretty hard). Characterization is as strong as is appropriate for a novel about stripping people and especially women of their individuality and free will, and the relationship between “Offred” and Moira in particular feels real and important. The relationship with Nick was a funny one, for me- in Orwell and Zamyatin, at least, the women who lead to liberation and/or betrayal are early precursors of the manic pixie dream girl. Atwood’s take — a boy who can shut up every once and again — is a good rejoinder. It’d be pretty cool if this book got nerds as worked up about women’s rights and autonomy as the classic dystopias get them about surveillance and, I dunno, ads. ****’

Review- Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Review- Liu, “The Three-Body Problem”


Liu Cixin, “The Three-Body Problem” (2007) (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu) – When you think about it, for most of human history, if the aliens came and wanted to talk to anyone, they’d probably want to talk to China. It just so happens that the rise of scifi as a genre occurred at a time when China was weak and domineered by other powers. Liu Cixin corrects the imbalance in this book, and reconstructs the classic contact narrative while doing it.

The first two thirds of the book involve two narratives told in tandem. We hear the story of Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who witnesses the chaos of the Cultural Revolution but who survives to get involved in China’s revolutionary version of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). We also follow a contemporary scientist, Wang Miao, as various weird stuff starts happening. Scientists are killing themselves in numbers, Wang and others suffer weird hallucinations, and he gets sucked into a sinister online game where players try to solve one of the hardest problems in astrophysics- working out the gravitational pattern of the titular three bodies. Wang and other gamers try increasingly ingenious schemes to save a planet from getting messed up by its three suns in various ghastly ways, but always wind up getting owned. Liu makes good use of a classic post-classical scifi trope, the sinister-ass video game.

The stories come together as it becomes clear something with power greater than anything on earth is making itself felt. We learn a secret channel has been established between Earth and its nearest interstellar neighbors, and without giving too much away, this link is animated by dangerous combinations of disgust with life on their respective planets with delusions about what can make things better. Both Earth and Trisolaris (the other planets) are harsh worlds, inhabited by people who can only see salvation off of their respective planets, both sets of whom are bound to be disappointed. One way or another, the collision between the two worlds has been set in motion.

For the most part, the book is setup for the sequels, when the cards come to be more on the table and perhaps we see how this conflict shapes up. This leads to a certain anticlimactic quality. Liu writes in very straightforward prose with occasional rhetorical flourishes that wander into naivety- not unlike some engineers I know, when they want to make a point. At first this can be distracting. It starts to really work, though, as a fitting mode for the paranoia, cosmic insignificance, and intimations of (deserved, transformative, in some cases longed-for) doom that his scenario entails. Two beautiful scenes in particular — one where Ye confronts the Red Guards who murdered her father only to find old, haggard, unrepentant people insisting that history would forget, and another where Wang endures the peculiar sort of reassurance offered by a Chinese scifi writer’s depiction of a Marine officer during a horrendous calamity — I think will stick with me for some time. In general, there’s good reason to believe the Liu hype (I feel I say that a lot about writers- what can I say? I pick good ones) and I look forward to reading the next one. ****’

Review- Liu, “The Three-Body Problem”

Review- Adams, “The Emancipation of Massachusetts”


Brooks Adams, “The Emancipation of Massachusetts” (1886) – Another read courtesy of Project Gutenberg while temping, and another from the fourth generation of prominent Adamses. Brooks was the younger brother of Henry Adams (whose “Education” I reread a little bit ago in similar circumstances), grandson of John Quincy Adams, etc. Brooks was a historian and a social theorist, and is probably best known as a foreign policy advisor to Theodore Roosevelt. TR admired him but saw him as eccentric- he seems to have played a vaguely Gorka-like role, more of a big picture/theoretical guy than anything else. Among other things, by that time Brooks was a theorist of mass race/geopolitical war, using concepts somewhat similar to those Henry applied in the cultural realm — often misappropriations of then-newish physics concepts about energy and entropy — to argue that the US was doomed to destruction it couldn’t build an empire that could prevent its degeneracy (and probably doomed anyway), etc.

But in 1886, Brooks Adams was much more optimistic, but still combative. He took aim at the filiopietistic New England historians that had, for some time, been singing hymns to their Puritan forefathers as the originators of freedom in the land. He has a grand old time pillorying Cotton Mather and the various other pious bigots who ran things in the Puritan theocracy (who could hardly complain, being great fans of the pillory themselves). Adams also did a lot of that trick beloved in the early days of the historical profession and drowning the reader in pages and pages of direct quotes from his sources (in their barely-legible period English). Like his brother Henry, Brooks had imbibed deeply of the much more critical German tradition of historiography. The seed of “free institutions” (free for who, of course he doesn’t ask) might have laid dormant in the good Puritan stock, Adams argues, but it was foiled for decades by the theocracy. The titular emancipation was the loosing of the theocracy, the true fulfillment of the Reformation as allowing every man freedom of conscience, etc.

Nobody really does history like this anymore, and for a lot of good reasons. It interests me, though, what people got out of it and how they made use of it to construct their worlds. The Adamses were not above a certain ancestor-worship themselves, but always insisted on associating their line with national American institutions, not Massachusetts or New England ones (Henry Adams had a LOT to say about the treachery of the New England elites during the war of 1812, etc). Along with flexing his historiographical muscles, I think Adams was making a claim for a certain sort of political actor — men of the world, shrewd, pragmatic but principled (the profile the Adamses, at least before Brooks’s generation fell into neurosis and political irrelevance, like to cut) — as the central actors in the drama of progress.

All of which is undercut before it even begins, at least when I read it! There’s actually a pretty batty preface in the online edition I found, written over thirty years later in 1919, after Adams had gone full cultural pessimist, saying he was basically wrong about progress and that massive conflict between races and nations was inevitable, using a protracted exegesis on the Book of Exodus to prove it. So… elite social thought was always a weird critter, and from Brooks Adams’s day to Gorka’s (and let’s not forget that weirdo Cass Sunstein, lest anyone think I’m picking on republicans), intellectuals who get access to leaders typically do so more for extraneous factors than for the profundity of their insights. **

Review- Adams, “The Emancipation of Massachusetts”

Review- Hawley, “Making Sense of the Alt-Right”


George Hawley, “Making Sense of the Alt-Right” (2017) – This volume marks the beginnings of the efforts of political science to understand the altright, at least as far as work aimed towards a public goes. Like Dave Neiwert, Hawley is pitching the work towards an audience baffled (and presumably disgusted) by this new thing, so you get a lot of the same explanatory stuff, though from a markedly different angle. Neiwert emphasized continuity between the earlier far right, as well as mainstream conservatism, with the altright. Hawley insists that the altright is a complete negation of mainstream conservatism, with the usual references to William Buckley casting the Birchers out of the temple, etc etc. Nobody seems to ask why it has to be either/or- why can’t there be a certain degree of ideological continuity (white identity politics, which mainstream conservatives absolutely practice just at a softer pitch; worship of authority, hatred of liberalism, etc) as well as institutional bad blood? That seems to be how every other ideology, socialism included, works…

Hawley has what I think of as a polisci habit of shortchanging historical context. Sometimes this takes the form of asking tantalizing contextual questions – “why does mainstream conservatism not integrate the sort of people, like right-leaning college kids, that it used to?” – and then basically just punting to something like “conservative weakness” or “the internet.” True factors, both of them, but he doesn’t get into why these things have taken shape the way they did and what that might mean for his question.

He appears to have taken this subject on because he was the guy in polisci writing about right-wing critics of American conservatism (work I’d like to look at, despite not thinking much of this book). Focus on the way the altright hates mainstream conservatives (and they do, or anyway they hate the leaders and hope to convert the followers- and have a better chance of the latter than any of us would like, even if it’s still unlikely by the Vegas odds) occludes much of the rest of what makes the altright a thing. There’s a real lack of attention paid to gender politics, which just seems baffling to me given how poignantly obvious male insecurity is with these people. And there’s the usual judicious weighing of the altright vs the altlite, as though it makes a difference if you get jumped by an open white nationalist vs by someone too insecure to admit they are basically a white nationalist. There’s some good attributes of this book — it’s a relief to see a professionally-produced, well-written volume on this stuff, given the thrown-together quality of Nagle and Neiwert’s respective works — but viable critical perspective on this question continues to elude the print longform format. **’

Review- Hawley, “Making Sense of the Alt-Right”

Review- Gibbon, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Vols 4-6


Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Vols 4-6 (1787) – I picked up volumes 1-3 in one of those little cases at a steep discount when Borders went out of business. I’m a lot more used to reading texts in old vernaculars since 2011, so I think I got more out of the second half. The first half dealt mainly with the fall of the western empire. The second deals with a sprawling range of things, but the main connecting thread is the Byzantine Empire, which like a lot of nerds I have a childhood affection for.

You don’t really read historians like Gibbon for the facts- there’s many many other books for that, with better research, efforts to be more objective and culturally sensible, weren’t written two hundred years ago, etc. So what do you read Gibbon for? Well, I mainly read it as something to read while on hold at work (I’m on hold a lot at work) that you can get online. But obviously there’s more to it than that. For one thing, for better or for worse, Gibbon was hugely influential not just on history, but on literature as well, from his characterizations and prose style to writers (especially scifi writers) straight up ripping off Gibbon’s descriptions of historical events as plots.

I enjoy Gibbon’s sentence-level writing more than I do that of most historians. I actually think a fair number of his word choices are better than their modern equivalents- like “insensible” for “gradual-” it makes sense, the process goes on without you sensing it. “Gradual” implies it goes by grades, which can actually be any size, etc. But of course, I’m in the minority that likes to have to think about the prose I’m reading, as long as it’s not too laborious, as opposed to having the prose stand out of the way. Different strokes, as they say. The farther you get from the sentences, the more the structure doesn’t look that great — a lot of poorly-differentiated tribes and leaders doing their respective things — but sometimes Gibbon makes those sing, too, especially his descriptions of the Byzantine-Sassanid wars and the early Lombards.

Historiographically, Gibbon stands at a turning point, but not one in which he fully partook. He was stuck between the two German words for history- “historie,” history as a set of interchangeable chronicles saying more or less the same stuff, and “geschichte,” history as the progressive unfolding of comprehensible processes, generally with some kind of meaningful endpoint- the ideal state, the abolition of class society, what have you. The Decline and Fall is an Enlightenment-era text that looks at the vanity of a geschichte that wasn’t- if Rome really was the height of civilization (a problematic assumption, I know), then what sort of historical purpose was served by its fall, and the extended “dark ages” of irrationality and fecklessness (his view) that followed in its former domains? This is especially fraught for Enlightenment figures like Gibbon, who did not see the rise of Christianity as a recompense for the fall of Rome (to say the least), and who had at least an inkling that things were getting better — or at least his country was getting powerful enough to have a pretense towards universalizing empire again.

So you have this sort of mishmash. Sometimes in Gibbon you see the kind of universalized and law-generating tendency we’re used to seeing from more confident 19th and 20th century history, typically centered around republican theorizing about liberty, constitutions, how they’re maintained or not, as well as Enlightenment-era stuff about the progress of “rational” or “humane” religion, etc. It hints towards the idea that there is some general system through which some of the exigencies of history could be mastered. But you also get the sort of recitation of chronicles, calculated to impute lessons within a fixed moral/political system, that one is used to seeing in work that assumes history isn’t going anywhere in particular. Sometimes it’s both- one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how seriously manners and affect were taken as historical topics, and how that wasn’t just a matter of a silly thing weird old people care about. In a pre-industrial age, that stuff would seem to be a real distinguishing factor between cultures and a contributor to the power and reach of the ruling elite of a given power. Methodologically, Gibbon also stands between old and new- relying mostly on chronicles collected by other scholars, but scrutinizing them critically and also attempting to use linguistic and other more subtle kinds of evidence.

So… reading Gibbon can be fun for people who like old, occasionally somewhat sententious narratives of empires and their wars, and can be good for historians who want insight into how history is made. Also, for people with boring temp jobs. ****

Review- Gibbon, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Vols 4-6