The Terror of History
June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century. It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course. For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class. In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester. I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.
A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago. In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did. According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight. To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos. Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error). Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history. We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion. Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.
Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen. When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this. This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe. But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering. What we control is our response to that.
So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads. Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it. We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop. My car emits pollution into the air. Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe. That’s how order is kept. Uplifting, isn’t it?
So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class. I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire. I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution. Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil. Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies. Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner. So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China. Or the British imperial system in Africa or India. Or the Belgians in the Congo. But this wasn’t an export of Europe. Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century. The list goes on and on.
How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do. We find religion. We despoil ourselves in debauchery. We find joy in religion or debauchery. Or we find it in flight. Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic. It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge. In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic. But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.
Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight. Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history. We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.
The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news. But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news. Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon. If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb. So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms. And humans have always had them. But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.
This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies. The terror of that, the horror, the devastation. All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities. We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism. Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related. This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.
At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something. Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.