Sunday, November 11, 2007

Barrow's survey

Barrow, J.W. The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914. Yale University Press, 2001.

It’s good to have something to read at night that, first, I can write in directly, and second, that I don’t have to pay very close attention to. I’ve decided to fill this slot with survey histories. I’ve just finished J. W. Burrow’s The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914. The book was published in 2001 as part of the Yale Intellectual History of the West.

I won’t offer any kind of comprehensive evaluation—that would be a bit silly. I will say that Barrow’s takes a resolutely old-fashioned approach: ‘high’ intellectual history, supplemented only very lightly with broader cultural, social or institutional trends. Europe means England, Germany, France, Russia and Italy—pretty much in that order, though I’d have to somehow tabulate index-lines or something to be sure about ordering England and Germany. Certainly J.S. Mill popped up rather more than I’m used to. America makes brief appearances—William James, Walt Whitman, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound (the last two, I think, aren’t actually described as Americans). The ‘orient’ is mentioned in connection to certain currents of German philosophy, Joseph Conrad (gone native!) and the proliferation of occultist movements around the end of the century.

The sweep of the book is none the less extremely impressive. It contains scores of two to three page sketches of the important figures of the period, the most important of whom recur in different contexts, sometimes quite revealingly. (For instance, one knows that Herbert Spencer was important, but it’s more than a little depressing to see exactly how important.) I’m an intellectual historian, my ‘period’ overlaps substantially with what is covered here, though almost only for the French figures. Burrow seems to me to have provided fine (though necessarily reductive) treatments of those figures I know the most about first or second hand—Proust, Huysmans, Maurras. Even Sorel-as-moralist is given what seems to me an eminently fair shake, though, “set to verse we might be hearing Swinburne” (142) makes me think Barrow hasn’t been much exposed to Sorel’s own prose. Or perhaps I have been underexposured to Swinburne’s verse.

The general organization of the book is suggestive. There are six chapters: the first is about science in the strictest materialist sense of the term, and the last about spiritualist occultism. On the way, we pass (in some kind of transcendental order of operations?) through the new sociological and economic sciences; nationhood and other political communities; philosophy; and art. There is an oddly appended epilogue on avant-garde art, the point of which is that the post-1918 forms of high culture all come from before the war. Thus, perhaps, to suggest the radical autonomy of ideas from even the most traumatic of events? The last words of the book, I think, probably give the game away in this respect.

“Essentially, with some modifications in its expressive languages, the post-war avant-garde was still recognizably the pre-war one. In a sense the latter is still ours. Experiment has become the norm; its different idioms are to pre-war Modernism what schools of art in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been to the mimetic techniques established at the Renaissance: essentially variations. Post-modernism in literature, for all the critical volubility expended over it, looks more like a gloss on Modernism than its historical grave-digger. Modernism is our tradition.” (252-3)

This book could only have been written over a long period of time. Perhaps the epilogue suggests that Barrow, at Oxford, tasted the to-him bitter fruit of postmodernism late in the process of writing? At any event, it betrays a real lack of concern for the impact of context on the meaning of ideas. Put most bluntly: to stand on a street-corner and should about the sacrament of meaningless violence signified something different in 1907, when it was (for middle-class Europeans, anyway) largely a fevered dream, than it did in 1917, when it was very much their reality. Intellectual historians more than anyone should be sensitive to the shifting meanings that identical forms and words can take on as contexts change.

Still, this is a good and useful book (despite, as I have just noticed, what the reviewers had to say).

I already have Marcia Colish’s Medieval Foundations. I see that Ron Witt is treating the late Renaissance and Early Modern period. These are two Oberlin historians whom I failed to take classes from there. I also failed to seek out Bob Soucy, as I obviously should have done, and, for whatever reason, stayed away from the excellent Japanese history survey class. This isn’t to say that I didn’t take good classes, and learn from excellent professors. Rather, it is to admit to myself that I am already dogged by a sense of lost opportunity.

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