The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

A morsel of Montaigne manque in the midst of horror proves not to be to Alex Danchev's taste

October 13, 2011

"This is not intended to be a typical history book," affirms the author, "addressing particular aspects of the social and cultural history of the West. Instead, it is a reflection on human reactions to disaster and on the ways in which we, collectively and individually, cope with crises (social, structural, as well as existential). What I seek to capture is the ever-present tension...between Sophocles' bitter statement in Oedipus at Colonus that 'not to be born is, past all prizing, best,' and Camus' stark and courageous (or pessimistic) acceptance of life in the face of the indifference of the universe (and history) in The Stranger."

If this still seems a little obscure, it is as well to know that The Terror of History exists first of all as Teofilo Ruiz's undergraduate course, examining the development of mysticism, heresy, magic and witchcraft in medieval and early modern Europe. Students flock to it, he tells us, seeking answers to existential fears. But the book is not so much a companion piece as a kind of confession; a higher form of self-help, or self-scrutiny; a morsel of Montaigne manque.

It is salted (or peppered) with the wisdom of ages. ("Deep within, we are aware of the uncertainty of life and elusiveness of answers. The Greeks knew this long ago.") It is larded with erudition: there seems to be nothing the author has not read, or for that matter reread. Above all, it is steeped in the personal. The terror of history is writ large in the tortured syntax: "I am, as would anyone be who engages in this task...imbricate in the actual process I seek to describe. I have been, I am, far more of an actor here than my impersonal narrator may lead you to believe."

"Autobiographical vignettes" are sprinkled throughout. Some of them are harmless enough. At the end of a restless chapter on "Religion and the world to come", we encounter the author out walking "on one of those rare perfect spring days in Princeton". He has just finished rereading The Brothers Karamazov. "I looked at the flowers and felt, but only for the briefest of time, as if I were at one with nature."

Other vignettes are more intrusive. It transpires that he used to write short stories ("during a very dark period in my life between 1978 and 1989 and under the advice of my therapist"). One of these, The Eve of Santa Barbara, is an imaginary encounter with a ravishing young woman on a train to Venice. Under the influence of bread and wine and Flaubert - the gallant author is rereading A Sentimental Education - they find a surprising amount to say to each other. Emotions are engaged. "Her beautiful light-brown eyes were now almost covered with tears. She rose from her seat, took my face in her hands and, bending over me, kissed my lips with kisses from her mouth. I sat in the train compartment as if pieces of my being were being wrenched from me. She reached deep into the centre of my self and swept away all resistance."

Readers will be relieved to learn that the ravishing stops there. But the short story encapsulates the difficulties of the whole book. Plainly it means a lot to the author. And yet, as personal as it may be, the writing is not involving. At times like these, it is excruciating.

As a course, "The Terror of History" sounds like hot stuff; as a reflection on life, it is sheer self-indulgence. Teofilo Ruiz has found love - her name is Scarlett - but not yet how to speak of it.

The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

By Teofilo F. Ruiz

Princeton University Press

200pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780691124131

Published 5 October 2011

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