Reading History: “A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin” (by Simon Jenkins)

Every so often you find a book that is quite upfront about what it is and what it isn’t, and such is Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin. Beginning with ancient Greece and going from there, Jenkins provides a magisterial overview of several thousand years of European history. It’s a bit of a greatest hits of the past 3,000 years of history, ranging over the great convulsions that have rocked the continent almost from the beginning of its existence.

The early parts of the book are a bit too reductive for my tastes, and I would say that the book really doesn’t hit its stride until he moves out of antiquity and into the medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods. There, he starts to provide what I view to be actual historical analysis rather than repetition of the traditional narratives about both antiquity and late antiquity. Once we get into the more recent centuries, we begin to see how the conflicts that roiled these centuries set the stage for what was to come later.

As Jenkins makes clear, Europe has always struggled with two competing impulses: the desire to forge a collective identity and the equally powerful drive to seek self-determination for its constituent parts. Just as importantly, Jenkins points out that Europe’s other continual struggle has been against the impulse to barbarism and warfare. Again and again, Europe has been convulsed by armed conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. One would think that this would provide an imperative for the various nations to find some way of preventing such conflict, but such peace has proved elusive.

As a result of this deep history, Jenkins allows us to see the reasons for the current struggles and upheaval afflicting the European Union. I would go so far as to suggest that it is this contextualization that is the book’s primary contribution to an understanding of European history. One senses that his own ambivalence about the EU might be coloring some of his conclusions–and some of his analysis–but as a whole I find his diagnosis of the problem (if not his solutions) convincing.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. While Jenkins makes it clear from the beginning that most of the figures he discusses will be men–presumably because most of the most important figures in European history have been male. I find this to be a rather disingenuous argument, and it runs the serious risk of marginalizing those figures who have actually been far more influential than Jenkins seems to give them credit for.

All in all, A Short History of Europe is a useful guide for those who may not have much of a knowledge of European history and want to understand how it is that the entity that we know came into being. It also helps us to understand why it is that Europe continues to be such a draw for so many people around the world, a continent characterized by its utopian desires and the concomitant inability of those desire to be fulfilled.

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Reading History: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mid of America” (by Greg Grandin)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC in return for an honest review.

Every so often you read a piece of history that is blistering, refreshing, and utterly compelling. Such is historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This book explores the ways in which the frontier as a concept, a myth, and an ideology has remained central to how America has conceived of itself and how, in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, the myth has at last begun to collapse upon itself.

The End of the Myth is roughly chronological, starting with the American Revolution (when the frontier was basically the Appalachians) and moving into such epochal events as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, and the recent financial crisis. He has a keen eye for detail and an ability to parse primary texts to expose the assumptions undergirding ideologies. Indeed, so sharp is his close reading ability that I almost felt at times like I was reading a trained English professor (which, coming from me, is quite the compliment).

Two figures loom large in his analysis: Andrew Jackson and Frederick Jackson. The former was the first populist president, a man who based his “egalitarian” vision on the brutal exploitation and oppression of people of color and Native Americans. The latter was, arguably, one of the most influential historians of an era, one whose theorization of the frontier provided a set of parameters within which any discussion of this concept must take place.

As Grandin points out throughout the book, the frontier has, from the beginning, symbolized the political aspirations of the United States. That is to say, it has served a multitude of purposes: as a safety valve, as the engine of empire, as a means of social control. So long as there was a frontier, the inner problems facing American politics–white supremacy and all of its ugliness foremost among them–could be projected outward. Those toxic, destructive energies could be used to expand the boundaries of the nation, while simultaneously serving the needs of those in power.

Beyond the realities of the political, however, the frontier has also served as a unifying me The frontier, and the promise of infinity that it represents, allowed Americans to believe that they were immune to the cyclical nature of history, with its rise and fall of empires. The frontier promised perpetual growth. Because of the frontier, America could convince itself that it existed outside time itself, a fantasy that would inevitably come crashing down into ruin as the realities of the limitations of the frontier became more and more obvious as the 19th and 20th Centuries progressed.

As Grandin explains, now that the frontier has utterly closed, the very energies that it was meant to channel have redounded upon the country. In the wake of globalization, endless wars in the Middle East, and the financial meltdown of 2008, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The social unrest and problems that have always existed at the heart of America’s accomplishments–and which were, to an extent, deflected by the frontier–have now burst into the open. The wall, with all of its ugly rhetoric and racist overtones, is the ultimate physical symbol of the closing of the frontier.

Grandin pulls no punches in what he sees as the political ramifications of the frontier myth and its demise in the 21st Century. Sometimes, in fact, I found his political claims (and investments) overshadowing his historical consciousness, particularly in his analysis of the Clinton and Obama years (admittedly, this may be because of my own political investments). Nevertheless, I do think that there is a danger in allowing one’s political investments to so transparently mold the perspective one takes on events.

Despite that, this is the sort of bracing, politically-engaged history that is like a breath of fresh air. Grandin tears away the air of obfuscation that allows so many (particularly white) people to believe that the frontier is some sort of infinitely tappable resource that can be exploited at will. Just as importantly, Grandin suggests that, if we want to create a more just and equitable country, we must confront the very ugly and violent parts of our collective past. Only by confronting our original sins can we move forward into a hopefully bright future.

Film Review: “Stan and Ollie”

Fair warning: Spoilers for the film follow.

These days, it’s sometimes hard to remember that it used to be possible–preferable even–to have a film with a running time of an hour and a half, one that still manages to hit all the right narrative notes to make a satisfying cinematic experience.

Cue Stan and Ollie, a pleasant little biopic about the later years of one of Hollywood’s most iconic comedy duos.

Though a few scenes take place during the duo’s heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the majority of the film revolves around their attempts to rejuvenate their film career via a tour of the UK and Ireland in the 1950s. Though it’s slow going at first, they gradually attain success, until they are playing to packed crowds in London. However, the ostensible goal of this tour–to procure a movie contract–ultimately falls through, and the two must decide whether they will continue their partnership.

Full confession time: I’ve always much preferred Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello. I can’t say why, other than that I think that Stan and Ollie just seemed more organically funny to me than their (arguably) more successful counterparts. So, I was already prepared to enjoy the film, and I was not disappointed.

The film does play a bit fast and loose with historical details, compressing some things and excluding others, but that’s rather what you expect from a biopic. Indeed, rather than trying to provide a panoramic view of the comedy duo’s career, it shows us this one particular incident that is reflective of their dynamic and their struggles both within and against Hollywood. As a result, we do get a fairly rich sense of their relationship.

While the film’s plot follows a fairly traditional biopic pattern, the performances from both Coogan and Reilly really allow the film to stand out (it’s rather a crime, I think, that neither was in contention for an Oscar). They both seem to truly inhabit their characters. This is not mere mimicry, but instead something richer, deeper, and more meaningful. Just as importantly, there is also an undeniable chemistry between the two leads that lends their performance a level of credibility it might otherwise lack. There are times when one could be forgiven for believing that the two men on screen are really the two old Hollywood stars.

Thus, the film is essentially about the relationship between the two men. From its perspective, the two of them only really succeeded when they worked together. Their other partnerships, Though their wives are certainly prominent parts of their lives–and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda deserve enormous credit for imbuing each of them with spit-fire personality–it’s clear from the beginning that the bond between the two men is of a different kind.

The film is also a reflection on the brutal, unforgiving nature of Hollywood. No matter how successful Stan and Ollie become through their tapping into nostalgia, there will be no movie deal for them. The Hollywood of their heyday has moved on, and while they may not be as pathetic as, say, Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, there is still a sense of pathos about the whole drama. We in the audience know that there can be no resuscitation fo their film career even before they do; there is no place for 1930s comedians of their type in 1950s Hollywood. We are thus invited to both cheer for them and pity them at the same time.

The film is intertwines various types of nostalgia: there is the yearning of the two actors for their earlier success; there’s the nostalgia of the fans who fill the auditoria; and then there is the film’s own nostalgia for both the 1930s and, arguably, the 1950s. As with so many Hollywood films about Hollywood, the dream factory is a vexed signifier. While it promises them both a renewed career, it is also the great beast that has already chewed them up and left them behind.

In that sense, Stan and Ollie is a rather melancholic film, for as the blurb of text at the end explains, the tour did in fact take a heavy toll on Ollie’s health, and he died shortly afterward. For his part, Stan never again performed with another partner. In the end, we’re left with a sense of sadness for what might have been, a bittersweet longing for two careers cut short by the vicissitudes of Hollywood.