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.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

Dissertation Days (47): Back to Work I Go

Well, we returned back to work today. The Dissertation is coming along quite nicely, and I am actually confident that I can produce a workable, submittable draft by the middle of September. Not, mind you, that that will be the final version, but I want the Adviser to have seen all of the chapters in some form before I start sending out applications.

And, what’s more, I finally found that missing piece that’s been eluding me for so long. When I wrote this sentence, I knew that, at last, the pieces were sliding into place: “I then turn to each of the films, beginning with Cleopatra, moving to Fall, and ending with The Bible, showing how each can be understood as a form of melancholy utopia, mourning a world that might have been but can never be.”

It’s that last bit that I find to be the most useful, as it helps me to make clear that what I am working toward is an understanding of these films and their affective charge. I have to say, this is the clearest expression yet of the central claim that I’m setting out in this chapter, and that is an amazing feeling.

Tomorrow, I am going to work on setting out some of the important contextual material, particularly the (failed) promise of the United Nations and the increasing disintegration of the old imperial powers and the United States ascendancy. With a 1,000 word goal per day, I think I should be able to knock this section out of the park within the week. What’s more, I might even be able to move into the theory section. We’re picking up steam, folks!

As I’ve said before, I think I’m going to aim for 15K words on this chapter, possibly a bit more. I think that will be enough to do justice to the complexity of the argument. And besides, I really just want to get this thing out of the door as soon as possible.

The Adviser has suggested that I might do a Chapter 5, and…yeah. That’s not happening. Gotta get this shit done!

Also, I’ve been working on job materials, and they are coming along quite well. I am surprisingly excited about being on the job market. It’s a good feeling.

So, tomorrow is definitely going to be a tremendously productive day. I can feel it.

And I can do it.

Reading History: “The Alice Network” (Kate Quinn)

I hate to be a fangirl but, well, I’ve been a fan of Kate Quinn’s ever since I read her book Mistress of Rome way back when. I must confess, though, that I was a bit disconcerted when she announced that she would be moving from the world of ancient Rome to World War I and World War II. I just loved her books about ancient Rome so much, I wasn’t sure the magic would continue into this new outing or, more frustratingly, whether I would be able to do it. Ancient Rome was my bag; 20th Century…not so much.

Boy was I wrong.

From the very first page, right up until the last, I was absolutely hooked on this novel. There were moments of heartbreak, laughter, joy, and every emotion in between. Indeed, this novel is some of the best historical fiction from one of today’s undisputed masters of the craft. My loyalty to this author has once again been incredibly rewarded, and I have once again met fictional characters whose lives continue to live on in my brain long after I read the last page.

The novel follows two characters. One is Charlie St. Clair, an unwed and very pregnant American out to find her cousin Rose, missing since the end of WW II. Her search leads her to the door of one Eve Gardiner, a former spy in the Alice Network during World War I. The novel also follows Eve in her youth, as she overcomes her stutter to become part of the famous spy ring known as the Alice Network. In the process, she also confronts the villainous profiteer René Bordelon. As the two stories interweave, both of the characters have to confront unpleasant truths, both about themselves and about those that they love.

As a result of this back-and-forth narrative patterning, one gets a sense of the way that history repeats itself, often catching up individuals in the gears of events that they can never entirely name nor control. Both Charlie and Eve frequently find themselves falling in love with damaged men, men who for one reason or another find it difficult to reciprocate those tender feelings. And while Eve’s ultimately has more of tragedy than of romance to it, Charlie does manage to carve out a space for herself and, ultimately, for Eve as well.

In keeping with Quinn’s extraordinary ability to dive deep into the particular challenges that women faced in the past, the novel also shines a light on the double standard regarding women and their sexuality. Both Eve and Charlie have to contend with the issue of sex. Charlie, as the beginning of the novel makes clear, is an unwed mother (a particularly pernicious stigma in the postwar years), while Eve is slowly drawn into the erotic web of Bordelon, who is as sadistic as he is exquisitely cultured. He loves exacting pain and pleasure in equal measure, and he is particularly inspired by Baudelaire, whose bust he uses to inflict horrific torture.

And let’s be real here. René Bordelon is without question one of the best villains that Quinn has ever created. Of course, Quinn has always had a tremendous skill in crafting baddies that put the in in infamy, but with this collaborator she has really outdone herself. With his dedication to pleasure and the finer things in life, his suave and deadly charm, and his ruthless efficiency, he stands as the very worst that the modern world can create. While I don’t want to give too much away, suffice it to say that he gets his just desserts in the end and boy, let me tell you, it is incredibly satisfying to read it.

The novel also focuses on the way that both Wars have left tremendous scars on the men who were forced to fight in the trenches. Finn, Charlie’s love interest and Eve’s chauffeur, bears the scars of his time in the service, particularly his encounters with the freed prisoners of the concentration camps. Further, she is haunted by the specter of her brother, who committed suicide as a result of the wounds, both physical and emotional, that he sustained during his service. It is his death that drives her to continue fighting to discover the fate of her cousin Rose and, later, to do everything in her power to give Eve, who almost falls into death and despair, something to live for.

In the end, The Alice Network is a tale of the ability of women to triumph despite all of the things hurled at them by the horrors of war. There are terrible losses to be endured, sacrifices to be made, but these ultimately prove worth it by the happiness that the characters manage to grasp for themselves despite all they’ve endured. Though the experiences of women and their contributions to the grisly business of war are often glossed over (or excised entirely) from the war record, Quinn has brought them to life with a spirit and vitality that it would be hard to match. We feel like we know and love these characters, and thus we suffer and triumph right along with them.

What’s more, we also come to celebrate the unlikely and beautiful friendship that springs up between these two extraordinary women. Each finds in the other something that they lack as individuals, and it is precisely this melding of two very different spirits and temperaments that binds them and allows them both to heal from the wounds that two world wars have inflicted upon their minds, souls, and bodies. The novel is as much about the women as a team as it is about them as individuals, and that’s what gives it its particular power.

As always, Quinn has done a magnificent job bringing to light the struggles and triumphs of the forgotten women of history. I know that I, for one, cannot wait until she reveals her next work. I know that I’ll be one of the first in line to buy it when it comes out.

Dissertation Days (40): This is Progress, Right?

Despite the title, today was actually a good day, in terms of progress. As I said I would do yesterday, I switched to a bit of the close readings, focusing today on Cleopatra. I think the bare bones of how that section is going to look are almost there, but it will take another few days of composing to make sure that my close reading is both internally consistent and flows naturally from the contexts.

Speaking of which. I actually wrote at least half of today’s word count (a bit over 1,000, thank you very much), specifically in the theoretical context. To be quite honest, I don’t think this section is as theoretically rich as the earlier ones, but I do think that the sources I’m drawing on–particularly David Quint and his theory of epic narrative and Tom Brown and his theory of the “historical gaze”–are useful for thinking through the tension between spectacle and narrative that exists at the heart of the genre of the historico-biblical epic. Well, perhaps tension isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should say that it helps us to think of the relationship between those two seemingly opposing cinematic principles.

Overall, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on this chapter. I also can’t believe that I’ve already written 40 of these entries! However, I do believe that they have really made this whole progress infinitely less lonely. Just knowing  that there are others out there reading these (or even just skimming them), makes me feel that there just may be an audience for the type of work that we do in academia. As a writer, it’s easy to lose track of that, particularly with everything else going on in the world.

I will, as always, be taking a bit of a break this weekend. I want to focus a bit on the novel, and on cleaning my house. Both of those things take a bit of a backseat when you’re really buried under the chapter that seems to press in on your every waking thoughts. I’ve also got a conference paper set to be delivered in a little under two weeks, so I have to make sure that that is in presentable condition.

Rest assured, though. On Monday I’ll be right back at it, and this time I fully plan on getting back into Chapters 1 and 2.

Don’t quote me on that, though. 😉

Dissertation Days (37): Back to Work

After a very rough weekend, I got back into the swing of things today with some decent work on Chapter 4. I only wrote 500 words, but I do see the entire chapter starting to cohere in a way that it didn’t before. I’m still not entirely certain that the pieces are all knitted together as tightly yet as I would like, but that should arrive soon.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure that the version I’ve been writing will be the absolute final version. I think it may take one more to make sure that everything appears as I want it to, and a great deal of how I proceed will stem from how much my adviser likes (or does not like) Chapter 3. Still, I am confident that I can have a draft of this chapter fairly ready for submission by the end of August, though I can also push it off to the end of September if need be.

Overall, the chapter is standing at about 9,500 words, so I would say that it’s about 3/5 done (I’m aiming for a 15,000 word limit). This will be one of my shorter chapters, but I’m happy with that. Sometimes, it really is better to focus on writing concisely rather than expansively.

In terms of what I produced today…well, I sketched in a few blank spaces in the historical context section. It wasn’t anything terribly complicated, to be perfectly honest, but hopefully those sentences will be the seeds for future development. More promising was the material I produced about Cleopatra. The more I reflect on this film–its industrial context, the plot, the formal elements that it mobilizes–the more fascinating it becomes. As I’ve said many times before, it seems to me that this film is critically undervalued, and I hope that my analysis of it helps others to see that, despite its weaknesses, it really tries to engage with the historical questions and pressures of the time.

At some point in the near future, possibly as later this week, I am going to go back and start revisiting my earlier chapters. I honestly haven’t looked at them that much since they were approved, and I want to start the revision process on them before it gets too late.

Given that tomorrow is a holiday, I might take a little time off to clean and work on the Novel. Then on Wednesday it’s back to work.

Dissertation Days (36): DONE

Well, the biggest news of the day is that Chapter 3 is, at last, finished and submitted. I think that it is a much stronger version of the chapter than earlier, so there is that to be proud of. It might be a while before I hear back about it, but I’m okay with that.

Now, on to Chapter 4. Today was one of those great days where the juices just seemed to be flowing in the right amount. I managed to bang out 1,000 words of the chapter (and most of them good ones!) before the rest of my life interrupted me. I’ve gotten into a bit of a flow with this chapter, and that is definitely a blessing. I’d really rather avoid the rut that kept me bogged down in Chapter 3 far longer than I would have liked.

I’m really hoping to rewatch Cleopatra this weekend, as I need the details that such a re-watch will provide me. But, for those of you who have seen it know all too well, it’s an obscenely long movie, and thus quite an investment in a weekend that’s already quite packed. However, even if I just manage to watch a part of it, that will still provide me enough material to work with for next week’s composition.

I also have a pretty extensive research program lined up for the next week. The broad strokes of the historical context is there, but I need to start filling in the details. The hard part will be making sure that it’s clear how this context fits in with the close readings, but I wrote a couple paragraphs devoted to that today. I’m not sure they’ll survive into the final draft in their present form (they’re a bit ham-handed, tbh), but for the moment they are serving their purpose.

Ugh. It’s getting to that point where I can’ just throw words on the page anymore. Now that I’ve reached the 8,000 word mark (a little over half), I’ve got to really start drilling down into precision. That’s always the hardest part for me, because it means that shit is really getting real. At the same time, it’s also the point at which, if you really squint, you can see the finish line of the chapter (and of the project) in the distance.

That’s a good feeling, but also a terrifying one.

But, I march onward.

Good times ahead.

Dissertation Days (35): Out, Out, Damn Chapter!

I know I keep saying this, but I think I mean it this time. It looks like Chapter 3 will be sent off tomorrow. I’m finishing a few last-minute things–mostly footnotes and bibliographic entries that eluded me–but I’m so damn close! If I can just push myself over the finish line, and if I can just get this sent in tomorrow, I will feel soooo much better. Then I can take a day to catch my breath and then dive full-on into Chapter 4.

I am very happy to report that that Chapter is really coming along. I’m coming to that part in the process where I’m starting to get into the weeds, drilling down into the details that I really need to make it click. Today, I worked mainly on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible. For some reason, I really find myself drawn to this film.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily, depending on how you look at it), there is really only one chapter of a book that I’ve been able to find that discusses it at length. This has caused me to lean rather heavily on that one chapter, which is something of a handicap. On the other hand, it allows me to really negotiate and engage with another scholar’s ideas in great detail, something I haven’t really been able to do.

I also started a new book for research, this one devoted to the icon of Mark Antony. While this particular character is only tangential to my argument, I hope to find a few nuggets in the volume that will help me talk about the politics of the 1963 Cleopatra, particularly the way that it deals with politics, imperial stability, and imperial fall and decline. I hope to have that one finished in the next week or so, and then it’s on to another book that provides some context on the politics of containment.

I’m really hoping that Chapter 4 starts to come along a bit faster. I’ve been making steady progress, but I really want to pick up the pace. I tend to get mired down in chapters if I don’t get them done quickly, so I’m hoping to avoid that. Of course, a lot of that hinges on Chapter 3 and its reception, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Tomorrow may not see a Dissertation Days update, but Friday will be back at it.

Forward, friends. Forward.

Dissertation Days (34): A Glimmer of Light

Well, Chapter 3 is set to be delivered to the adviser on Thursday. I will breathe an enormous sigh of relief once that is finally done. It will feel good just to have it out of my hands. I’m much more confident in this version of the chapter than its previous iterations, so at least there’s that. Now whether it gets approved is another question entirely…

Chapter 4 was in a surprisingly cooperative mood today. I actually spent the entire day working on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible: In the Beginning. The film has, unfortunately, been largely ignored by both scholars of Huston and biblical film scholars, in large part, I think, because it’s sort of the bastard child for both fields. So, hopefully part of my goal in this chapter is doing justice to a film that has largely been ignored.

I actually managed to produce several paragraphs that I am rather happy with, as they really helped to clarify not only what I think about this film but also how this close reading fits in with both the other readings that I’ve done and with the argument of the chapter as a whole. Still, I’m hopeful.

To that end, I managed to finish 1,000 words in that chapter. At this point, I think I am almost halfway done with this. And, having finished yet another book on research, I do think that the pieces are at last starting to come together. For anyone who has been following this blog, that’s quite the accomplishment. Given these recent breakthroughs, I’m pretty sure that I can get a version of this chapter to the adviser’s desk by the end of August. That might be a bit ambitious, but I do think it’s doable. After all, I do have to keep in mind that this is the year I’m going to finish the diss. Even if it isn’t perfect, there’s no reason that I can’ still defend in the spring.

Tomorrow may not be the most productive day, as I have to get some work done on my car, but I hope to put the final polish on Chapter 3 and maybe even write a bit in Chapter 4. I’ve also begun reading a new volume for research that I hope will add some new layers to the discussion of Cleopatra. We’ll see if I can get that finished by next week.

Onward!