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Autumn 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 48 - Autumn 2001 > Book Reviews

A Short History of the World

by Professor Geoffrey Blainey
Edited by Professor T. J. Pempel

Ringwood, Victoria: Viking, 2000, pp. 669 and index.

A world history: the road to that goal is littered with the bleached and vultured bones of historians who never made it. Sir Walter Raleigh, who devoted a decade to the project, only got to 130 B.C. Probably the most lucrative effort of this sort was the "Outline of History" published under H. G. Wells' name in 1920; alas, a scathing 1993 biography revealed that Wells farmed out most of the book's production to his wife, to the classicist Gilbert Murray, and to other readily available sources of slave labour. Among more recent creations of this kind, that by British academic J. M. Roberts, though nobly wrought, achieves less than the same author's more narrowly focussed "Triumph of the West". Felipe Fernández-Armesto's "Millennium", written in the high summer of pre-1997 Asia-centric arrogance, is now so embarrassing to read _ it re

duces European enterprise to an occasional tedious interlude while China marks time _ as to resemble an unusually demented handout from the Beijing tourist bureau. (Fernández-Armesto's last notable printed appearance was in "The Spectator", to demand legalised incest: a stance indicating some desperation on his part for continued notoriety.) Could even Geoffrey Blainey succeed where previous worthies failed?

He not only could, he has done so with terrifying conviction. Any analysis of his new book which does not include the simple command "Buy it now" will misrepresent it utterly. Of course no account of it will be adequate, just as even the most sagacious critiques of his earlier volumes limp haltingly behind the volumes themselves. Presumably much of the anguish Blainey has excited in journalistic breasts derives from the simple truth that his major works are virtually impossible to review. Not only is their erudition level beyond most people's capacity to imitate, let alone to emulate; but their elaborate architecture defies conveying in any précis, however well-meant. A Blainey narrative really is a narrative, not a jumble of clever, unrelated aperçus.

The new work's earliest section is possibly the most surprising in its effectiveness. So much prehistory remains pure hypothesis that any faithful account of it will break out in a veritable acne of conjectural language: "perhaps", "is likely to", "might well", etc. With most historians, one would merely crave the occasional bold statement; with Blainey, the result bespeaks not indecision but a deeply humble outlook that eschews the novelist's touch. And when agricultural civilisations first develop _ "the first Green revolution", Blainey calls the process _ his genius for vivid detail resumes working overtime. No reader will forget his account of a Scandinavian male killed some time in the first century B.C. to propitiate angry harvest gods. This man's corpse was discovered, preserved in a Danish peat-bog, only in 1946; one eyeball remained intact, and his stomach's contents could still be identified.

So grim a finding represents an early occurrence of a Leitmotif alarmingly frequent in Blainey's chronicle. Has human sacrifice really occupied 90 per cent of human activity? It often seems so, to judge from Blainey's research. In one otherwise unmemorable month of 1487 the Aztecs, to celebrate the blessing of a temple, ripped the hearts out of 20,000 individuals. "To be held down", as Blainey observes, "on the altar already stained with blood, and see a priestly hand clutching a blade of sharp flint, was the last conscious sight for tens of thousands of victims." The killings decreased in tempo only when a priest-executioner found himself overcome with fatigue, whereupon another took up the task till he in turn succumbed. As late as 1960 a Chilean jungle tribe, shocked by that year's devastating earthquake, hoped to ward off further disasters by similar (though far less numerically impressive) methods on its own children. Suttee continues to disfigure India, and has done ever since the British (who banned the practice) were forced out; apparently barbecued widows represent a great moral victory over "imperialism", although the widows themselves might beg to differ.

Yet Blainey's account is not all mass-killing. His snapshots of literary and artistic landmarks are exceptionally well defined; even experts will be impressed by his arcane knowledge. How many realise, for example, that the earliest true landscape painting comes from 1444 (it can still be seen in Geneva) or that sculptors' self-portraiture dates back to the 1380s (in Prague)? What inspired Erasmus to live so long in Switzerland? (His books were mostly printed there.) Why did Tchaikovsky's death in 1893, ostensibly from cholera, produce such public outrage? (Because by 1893 cholera had declined in European Russia to the level of a largely rural menace, whereas Tchaikovsky had for years been a rich city-dweller. Admittedly, the rumour that Tchaikovsky committed suicide to escape his homosexual practices' judicial repercussions is by no means everywhere discounted.)

In science, too, Blainey proves remarkably acute: no "Two Cultures" fumbling, and no Matthew-Arnold-type ignorance masquerading as heightened discernment. He rightly stresses the sheer piety so often imbuing those who led scientific revolutions. Newton and Joseph Priestley were practising Unitarians; Faraday belonged to the obscure Glassite church; Spain's king so admired Linnæus as to grant him free Lutheran worship if only he would settle in Madrid. (Blainey might have added that Dalton remained a lifelong Quaker, Mendel and Pasteur lifelong Catholics; the pioneering surgeon Alexis Carrel was a Catholic convert.) The delusion that scientific achievement necessitates atheism _ however profitable a fantasy it proved for Bertrand Russell, Bertolt Brecht, John Anderson, Wilhelm Reich, and suchlike specimens of sex-criminology _ is best left in the danker recesses of "Sydney Morning Herald" propaganda.

What else can be said of Blainey's triumph save that it forms in itself a liberal education? His style is so lucid that any 12-year-old of moderate intelligence can grasp it; fortunate those 12-year-olds who acquire their world-view from Blainey's survey, rather than from the contextless, desiccated snippets of infotainment which are all that even good CD-ROM encyclopædias can provide, or from the gigantic, unstoppable mendacity-machine which is Hollywood. (Who with any awareness of 18th-century history can repress a shudder at American "conservatives" heaping praises on Mel Gibson's "The Patriot", the most charitable verdict upon which folderol must be that it constitutes _ as Damon Runyon said of "Alice in Wonderland" _ "a pack of lies, though very interesting in spots"?) Moreover, the adult reader of Blainey can devour the same text with an adult's appreciation of Blainey's technical skill, of the poetical sense with which Blainey can endow skyscrapers and shipbuilding as much as more obviously dithyrambic themes like forests and flowers.

Not everything is perfect. Admirably comprehensive on Luther's and Calvin's respective rises to world fame, Blainey slights Jansenism: a surprising omission, given that Jansenism's importance in France far outweighed Calvinism's. And if we accept Blainey's notion that Hiroshima ended blind faith in scientific progress, why did a Green movement not emerge before the mid-1970s? In the intervening three decades, machine civilisation, nuclear power, and smokestack industries met applause across the political spectrum: from Greek colonels at one end, via Nehru and Harold Wilson, to black African Marxists at the other. (Many a 1960s sub-Saharan despot, incapable of providing his subjects with food, promised them self-sufficiency in nuclear weaponry.)

Still, this is quibbling. Let the final word be Blainey's, cautioning us against glib condemnation of 15th- and 16th-century witch-crazes:

"The tragedy was that Western civilisation, when at last it ceased to believe in witches, was also ceasing to believe in humankind's immense capacity for evil . . . In the first half of the 20th century, millions of educated and cultured people were not prepared for the ruthless way in which Evil, by whatever respectable name it adopted, would so devastate Europe that the era of the witches seemed a mere mishap." region in 1997.

The editor, who is Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, suggests in the introduction that this politico-economic approach distinguishes this volume from other analyses of the Asian economic crisis.

He contends that at least four major ingredients provided the catalyst for the events which erupted in July 1997:

"First there were changes in the international and regional balance of power. Second, the once diffuse and separate national economies of Asia had become increasingly interconnected. Third, important changes occurred in the nature of corporate production processes. Fourth and finally, the size and speed of cross-national capital movements expanded geometrically."

R.J.Stove

National Observer No. 48 - Autumn 2001