Tag Archives: Simon Schama

Finishing Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ (1969)

Just in time, because the BBC’s new Civilisations starts this evening.

There is a definite uptick in the tempo of Clark’s last three episodes.  Clark is at his most philosophical, most engaged, and indeed most anxious.  He is progressively more urgent, as if saying ‘pay attention’, this is the period which is no longer history but which defines us.  We are still living, he says, with the consequences of the Romantic Movement.  And so right he is: without the Romantic Movement, neither Trump nor Brexit would have been possible, not the ethno-nationalist movements that prefigure both.

The Worship of Nature and The Fallacies of Hope are titles that reveal Clark’s anxieties from the outset.  He can see where all this freedom and sentiment is heading.  After recounting the evolution of the French Revolution into the Terror, he looks out a window of the Sorbonne and we see footage of students gently mustering for a protest.  Do they know what they want, he wonders.  Be careful what you ask for: There are montages of street violence in 1848 and 1968 in various European cities.  Dramatically, Clark walks from a perfectly proportioned 18th century room to a portico and a stormy vista of a sea at night.  Great forces are being released in Europe and revolution, fear, and war follow.

It’s not that Clark exactly blames Jean Jacques Rousseau for his fateful reverie in nature and the consequences that followed.  In fact he greatly admires Beethoven, Byron, Gericault, Rodin, and Balsac for their unflinching genius.  He does though see Rousseau’s moment of oblivious immersion in nature as a catalyst, igniting pre-existing inclinations and a series of consequences that Clark reckons as fateful and possibly dire.  Clark holds that the loss of religious belief in the minds of intelligent seventeenth century men had to be replaced by something.  That something was nature, a belief that somehow nature offered both the sublime and personal truth.

It was in cities that man was corrupted by inequalities and greed said Rousseau, seeming or deigning to forget that cities are the cradle of civilisation.  Rousseau elevated the noble savage as the supremely virtuous man.  Clark enjoys invoking the blistering distain of Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Ben Johnson for this tosh.  The supposed Elysian societies of the South Pacific collapsed quickly under the mere presence of European man, Clark notes.  These could not be, he said, civilisations in the way in which he had been using the word. Yet powerful tosh it was.

The Romantic Movement drew its power from the personal freedom it offered.  Europe was a constrained, illiberal, and hierarchical society in the eighteenth century.  It suppressed emotion under straitened social mores.  Reason itself, with its symmetry, proportions, and continuities, was confining. When an intellectual movement in the form of the Romantic Movement offered its benediction to releasing emotion, the constraints were off.  Sentiment itself was valid, what you felt was the real truth.  In comparison, truth arrived at by reason and logic was spurious and artificial.

Here is the real problem with the Romantic Movement; it served as the essential precursor to romantic nationalism and ethno-nationalism.   The Romantic Movement fused with a search for identity as European nation states moved from monarchy to democracy.  In an age of nation states, national economies, mass transport, mass population centres, mass media, and mass mobilisations for war, a unifying identity was a necessity.  National identity had to invent itself.

What did it mean to be Scottish, German, or Irish? This search with its focus on ethno-nationalism sent sober men in search of the ancient past.  They found Ossian’s fabulous ancient epic poem Fingal which was likened to Homer and inspired some of the world’s most powerful men, from Jefferson to Napoleon.  Napoleon, notes Clark, carried an illustrated copy on all his campaigns.

Yet the ‘discovery’ was a fake, a fabrication by an enterprising Scotsman who borrowed heavily from Irish mythology.  (MacPherson even invented a new name – Fiona – as part of his elaborate construction.)

Clark’s final episode is called Heroic Materialism.  He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. True the nineteenth century invented humanitarianism as well as gigantic engineering.  It introduced a revolutionary new instinct called kindness.  Yet technology and weapons of mass destructions are the tools of despots. He passes over the world wars fleetingly and, oddly, doesn’t refer to the Holocaust.  That rankled a tad and I wondered why the omission – I remember vividly Jacob Bronowski’s stunning visit to Auschwitz in his series The Ascent of Man.  Let’s move on.

In prefacing a confession of his values as the series concludes, Clark calls himself, with a little pride, a ‘stick-in-the-mud’.   I couldn’t really fault his values. He is heartened by the young students he sees around him and thinks that despite nearly destroying ourselves twice in one century, we will survive.  Yet Clark cannot see materialism, no matter how heroic, as a good enough end in itself.

In his final and compelling summing up, he quotes Yeats (“who was more like a man of genius than any man I’ve ever known”); The Second Coming in fact, the bit about the best lacking all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity.   “The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism” he concludes.  We can be optimistic but hardly joyous at this prospect, he concludes.  Has anything happened in the intervening fifty years since the broadcast to invalidate this lapidary judgement and its two inspirations?  I don’t think so.

Does Civilisation (1969) stand up?  No question in my mind, with the caveat that it is western civilisation (a description Clark uses suggesting that he knew that this was really his topic). Clark is a master of his brief and declaratory about his values.  And, despite witily dismissing predictions, Clark managed one that has stood the test of time.  How will Civilisations (2018) compare?  Let’s see.


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Simon Schama and the Lithuanian Connection

I have long been an admirer of Simon Schama as an historian and a contributor to the Financial Times.  He is one of a number of historians who in this global age have reached a vast audience through craft and eloquence, through the ability to tell stories through today’s media.  There is a humanistic majesty to his narratives, an appreciation that humankind is capable of great things as well as great barbarities.  

The grandson of Litvaks, he was in some ways the inevitable writer and host of the BBC’s documentary series The Story of the Jews.  As the series progressed, his own emotional investment in the narrative seemed to deepen, perhaps unpeel.  There is no contesting the fact that the story and the resonance he has personally with the story of the Jews has given the series a sharp charge, a personal and wholly engaging emotional depth:  See his visit to the Synagogue in Venice for his awe at the ability of Jews and their culture to survive expulsion (from Spain in this instance), persecution and ghettoization.  You can feel the depth of his feeling as he admires not just the beauty of its architecture but its mere presence, its affirmation of the Jews’ ability to continue to survive and indeed prosper.  As a man of letters himself, he is clearly mesmerized that so much of Judaism is focused on the word for its identity and for its survival as a stateless people over the centuries.  

Given the Litvak connection to Ireland, there is a particular interest for us in episode four of this series for in it Schama looks to the story of the Jews of the Russian Pale, formerly the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom.  It is from the shtetls of the Pale that the Irish Jews came, from these also that so many went to the United States.  Clustered in the Lower East Side, the Jews reformed their communities and many of them prospered, bringing US retail, banking and the Broadway musical to life.  He looks in some detail at the career of Yid Harburg, author of the Depression Era “Brother Can You Spare and Dime” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.  For Schama, the The Wizard of Oz’s anthem could only have come from the Jewish/Yiddish tradition, its aspiration to find another place, possibly mystical, possibly America, certainly Zion, where life can and will be better.

However as the episode closes it is Schama’s return to Lithuania, the land of his forebears, and his account of the murder of those who stayed behind by the Nazis and their local collaborators, that provides a jolt of personal drama, a look into the soul of someone struggling to comprehend what had happened to his people there in all its brutality and inhumanity.  As if he can only bear to ponder their terrible fate briefly, he returns to New York, to the triumph of survival and continuation, to that place over the rainbow.  It is a stunning piece of television, of history as story telling.  


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