Review of: The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, by Angela Saini
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Reviews & Essays
Review of: The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, by Angela Saini
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
“Down With the Patriarchy” is a both a powerful rallying cry and a fashionable emblem broadcast in memes, coffee mugs, tee shirts—and even, paired with an expletive, sung aloud in a popular Taylor Swift anthem.
A consideration of these and other related questions, both practical and existential, form the basis for The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, an extraordinary tour de force by Angela Saini marked by both a brilliant gift for analysis and an extremely talented pen. Saini, a science journalist and author of the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed Superior: The Return of Race Science, one-ups her own prior achievements by widening the lens on entrenched inequalities in human societies to look beyond race as a factor, a somewhat recent phenomenon in the greater scheme of things, to that of gender, which—at least on the face of it—seems far more ancient and deep-seated.
To that end, in The Patriarchs Saini takes the reader on a fascinating expedition to explore male-female relationships—then and now—ranging as far back as the nearly ten-thousand-year-old proto-city Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, where some have suggested that female deities were worshipped and matriarchy may have been the status quo, and flashing forward to the still ongoing protests in Iran, sparked by the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman detained for wearing an “improper” hijab. There are many stops in between, including the city-states of Classical Greece, which saw women controlled and even confined by their husbands in democratic Athens, but yet celebrated for their strength and independence (of a sorts) in the rigidly structured autocracy that defined the Spartan polis.
But most of the journey is contemporary and global in scope, from Seneca Falls, New York, where many Onondaga Native American women continue to enjoy a kind of gender equality that white American women could hardly imagine when they launched their bid for women’s rights in that locale in 1848, to the modern-day states of Kerala and Meghalaya in India, which still retain deeply-rooted traditions of the matrilinear and the matriarchal, respectively, in a nation where arranged marriages remain surprisingly common. And to Afghanistan, where the recently reinstalled Taliban regime prohibits the education of girls and mandates the wearing of a Burqa in public, and Ethiopia, where in many parts of the country female genital mutilation is the rule, not the exception. There are even interviews with European women who grew up in the formerly socialist eastern bloc, some who look back wistfully to a time marked by better economic security and far greater opportunities for women, despite the repression that otherwise characterized the state.
I’m a big fan of Saini’s previous work, but still I cracked the cover of her latest book with some degree of trepidation. This is, after all, such a loaded topic that it could, if mishandled, too easily turn to polemic. So I carefully sniffed around for manifesto-disguised-as-thesis, for axes cleverly cloaked from grinding, for cherry-picked data, and for broad brushes. (Metaphors gleefully mixed!) Thankfully, there was none of that. Instead, she approaches this effort throughout as a scientist, digging deep, asking questions, and reporting answers that sometimes are not to her liking. You have to respect that. My background is history, a study that emphasizes complexity and nuance, and mandates both careful research and an analytical evaluation of relevant data. Both science and history demand critical thinking skills. In The Patriarchs, Saini demonstrates that she walks with great competence in each of these disciplines.
A case in point is her discussion of Çatalhöyük, an astonishing neolithic site first excavated by English archaeologist James Mellaart in the late 1950s that revealed notable hallmarks of settled civilization uncommon for its era. Based on what he identified as figurines of female deities,
I squirmed a bit in my seat as I read this, knowing that the respective conclusions of both Mellaart and Gimbutas have since been, based upon more rigorous studies, largely discredited as wildly overdrawn. But there was no need for such concerns, for in subsequent pages Saini herself points to current experts and the scholarly consensus to rebut at least some of the bolder assertions of these earlier archaeologists. It turns out that in both Çatalhöyük and Old Europe, while society was probably not hierarchal, it was likely more gender-neutral than matriarchal. It is clear that the author should be commended for her exhaustive research. While reading of Indo-European invaders—something Gimbutas got right—my thoughts instantly went to David Anthony’s magnificent study, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, which I read some years back. When I thumbed ahead to the “Notes,” I was delighted to find a citation for the Anthony book!
It is soon clear that in her search for the origins of inequality, Saini’s goal is to ask more questions than insist upon answers. Also increasingly evident is that even if it seems to have become more common in the past centuries, patriarchy is not the norm. No, it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps matriarchy did not characterize Çatalhöyük—and we really can’t be certain—but there is evidence for matriarchal societies elsewhere; some still flourish to this day. History and events in the current millennium demonstrate that there are choices, and societies can—and we can—choose equality rather than a condition where one group is dominated by another based upon race, caste, or gender.
With all of the author’s questions and her search for answers, however, it is the journey that is most enjoyable. In such an expansive work of science, history, and philosophy, the narrative never bogs down. And while the scope is vast, it is only a couple of hundred pages. I actually found myself wanting more.
If there is one area where I would caution Saini, it was in her treatment of ancient Greece. Yes, based upon the literature, Athenian women seem to have been stifled and Spartan women less inhibited, but of the hundreds of poleis that existed in the Classical period, we really only have relevant information for a few, surviving data is weighted heavily towards the elites of Athens and Sparta, and much of it is tarnished by editorializing on both sides that reflected the antipathy between these two bitter rivals. There is more to the story. Aspasia, the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles, was a powerful figure in her own right. Lysistrata, the splendid political satire created by the Athenian Aristophanes, smacks of a kind of ancient feminism as it has women on both sides of the Peloponnesian War denying sex to their men until a truce is called. This play could never have resonated if the female characters were wholly imagined. And while we can perhaps admire the status of a Spartan woman when juxtaposed with her Athenian counterpart, we must remember that their primary role in that rigid, militaristic society was to bear the sons of warriors.
But the station of a Spartan woman raises an interesting counterintuitive that I had hoped Saini would explore. Why was it—and does it remain the case—that women seem to gain greater freedom in autocratic states than democratic ones? It is certainly anachronistic to style fifth century Sparta as totalitarian, but the structure of the state seems to have far more in common with the twentieth century Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, where despite repression women achieved far greater equality than they did in Athens or, at least until very recently, in Europe and the United States. And I really wanted a chapter on China, where the crippling horror of foot-binding for girls was not abolished until 1912, and still lingered in places until the communist takeover mid-century. Mao was responsible for the wanton slaughter of millions, yet women attained a greater equality under his brutal regime than they had for the thousands of years that preceded him.
While she touches upon it, I also looked for a wider discussion of how conservative women can sometimes come to not only represent the greatest obstacle for women’s rights but to advance rather than impede the patriarchy. As an American, there are many painful reminders of that here, where in decades past the antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly nearly single-handedly derailed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Most recently, it was a coalition of Republican and Christian evangelical women who led the crusade that eventually succeeded in curbing abortion rights. But then, as I wished for another hundred pages to go over all this, Saini summed up the incongruity succinctly in a discussion of female genital mutilation in Africa, citing the resistance to change by an Ethiopian girl who asserted: “If our mothers should refuse to continue cutting us, we will cut ourselves.” [p191]
In the end, Saini’s strategy was sound. The Patriarchs boasts a manageable size and the kind of readability that might be sacrificed in a bulkier treatise. The author doesn’t try to say it all: only what is most significant. Also, both the length and the presentation lend appeal to a popular audience, while the research and extensive notes will suit an academic one, as well. That is an especially rare accomplishment these days!
Whatever preconceived notions the reader might have, based upon the title and its implications, Saini demonstrates again and again that it’s not her intention to prove a point, but rather to make you think. Here she succeeds wonderfully. And you get the impression that it is her intellectual curiosity that guides her life. Born in London of ethnic Indian parents and now residing in New York City, she is a highly educated woman with brown skin, feet that can step comfortably into milieus west and east, and an insightful mind that fully embraces the possibilities of the modern world. Thus, Saini is in so many ways ideally suited to address issues of racism and sexism. She is still quite young, and this is her fourth book. I suspect there will be many more. In the meantime, read this one. It will be well worth your time.
Note: This review was based upon an Uncorrected Page Proof edition
Note: I reviewed Saini’s previous book here: Review of: Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini
Review of: Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, by Judy Gumbo
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
The typical American family of 1968 sitting back to watch the nightly news on their nineteen-inch televisions could be excused for sometimes gripping their armrests as events unfolded before them—for most in living color, but for plenty of others still on the familiar black-and-white sets rapidly going extinct. (I was eleven: we had a color TV!) The first seven months of that year was especially tumultuous.
There was January’s spectacular Tet Offensive across South Vietnam, which while ultimately unsuccessful yet stunned a nation still mostly deluded by assurances from Lyndon Johnson’s
In August, just days before the streets outside the arena hosting the Democratic National Convention deteriorated into violent battles between police and demonstrators that later set the stage for the famous trial of the “Chicago Seven,” a group of Yippies—members of the Youth International Party that specialized in pranks and street theatre— were placed under arrest by the Chicago police while in the process of nominating a pig named “Pigasus” for president. In addition to Pigasus, those taken into custody included Yippie organizer Jerry Rubin, folk singer Phil Ochs, and activist Stew Albert. Present but not detained was Judy Gumbo, Stew’s girlfriend and a feminist activist in her own right.
Known for their playful anarchy, many leaders of the New Left dismissed Yippies as “Groucho Marxists,” but for some reason the FBI, convinced they were violent insurrectionists intent on the overthrow of the United States government, became obsessed with the group, placing them on an intensive surveillance that lasted for years to come. A 1972 notation in Gumbo’s FBI files declared, without evidence, that she was “the most vicious, the most anti-American, the most anti-establishment, and the most dangerous to the internal security of the United States.” She was later to obtain copies of these files, which served as an enormously valuable diary of events of sorts for her (2022) memoir, Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, a well-written if sometimes uneven account of her role in and around an organization at the vanguard of the potent political radicalism that swept the country in the late-sixties and early-seventies.
Born Judy Clavir in Toronto, Canada, she grew up a so-called “red diaper baby,” the child of rigidly ideological pro-Soviet communists. She married young and briefly to actor David Hemblen and then fled his unfaithfulness to start a new life in Berkeley, California in the fall of 1967, in the heyday of the emerging counterculture, and soon fell in with activists who ran in the same circles with new boyfriend Stew Albert. Albert’s best friends were Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and Yippie founder Jerry Rubin. She squirmed when Cleaver referred to her as “Mrs. Stew,” insisting upon her own identity, until one day Eldridge playfully dubbed her “Gumbo”—since “gumbo goes with stew.” Ever after she was known as Judy Gumbo.
Gumbo took a job writing copy for a local newspaper, while becoming more deeply immersed in activism as a full-fledged member of the Yippies. As such, those in her immediate orbit were some of the most consequential members of the antiwar and Black Power movements, which sometimes overlapped, including Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Nancy Kurshan, Paul Krassner, Phil Ochs, William Kunstler, David Dellinger, Timothy Leary, Kathleen Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. She describes the often-immature jockeying for leadership that occurred between rivals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, which also underscored her frustration in general with ostensibly enlightened left-wing radicals who nevertheless casually asserted male dominance in every arena—and fueled her increasingly more strident brand of feminism. She personalized the Yippie exhortation to “rise up and abandon the creeping meatball”—which means to conquer fear by turning it into an act of defiance and deliberately doing exactly what you most fear—by leaving her insecurities behind, as well as her reliance on other people, to grow into an assertive take-no-prisoners independent feminist woman with no regrets. How she achieves this is the journey motif of her life and this memoir.
Gumbo’s behind-the-scenes anecdotes culled from years of close contact with such a wide assortment of sixties notables is the most valuable part of Yippie Girl. There is no doubt that her ability to consult her FBI files—even if these contained wild exaggerations about her character and her activities—refreshed her memories of those days, more than a half century past, which lends authenticity to the book as a kind of primary source for life among Yippies, Panthers, and fellow revolutionaries of the time. And she successfully puts you in the front seat, with her, as she takes you on a tour of significant moments in the movement and in its immediate periphery in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York. Her style, if not elegant, is highly readable, which is an accomplishment for any author that merits mention in a review of their work.
The weakest part of the book is her unstated insistence on making herself the main character in every situation, which betrays an uncomfortable narcissism that the reader suspects had negative consequences in virtually all of her relationships with both allies and adversaries. Yes, it is her memoir. Yes, her significance in the movement deserves—and has to some degree been denied by history—the kind of notoriety accorded to what after all became household names like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. But the reality is that she was never in a top leadership role. She was not arrested with Pigasus. She was not put on trial with the Chicago 7. You can detect in the narrative that she wishes she was.
This aspect of her personality makes her a less sympathetic figure than she should be as a committed activist tirelessly promoting peace and equality while being unfairly hounded by the FBI. But she carries something else unpleasant around with her that is unnerving: an allegiance to her cause and herself that boasts a kind of ruthless naïveté that rejects correction when challenged either by reality or morality. She condemns Cleaver’s infidelity to his wife, but abandons Stew for a series of random affairs, most notably with a North Vietnamese diplomat who happens to be married. She personally eschews violence, but cheers the Capitol bombing by the Weathermen, domestic terrorists who splintered from the former (SDS) Students for a Democratic Society.
To oppose the unjust U.S. intervention in Vietnam and decry the millions of lives lost across Southeast Asia was certainly an honorable cause, worthy of respect, then and now. But this red diaper baby never grew up: her vision of the just and righteous was distinguished by her admiration of oppressive, totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba—and North Vietnam. Like too many in the antiwar movement, opposition to Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War strangely morphed into a distorted veneration for Hanoi. There may indeed have been much to condemn about the America of that era in the realm of militarism, imperialism, and inequality, but that hardly justified—then or now—championing communist dictatorships on the other side known for regimes marked by repression and sometimes even terror.
Gumbo visited most of these repressive states that she supported, including North Vietnam. She reveals that while there she settled into the seat of a Russian anti-antiaircraft machine gun much like the one Jane Fonda later sat in. Fonda, branded a traitor by the right, later lamented that move, and publicly admitted it. Gumbo will have none of it: “I have never regretted looking through those gun sights,” she proudly asserts [p203]. She still celebrates the reunification of Vietnam, while ignoring its aftermath. Her stubborn allegiance to ideology over humanity, and her utter inability to evolve as a person further points to her inherent narcissism. She is never wrong. She is always right. Just ask her, she’ll tell you so.
Yippie Girl also lacks a greater context that would make it more accessible to a wider audience. The author assumes the reader is well aware of the climate of extremism that often characterized the United States in the sixties and seventies—like the litany of news events of the first half of 1968 that opened this review—when in fact for most Americans today those days likely seem like accounts from another planet in another dimension. I would have loved to see Gumbo write a bigger book that wasn’t just about her and her community. At the same time, if you are a junkie for American political life back in the day when today’s polarization seems tame by comparison, and youth activism ruled, I would recommend you read Gumbo’s book. I suspect that whether you end up liking or detesting her in the end, she will still crave the attention.
NOTE: This book was obtained as part of an Early Reviewers program
Review of: The Reopening of the Western Mind: The Resurgence of Intellectual Life from the End of Antiquity to the Dawn of the Enlightenment, by Charles Freeman
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Nearly two decades have passed since Charles Freeman published The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, a brilliant if controversial examination of the intellectual totalitarianism of Christianity that dated to the dawn
Now the renowned classical historian has returned with a follow-up epic, The Reopening of the Western Mind: The Resurgence of Intellectual Life from the End of Antiquity to the Dawn of the Enlightenment, (a revised and repolished version of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, previously published in the UK), which recounts the slow—some might brand it glacial—evolution of Western thought that restored legitimacy to independent examination and analysis, and that eventually led to a celebration, albeit a cautious one, of reason over blind faith. In the process, Freeman reminds us that quality, engaging narrative history has not gone extinct, while demonstrating that it is possible to produce a work that is so well-written it is readable by a general audience while meeting the rigorous standards of scholarship demanded by academia. That this is no small achievement will be evident to anyone who—as I do—reads both popular and scholarly history and is struck by the stultifying prose that often typifies the academic. In contrast, here Freeman takes a skillful pen to reveal people, events, and occasionally obscure concepts, much of which may be unfamiliar to those who are not well versed in the medieval period.
Full disclosure: Charles Freeman and I began a long correspondence via email following my review of Closing. I was honored when he selected me as one of his readers for his drafts of Awakening, the earlier UK edition of this work, which he shared with me in 2018—but at the same time I approached this responsibility with some trepidation: given Freeman’s credentials and reputation, what if I found the work to be sub-standard? What if it was simply not a good book? How would I address that? As it was, these worries turned out to be misplaced. It is a magnificent book, and I am grateful to have read much of it as a work in progress, and then again after publication. I did submit several pages of critical commentary to assist the author, to the best of my limited abilities, hone a better final product, and to that end I am proud see my name appear in the “Acknowledgments.” But to be clear: I am an independent reviewer and did not receive compensation for this review.
The fall of Rome remains a subject of debate for historians. While traditional notions of sudden collapse given to pillaging Vandals leaping over city walls and fora engulfed in flames have long been revised, competing visions of a more gradual transition that better reflect the scholarship sometimes distort the historiography to minimize both the fall and what was actually lost. And what was lost was indeed dramatic and incalculable. If, to take just one example, sanitation can be said to be a mark of civilization, the Roman aqueducts and complex network of sewers that fell into disuse and disrepair meant that fresh water was no longer reliable, and sewage that bred pestilence was to be the norm for fifteen centuries to follow. It was not until the late nineteenth century that sanitation in Europe even approached Roman standards. So, whatever the timeline—rapid or gradual—there was indeed a marked collapse. Causes are far more elusive. But Gibbon’s largely discredited casting of Christianity as the villain that brought the empire down tends to raise hackles in those who suspect someone like Freeman attempting to point those fingers once more. But Freeman has nothing to say about why Rome fell, only what followed. The loss of the pursuit of reason was to be as devastating for the intellectual health of the post-Roman world in the West as sanitation was to prove for its physical health. And here Freeman does squarely take aim at the institutional Christian church as the proximate cause for the subsequent consequences for Western thought. This is well-underscored in the bleak assessment that follows in one of the final chapters in The Closing of the Western Mind:
Christian thought that emerged in the early centuries often gave irrationality the status of a universal “truth” to the exclusion of those truths to be found through reason. So the uneducated was preferred to the educated and the miracle to the operation of natural laws … This reversal of traditional values became embedded in the Christian tradition … Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation …
Reopening picks up where Closing leaves off, but the new work is marked by far greater optimism. Rather than dwell on what has been lost, Freeman puts focus not only upon the recovery of concepts long forgotten but how rediscovery eventually sparked new, original thought, as the spiritual and later increasingly secular world danced warily around one another—with a burning heretic all too often staked between them on Europe’s fraught intellectual ballroom. Because the timeline is so long—encompassing twelve centuries—the author sidesteps what could have been a dull chronological recounting of this slow progression to narrow his lens upon select people, events and ideas that collectively marked milestones on the way, which comprise thematic chapters to broaden the scope. This approach thus transcends what might have been otherwise parochial to brilliantly convey the panoramic.
There are many superlative chapters in Reopening, including the very first one, entitled “The Saving of the Texts 500-750.” Freeman seems to delight in detecting the bits and pieces of the classical universe that managed to survive not only vigorous attempts by early Christians to erase pagan thought but the unintended ravages of deterioration that is every archivist’s nightmare. Ironically, the sacking of cities in ancient Mesopotamia begat conflagrations that baked inscribed clay tablets, preserving them for millennia. No such luck for the Mediterranean world, where papyrus scrolls, the favored medium for texts, fell to war, natural disasters, deliberate destruction, as well as to entropy—a familiar byproduct of the second law of thermodynamics—which was not kind in prevailing environmental conditions. We are happily still discovering papyri preserved by the dry conditions in parts of Egypt—the oldest dating back to 2500 BCE—but it seems that the European climate doomed papyrus to a scant two hundred years before it was no more.
Absent printing presses or digital scans, texts were preserved by painstakingly copying them by hand, typically onto vellum, a kind of parchment made from animal skins with a long shelf life, most frequently in monasteries by monks for whom literacy was deemed essential. But what to save? The two giants of ancient Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, were preserved, but the latter far more grudgingly. Fledgling concepts of empiricism in Aristotle made the medieval mind uncomfortable. Plato, on the other hand, who pioneered notions of imaginary higher powers and perfect forms, could be (albeit somewhat awkwardly) adapted to the prevailing faith in the Trinity, and thus elements of Plato were syncretized into Christian orthodoxy. Of course, as we celebrate what was saved it is difficult not to likewise mourn what was lost to us forever. Fortunately, the Arab world put a much higher premium on the preservation of classical texts—an especially eclectic collection that included not only metaphysics but geography, medicine, and mathematics. When centuries later—as Freeman highlights in Reopening —these works reached Europe, they were to be instrumental as tinder to the embers that were to spark first a revival and then a revolution in science and discovery.
My favorite chapter in Reopening is “Abelard and the Battle for Reason,” which chronicles the extraordinary story of scholastic scholar Peter Abelard (1079-1142)—who flirted with the secular and attempted to connect rationalism with theology—told against the flamboyant backdrop of Abelard’s tragic love affair with Héloïse, a tale that yet remains the stuff of popular culture. In a fit of pique, Héloïse’s father was to have Abelard castrated. The church attempted something similar, metaphorically, with Abelard’s teachings, which led to an order of excommunication (later lifted), but despite official condemnation Abelard left a dramatic mark on European thought that long lingered.
There is too much material in a volume this thick to cover competently in a review, but the reader will find much of it well worth the time. Of course, some will be drawn to certain chapters more than others. Art historians will no doubt be taken with the one entitled “The Flowering of the Florentine Renaissance,” which for me hearkened back to the best elements of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, showcasing not only the evolution of European architecture but the author’s own adulation for both the art and the engineering feat demonstrated by Brunelleschi’s dome, the extraordinary fifteenth century adornment that crowns the Florence Cathedral. Of course, Freeman does temper his praise for such achievements with juxtaposition to what once had been, as in a later chapter that recounts the process of relocating an ancient Egyptian obelisk weighing 331 tons that had been placed on the Vatican Hill by the Emperor Caligula, which was seen as remarkable at the time. In a footnote, Freeman reminds us that: “One might talk of sixteenth-century technological miracles, but the obelisk had been successfully erected by the Egyptians, taken down by the Romans, brought by sea to Rome and then re-erected there—all the while remaining intact!”
If I was to find a fault with Reopening, it is that it does not, in my opinion, go far enough to emphasize the impact of the Columbian Experience on the reopening of the Western mind. There is a terrific chapter devoted to the topic, which explores how the discovery of the Americas and its exotic inhabitants compelled the European mind to examine other human societies whose existence had never before even been contemplated. While that is a valid avenue for analysis, it yet hardly takes into account just how earth-shattering 1492 turned out to be—arguably the most consequential milestone for human civilization (and the biosphere!) since the first cities appeared in Sumer—in a myriad of ways, not least the exchange of flora and fauna (and microbes) that accompanied it. But this significance was perhaps greatest for Europe, which had been a backwater, long eclipsed by China and the Arab middle east. It was the Columbian Experience that reoriented the center of the world, so to speak, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which was exploited to the fullest by the Europeans who prowled those seas and first bridged the continents. It is difficult to imagine the subsequent accomplishments—intellectual and otherwise—had Columbus not landed at San Salvador. But this remains just a quibble that does not detract from Freeman’s overall accomplishment.
Interest in the medieval world has perhaps waned over time, but that is, of course, a mistake: how we got from point A to point B is an important story, even it has never been told before as well as Freeman has told it in Reopening. And it is not an easy story to tell. As the author acknowledges in a concluding chapter: “Bringing together the many different elements that led to the ‘reopening of the western mind’ is a challenge. It is important to stress just how bereft Europe was, economically and culturally, after the fall of the Roman empire compared to what it had been before …”
Those of us given to dystopian fiction, concerned with the fragility of republics and civilization, and perhaps wondering aloud in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic and the rise of authoritarianism what our descendants might recall of us if it all fell to collapse tomorrow, cannot help but be intrigued by how our ancestors coped—for better or for worse—after Rome was no more. If you want to learn more about that, there might be no better covers to crack than Freeman’s The Reopening of the Western Mind. I highly recommend it.
NOTE: Portions of this review also appear in my review of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman, previously published in the UK, here: Review of: The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman
NOTE: My review of The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, by Charles Freeman, is here: Review of: The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman
Review of: Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις
“Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”
This passage, in ancient Greek and in translation, is the key to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a big, ambitious, complicated novel by Anthony Doerr, the latest from the author of the magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See (2014).
There is the octogenarian Zeno, self-taught in classical Greek, who has translated the fragmentary codex and adapted it into a play that is to be performed by fifth graders in the public library located in Lakeport, Idaho in 2020. Lurking in the vicinity is Seymour, an alienated teen with Asperger’s, flirting with eco-terrorism. And hundreds of years in the past, there is also the thirteen-year-old Anna, who has happened upon that same codex in Constantinople, on the eve of its fall to the Turks. Among the thousands of besiegers outside the city’s walls is Omeir, a harelipped youngster who with his team of oxen was conscripted to serve the Sultan in the cause of toppling the Byzantine capital. Finally, there is Konstance, fourteen years old, who has lived her entire life on the Argos, a twenty-second century spacecraft destined for a distant planet; she too comes to discover “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Alternating chapters, some short, others far longer, tell the stories of each protagonist, in real time or through flashbacks. For the long-lived Zeno, readers follow his hardscrabble youth, his struggle with his closeted homosexuality, his stint as a POW in the Korean War, and his long love affair with the language of the ancient Greeks. We observe how an uncertain and frequently bullied Seymour reacts to the destruction of wilderness and wildlife in his own geography. We watch the rebellious Anna abjure her work as a lowly seamstress to clandestinely translate the codex. We learn how the disfigured-at-birth Omeir is at first nearly left to die, then exiled along with his family because villagers believe he is a demon. We see Konstance, trapped in quarantine in what appears to be deep space, explore the old earth through an “atlas” in the ship’s library.
Science—in multiple disciplines—is often central to a Doerr novel. That was certainly the case in All the Light We Cannot See, as well as in his earlier work, About Grace. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, in contrast, science—while hardly absent—takes a backseat. The sci-fi in the Argos voyage is pretty cool, but hardly the stuff of Asimov or Heinlein. And Seymour’s science of climate catastrophe strikes as little more than an afterthought in the narrative.
Multiple individuals with lives on separate trajectories centuries apart whose exploits resonated larger and often overlapping themes reminded me at first of another work with a cloud in its title: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. But Cloud Cuckoo Land lacks the spectacular brilliance of that novel, which manages to take your very breath away. It also falls short of the depth and intricacy that powers Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. And yet … and yet … I ended up really enjoying the book, even shedding a tear or two in its final pages. So there’s that. In the final analysis, Doerr is a talented writer and if this is not his finest work, it remains well worth the read.
I have reviewed other novels by Anthony Doerr here:
Review of: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Review of: The Sumerians: Lost Civilizations, by Paul Collins
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Reading the “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in its entirety rekindled a long dormant interest in the Sumerians, the ancient Mesopotamian people that my school textbooks once boldly proclaimed as inventors not only of the written word, but of
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is, of course, the world’s oldest literary work: the earliest record of the five poems that form the heart of the epic were carved into Sumerian clay tablets that date back to 2100 BCE, and relate the exploits of the eponymous Gilgamesh, an actual historic king of the Mesopotamian city state Uruk circa 2750 BCE who later became the stuff of heroic legend. Most famously, a portion of the epic recounts a flood narrative nearly identical to the one reported in Genesis, making it the earliest reference to the Near East flood myth held in common by the later Abrahamic religions.
Uruk was just one of a number of remarkable city states—along with Eridu, Ur, and Kish—that formed urban and agricultural hubs between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today southern Iraq, between approximately 3500-2000 BCE, at a time when the Persian Gulf extended much further north, putting these cities very near the coast. Some archaeologists also placed “Ur of the Chaldees,” the city in the Hebrew Bible noted as the birthplace of the Israelite patriarch Abraham, in this vicinity, reinforcing the Biblical flood connection. A common culture that boasted the earliest system of writing that recorded in cuneiform script a language isolate unrelated to others, advances in mathematics that utilized a sexagesimal system, and the invention of both the wheel and the plow came to be attributed to these mysterious non-Semitic people, dubbed the Sumerians.
But who were the Sumerians? They were completely unknown, notes the author, until archaeologists stumbled upon the ruins of their forgotten cities about 150 years ago. Collins, who currently is
“It is not history as we would understand it,” argues Collins, “but a combination of myth, legend and historical information.” This serves as a perfect metaphor for Collins’s thesis, which is that after a century and a half of archaeology and scholarship, we know less about the Sumerians—if such a structured, well-defined common culture ever even existed—and far more about the sometimes-spurious conclusions and even outright fictions that successive generations of academics and observers have attached to these ancient peoples.
Thus, Collins raises two separate if perhaps related issues that both independently and in tandem spark controversy. The first is the question of whether the Sumerians ever existed as a distinct culture, or whether—as the author suggests—scholars may have somehow mistakenly woven a misleading tapestry out of scraps and threads in the archaeological record representing a variety of inhabitants within a shared geography with material cultures that while overlapping were never of a single fabric? The second is how deeply woven into that same tapestry are distortions—some intended and others inadvertent—tailored to interpretations fraught with the biases of excavators and researchers determined to locate the Sumerians as uber-ancestors central to the myth of Western Civilization that tends to dominate the historiography? And, of course, if there is merit to the former, was it entirely the product of the latter, or were other factors involved?
I personally lack both the expertise and the qualifications to weigh in on the first matter, especially given that its author’s credentials include not only an association with Oxford’s School of Archaeology, but also as the Chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. Still, I will note in this regard that he makes many thought-provoking and salient points. As to the second, Collins is quite persuasive, and here great authority on the part of the reader is not nearly as requisite.
Nineteenth century explorers and archaeologists—as well as their early twentieth century successors—were often drawn to this Middle Eastern milieu in a quest for concordance between Biblical references and excavations, which bred distortions in outcomes and interpretation. At the same time, a conviction that race and civilization were inextricably linked—to be clear, the “white race” and “Western Civilization”—determined that what was perceived as “advanced” was ordained at the outset for association with “the West.” We know that the leading thinkers of the Renaissance rediscovered the Greeks and Romans as their cultural and intellectual forebears, with at least some measure of justification, but later far more tenuous links were drawn to ancient Egypt—and, of course, later still, to Babylon and Sumer. Misrepresentations, deliberate or not, were exacerbated by the fact that the standards of professionalism characteristic to today’s archaeology were either primitive or nonexistent.
None of this should be news to students of history who have observed how the latest historiography has frequently discredited interpretations long taken for granted—something I have witnessed firsthand as a dramatic work in progress in studies of the American Civil War in recent decades: notably, although slavery was central to the cause of secession and war, for more than a century African Americans were essentially erased from the textbooks and barely acknowledged other than at the very periphery of the conflict, in what was euphemistically constructed as a sectional struggle among white men, north and south. It was a lie, but a lie that sold very well for a very long time, and still clings to those invested in what has come to called “Lost Cause” mythology.
But yet it’s surprising, as Collins underscores, that what should long have been second-guessed about Sumer remains integral to far too much of what persists as current thinking. Whether the Sumerians are indeed a distinct culture or not, should those peoples more than five millennia removed from us continue to be artificially attached to what we pronounce Western Civilization? Probably not. And while we certainly recognize today that race is an artificial construct that relates zero information of importance about a people, ancient or modern, we can reasonably guess with some confidence that those indigenous to southern Iraq in 3500 BCE probably did not have the pale skin of a native of, say, Norway. We can rightfully assert that the people we call the Sumerians were responsible for extraordinary achievements that were later passed down to other cultures that followed, but an attempt to draw some kind of line from Sumer to Enlightenment-age Europe is shaky, at best.
As such, Collins’s book gives focus to what we have come to believe about the Sumerians, and why we should challenge that. I previously read (and reviewed) Egypt by Christina Riggs, another book in the Lost Civilizations series, which is preoccupied with how ancient Egypt has resonated for those who walked in its shadows, from Roman tourists to Napoleon’s troops to modern admirers, even if that vision little resembles its historic basis. Collins takes a similar tack but devotes far more attention to parsing out in greater detail exactly what is really known about the Sumerians and what we tend to collectively assume that we know. Of course, Sumer is far less familiar to a wider audience, and it lacks the romantic appeal of Egypt—there is no imagined exotic beauty like Cleopatra, only the blur of the distant god-king Gilgamesh—so the Sumerians come up far more rarely in conversation, and provoke far less strong feelings, one way or the other.
The Sumerians is a an accessible read for the non-specialist, and there are plenty of illustrations to enhance the text. Like other authors in the Lost Civilizations series, Collins deserves much credit for articulating sometimes arcane material in a manner that suits both a scholarly and a popular audience, which is by no means an easy achievement. If you are looking for an outstanding introduction to these ancient people that is neither too esoteric nor dumbed-down, I highly recommend this volume.
*NOTE: I recently learned that Paul Collins has apparently left the Ashmolean Museum as of end October 2022, and is now associated with the Middle East Department, British Museum.
The Sumerian Kings List Prism at the Ashmolean Museum online here: The Sumerian King List Prism
More about “The Epic of Gilgamesh” can be found in my review here: Review of: Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell
I reviewed other volumes in the Lost Civilizations series here:
Review of: The Indus: Lost Civilizations, by Andrew Robinson
Review of Egypt: Lost Civilizations, by Christina Riggs
Review of: The Etruscans: Lost Civilizations, by Lucy Shipley