Monday, March 17, 2008

Reading during my travels: Edward Gibbon and Octavio Paz. 'The Decline and Fall...' was recommended to me by John Bloomberg-Rissman, so I picked up the Penguin 'Great Ideas' series; Gibbon on Christianity. Pretty radical stuff. His description of the Messianic nature of early Christianity is strikingly reminiscent of certain areas of the USA today where congregations are waiting eagerly for the end of the world. John told me not to skip the footnotes, and he was right. Discussing how the early Christians regarded it their duty to oppose the idolatry of paganism (whose gods they believed were fallen angels in disguise), Gibbon adds a footnote:

"Even the reverses of Greek and Roman coins were of an idolatrous nature. Here indeed the scruples of the Christian were suspended by a stronger passion."

'The Labyrinth of Solitude' has been on my to-do list for a long time. I knew very little about Mexican history when I started it, and I couldn't have had a better introduction. It's about, for want of a better description, the nation's psyche, and consists of nine essays. In some sections there are acute insights on almost every page. In the first essay he discusses the Pachucos, the Mexican teenage gangs that emerged in southern California, and his observations could be applied to similar phenomena in the UK today; this from a book published in 1959 - well before youth culture was regarded as worthy of serious study. Here's a taste of the book - Paz discussing the relationship of art to history:

"I am not attempting to justify colonial society. In the strictest sense, no society can be justified while one or another form of oppression subsists within it. I want to understand it as a living, and therefore contradictory, whole. In the same way, I refuse to see the human sacrifices of the Aztecs as an isolated expression of cruelty without relation to the rest of that civilization. Their tearing out of hearts and their monumental pyramids, their sculpture and their ritual cannibalism, their poetry and their 'war of flowers', their theocracy and their great myths, are all an indissolube one. To deny this would be as infantile as to deny Provencal poetry in the name of the medieval serfs, or Aeschylus because there were slaves in Athens. History has the cruel reality of a nightmare, and the grandeur of man consists in making beautiful and lasting works out of the real substance of that nightmare. Or, to put it another way, it consists of transforming the nightmare into vision; in freeing ourselves from the shapeless horror of reality - if only for an instant - by means of creation."

(tr. Lysander Kemp).

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