Dr R Balashankar
The Terror of History – On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization, Teofilo F Ruiz, Princeton University Press,Pp 178 (HB), $ 24.95
THE world history has several moments of terrible anguish—wars, diseases, executions. How do human beings deal with it? Centuries later, looking back at those terror moments give answers to the way people behaved when face to face with certain death and depravation. In a highly thought-provoking and rather sad book, The Terror of History – On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization author Teofilo F. Ruiz discusses the essentially three ways in which human beings have always reacted.
They either take to religion in a feverish way, or they cut off from the society and seclude themselves to save their lives or indulge in fun and frolic, to live the remaining days of life in gay abandon. An exceptional few stay on in the location of tragedies to help and offer comfort. There is nothing unusual in history about being terrorised, he says. Quoting Mircea Eliade (Romanian historian-philosopher) he says the early homo sapiens dreaded the evening. Now, we live in our own fear of an atomic holocaust.
Ruiz’s entire discourse is about the West. “The Scientific Revolution that transformed European thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was paralleled by the untold cruelties of religious warfare and the savagery of the witch craze. The same people who zealously advanced science were firm believers in the existence of witches and complicit in their destruction.” He goes on to mention how even in this technologically advanced times, large segments of the population in the US firmly believe that the end is near and that a select few would be directly taken to god. Ruiz denounces the fact that almost one third of the US Presidential candidates in 2008 said they did not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution and they thought that torture was “rational” way to deal with terrorists.
Quoting the story of Buddha, Ruiz says, when awakened to the fact of human miseries Gautama chose a path of action that will set him free from this endless wheel of life. “For Westerners, this idea of nothingness as the goal of one’s life is a hard pill to take.” Ruiz goes on to explain how religion becomes a succour for most suffering people, despite its contradictions, what with religious history being replete with violence. Then there are people who embrace material pleasures from buying sprees to eating and drinking binges to overcome their terror. This includes indulging in physical pleasures. The third category fall in the pursuit of knowledge, art, beauty, of things that are secular. “Throughout human experience, love has always provided a forceful antidote to the terror of history.” Both sensual and romantic love.
The governments then and now use several methods of distracting the public from the reigning causes of terror. “Authority has often been projected in elaborate demonstrations (royal entries, religious processions, public executions, and the like) aimed at providing distraction from present evils and as didactic reminders of the social hierarchy and the unassailability of constituted power. Processions and spectacles … may go a long way toward assuaging fear and providing escape from the terror of history and the vicissitudes of historical events. But this is not always the case.”
Discussing the lure of beauty and knowledge, Ruiz narrates a touching incident. While teaching university students history, he gave a choice to students. They could perform in lieu of a paper. There were three performances. First was a musical performance based on Odyssey. The second was an energetic rendition of a Garba Raas from Gujarat. Finally two young students a man and a woman played guitar and violin and sang verses from the Bhagavatgita to music that the woman had composed. “When they concluded their performance, the students in the class, more than three hundred of them, stood up and gave them an ovation. Some had tears in their eyes. I did too. I was speechless in this moment that was transcendental, not in a religious sense but in an aesthetic one… I was, and many of my students were, outside history and time.”
The West boasts of being more developed, advanced and hence better than the rest of the world. But this is not a contention that goes without debate. Walter Benjamin, one of the most provocative thinkers of the first half of the century indicted ‘progress’ and said that the “continuous celebration of Western technological advances and political order has been achieved through the continuous projection of power beyond our borders, by endless wars, and by systemic injustice and inequality.”
This systemic injustice spawns more unrest, and launches a cycle of violence and terror from which humans go scurrying for cover in any of the three ways mentioned above. The West’s obsessions with bodily things, the demonstrative love are all part of this escape, suggests Ruiz. Teofilo F Ruiz is Distinguished Professor of History and of Spanish and Portuguese at ULCA and has authored several books. The Terror of History is an absorbing book that will not let the reader skip pages. It challenges the intellect while launching arguments in the mind over the content. The cover of the book is interesting. It is Saturn Devouring one of his Children, 1821-23 by Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)