A former Ivy League president was well-known for replying to alums’ observations that “Things at the school aren’t what they used to be” by saying, “Yes, and they never were.” At this historical moment, it’s important to understand both how things came to be as they are and what they were like in the past. Several recent books shed light on these questions—some on a world-historical scale and some from local or contemporary perspectives.
The longest view is taken by Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. This bookend to Guns, Germs, and Steel applies the same encompassing methodology as in his previous work and considers particular civilizations’ ends (rather than their origins) and ranges across time and space—from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic.
Diamond identifies several factors that contribute to the collapse of cultures: societally inflicted environmental damage, climatic events, changing neighbors, and inadequate responses to any or all of the above.
Although a few of his cases, such as Easter Island and the Maya, are familiar, some tell stories rarely mentioned in U.S. circles. These include the Viking settlements that ran from Shetland to Vinland, the contrast between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the problems facing Australia and Montana today.
Collapse is encyclopedic on both macro and micro scales, covering thousands of years across more than a dozen cultures, while examining factors from food preferences to rainfall, and kangaroos to earthworms. (The reader may be forgiven for not following too closely arguments involving packrat middens, lithic mulches, and pollen analysis.)
The book’s salience for most of us will be Diamond’s analyses of factors important to the future of all contemporary societies: climate and environmental damage and the adequacy or inadequacy of our responses to these. Here Diamond issues both advice—that we are literally all in this together—and warnings—that technology alone may exacerbate, not solve, our problems, that resources truly are finite, and that the economy/environment balancing act is a false dichotomy since no economy can be based on an unlivable environment.
More locally, Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America focuses on our longstanding differences, some of which remain prominent fault lines today.
Woodard’s thesis is that each “nation” maintains the cultural characteristics of its early inhabitants, from First Nations in northern Canada to the several European regions whose migrants “settled” most of the continent. He concedes, “One might naturally assume that the continent’s nations must have long since melted into one another,” but explains that cultural geographers and sociologists have concluded that the earliest dominant inhabitants set a culture that may endure for centuries, especially when enhanced by mobility that allows Americans to “relocate to communities where people share their values and worldview.”
Some of these nations are familiar: New France in eastern Canada and part of Louisiana; El Norte, extending from northern Mexico into parts of several U.S states; the Deep South, different in many ways from confederate Tidewater; New Netherland, centered on Dutch New York but nationally influential and often regionally despised. Others, like Greater Appalachia, Yankeedom, and the Midlands, use familiar terms to cover surprising areas. The Midlands, for example, are a scorpion-shaped region beginning in southern New Jersey and including parts of 13 states as far flung as Texas and North Dakota, plus a segment of Canada.
Woodard’s historicist view explains some puzzling relationships. Why, for example, does the Left Coast seem like an environmentalist New England? Because, he says, “the majority of the Left Coast’s early colonists were Yankees who arrived by sea” and who “left a stamp of utopian idealism that put this nation on a collision course with its neighbors.”
It isn’t possible to give examples of all Woodard’s nations, but the coherence, research, and provocative quality of this book make it useful anywhere from an advanced U.S history course to a group of citizens trying to understand the different perspectives held by either their new neighbors or people half a continent away.
It’s tempting in a turbulent era to look at supposedly better times. A.N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life covers a different, and on some measures, happier age. Victorian England was a growing and prosperous empire under the leadership of one of history’s most renowned rulers; it was the age of Gladstone and Disraeli, Tennyson and the Crystal Palace, the telegraph and telephone, steamships and railways, and bridges and manufacturing.
But as Wilson shows, neither the queen nor her era were as golden as nostalgia paints them. When Victoria ascended to the throne, at age 18, she had lived almost entirely apart from the world, in what Wilson calls “a snake pit of mutual hatred and slander,” as relatives and counselors sought to control the future queen. Although she was to become the living symbol of all things British, England was also a place of lifelong exile for her, as she was brought up to be almost purely German in language and culture. Despite the seeming tranquility of the Victorian era, she survived eight failed assassination attempts.
She also ruled an empire almost constantly at war somewhere. Britain and its representatives fought at least 64 wars or lesser conflicts during the queen’s reign. Only three years were without her soldiers engaged somewhere in the world—though life may have been little affected at home since none were fought closer than North America or Crimea.
Finally, she lived in a world of political intrigue, scandal in high places, and shifting alliances. Only one of her eight adult children married a British spouse and many left England and its religion to further European alliances, often putting them or their children at odds with Britain in later wars and rivalries.
The previous writers belong to the Anglo-American culture they examine. These last books, however, provide views from elsewhere. Cultural Amnesia by Australian Clive James offers 104 personal profiles, organized alphabetically, because as James explains, “In the 40 years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern.” The result is a kaleidoscope of seeming fragments, from which we can assemble a picture of a deeply fragmented age. James chronicles the notorious (Hitler, Goebbels, Trotsky), the renowned (Freud, Hegel, Kafka), and the undeservedly obscure (Nirad Chaudhuri, Alexandra Kolontai). His subjects are chosen both for their life story and often for a single fertile observation, such as German historian Golo Mann’s: “In the history of mankind, there is more that is spontaneous, willful, unreasonable, and senseless than our conceit allows.” Or Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz’s: “…any self-respecting artist must be, and in more than one sense, an émigré.” James is a poly-linguist who has read most of these books in their original French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese, and is also the master stylist of all the writers profiled here. Enter Cultural Amnesia anywhere to find an hour’s—or a week’s—delight and insight.
Mishra Pankaj is less of a stylist, more of a polymath, and even more of an outsider than James. A graduate of universities in Allahabad and New Delhi, he moved at age 23 to a remote Himalayan village, where he has produced works of fiction and nonfiction, winning honors throughout the English-speaking world, including India and the United States. His 2017 magnum opus (so far), Age of Anger: A History of the Present, analyzes our contemporary disquiet from a historical and a global perspective. The Himalayas serve as a vantage point from which Pankaj can see more widely around the planet, and further into the past, than writers more locally embedded. His work encompasses not only the mainstream of Western thought, but the competing insights of Arab, Iranian, Russian, Turkish, and Asian intellectuals and political theorists.
Pankaj’s thesis—developed over 400 densely argued and exhaustively supported pages—is that our current condition is the long extension of the tensions that first erupted in the 18th century and have continued as more and more people throughout the world have come to feel themselves bereft of their old cultures and excluded from materially wealthy and spiritually destitute modern civilization. From the anarchism of the 19th century to the terrorism of the 21st century, Pankaj observes that “people understand themselves primarily as individuals with rights, desires, and interests,” and when these show no sign of being achievable, many turn to violence, which gradually becomes—whether among the Timothy McVeighs or the ISIS beheaders—an end in itself.
Unfortunately, neither Pankaj nor any of these other writers, with the possible exception of Diamond, offers a solution to our current problems. But, to invert Karl Marx’s aphorism, they help us to understand the world, which should be the prerequisite to changing it for the better.