Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: "Imagining Spain" by Henry Kamen

Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity (2008) 

Henry Kamen (1936)

 240 pages

Wherever it is we may call home, what are the stories have we grown up with about our nation’s founding and history, and how do they impact our impressions of its present and its future? Although our national identity is tied tightly to such stories, how conscious are we of them, and of how they were created and by whom? If, in fact, we stop to question their historical accuracy, what would we find?

In Imagining Spain, Henry Kamen examines how Spanish politicians, philosophers and historians in the early 1800’s began to create what he refers to as historical myths about Spain, recreations of the Spanish past which had their foundations in factual history, but which were embellished and refashioned by the authors to create a history that told a desired narrative. He describes how both the left and right in Spain over the past two centuries have imposed their particular interpretations on the early modern period of Spanish history to promote their preferred plans for political and societal reform. In addition, he argues that though these historical myths are largely unsubstantiated by the historical record, they have replaced the true history of Spain’s past, achieving the status of unquestionable canon.

Kamen has studied and written extensively on Spanish history over the past four decades, in particular on Spain’s early modern period, from roughly 1450 to 1800. As indicated by the subtitle of this book, Historical Myths and National Identity, he turns here from explaining Spain’s history to focusing instead on how the Spanish have viewed and understood their own history in the process of creating an identity for their country. In each chapter of the book, Kamen reviews a particular historical myth, describing how it was developed and the purposes it has served for its creators and promoters. Focusing on the origins and effects of these myths, he generally touches only briefly on the facts that undermine them, giving enough to make clear his argument, but leaving the reader to pursue the historical details in other sources.

Kamen examines seven historical myths he feels the Spanish have created about their country’s history: the myth of Spain as a coherent nation-state, the myth of the failed Spanish monarchies of the early modern period, the myth of a Christian Spain, the myth of Spain as an empire, the myth of the Spanish Inquisition, the myth of the reach of Spanish as a universal language, and the myth of Spain as having been in perpetual decline throughout the early modern period. These myths, he cautions, are not simply stories the Spanish tell themselves, but rather have largely become accepted both inside the country and abroad as the true and accurate history of Spain. Readers having some familiarity with Spanish history will find much of what they have learned about both the specific details and the broad arc of Spain’s past called into question by Kamen.

Taking Kamen’s set of historical myths together, the traditionally accepted, over-arching narrative of Spanish history lies in the idea that Spain once ruled the largest, most powerful empire in history, having spread its language around the world and brought Christianity through its missionaries to whole civilizations that had ignorant of it. From this greatness in the early 1500’s, Spain suffered a decline that lasted the next several centuries, as foreign-born kings squandered the riches of the empire and through the Inquisition stifled learning and progress in Spain until, in 1898, the last of the Spanish colonies was lost in the Spanish-American war. Though the details might vary a bit between the liberal and conservative views --- the liberals have blamed the church in part for the decline, while conservatives have promoted a return in Spain to the Catholicism of the 1400’s --- both groups substantially agreed on this narrative of decline. What Kamen argues in his book is that almost all of the elements of this interpretation of Spanish history fail to stand up to historical fact, whether it is the level of Spanish success during the Golden Age or the extent of decline that followed.

The history of the Spanish Inquisition makes for a surprising example of the difference between the commonly accepted accounts that Kamen defines as representing a historical myth, and what he claims is the true history. In that chapter he covers both the Inquisition and more generally the broadly accepted view that beginning in the late 1500’s with Philip II, Spain entered a long period of oppressive censorship and suppression of intellectual and artistic activity, eventually causing the Spanish to fall far behind the rest of Europe in scholarship and innovation. In the West the word inquisition itself seems irrevocably tied to Spain, its cruelty, repression and reach the stuff not just of history books, but also literature and film, and even a Monty Python skit. Citing more recent and detailed research into the specific effects of the Inquisition and related policies promulgated by the Spanish kings, Kamen claims that neither the Inquisition nor attempts at censorship and scholarly restriction had the broad powers or caused the extensive disruptions that have been attributed to them. More generally, he finds the claims of Spain’s intellectual isolation from Europe --- such as access to books or studying abroad at foreign universities --- unsubstantiated by historical fact. It is startling to imagine that such a seemingly well-established view of the Spanish Inquisition could be so rife with myths and exaggerations.

Kamen makes similar arguments to counter each of the historical myths that he examines. Even without going into detail in his counter-arguments, he makes a convincing case for the lack of hard evidence to support these myths, and for how they arose from the political circumstances and personal motivations of the authors who created and propagated them despite the evident lack of evidence. It is important to point out that he does not claim that Spain did not experience a significant decline from the height of its power in the late 1500’s; he in fact acknowledges that there are elements of truth in each of the historical myths. A facile counter-argument to his thesis on any of these historical myths would be to claim he is arguing the opposite extreme: in the case of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, to claim that he is stating that no repression or censorship occurred. What Kamen instead argues for in Imagining Spain is that Spanish history not be reduced to a set of simple, politically and culturally motivated explanations, but rather be understood in all its subtlety.

The history of Spain a reader might have been familiar with before reading Kamen’s book can seem a relatively straightforward story of decline from the height of empire in the 1500’s to becoming one of the poorest countries in Europe in the mid-1900’s. After reading his book it becomes clear that the true account is much more complex, and that the works one may read on Spanish history must be examined more critically. Indeed, reading Kamen’s book cannot help but make a reader consider what historical myths about their own country they may have failed to adequately question.

Other reviews / information:

Kamen’s title seems to play off of Julián Marías’ Understanding Spain from 1990, a book Kamen quotes from several times in his text.  I've read the book, but long before I began doing these reviews; follow the link to read some quotes from Marías’ book.
In particular, Marías has an interpretation of the Spanish Inquisition that has a subtle but important difference to Kamen's.  Similar to Kamen, Marías states that there was relatively little direct, physical violence exercised by the authorities of the Inquisition; instead, he argues, it was the indirect, psychological impacts of the Inquisition that were extensive and deep.  He writes:
I believe that the deepest damage produced in Spanish cultural life by the existence of the Inquisition was not whether it pursued or repressed great creative minds. There were some, a few of them --- only a few --- who were molested or persecuted, and not even that suppressed them entirely. What the Inquisition did do was to dissuade them from entering into certain questions that attracted its attention too much, which could be the object of troublesome scrutiny, which in its eyes were suspect. It almost never had to exercise real violence: its presence was sufficient, an undesirable vigilance that, even to being with and before the stage of fear was reached, cut off at the root the latitude, the spontaneity, that certain forms of creativity demand. It killed precisely those forms that are not combative or polemic, those that are not directed against anything or anyone, but consist of the serene, peaceful, and sometimes even playful search for truth. (252)

Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For more reviews of books on Spain and its history, click a link to my bookshelf of:
Spain and Spanish History

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Ten Thousand Things" by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things (2014)
John Spurling (1936)

354 pages

Chaos and uncertainty enveloped China in the 1300’s as the Yuan dynasty, founded only a century before by the leader of the invading Mongol army, slowly lost its grip on power. A succession of ineffective Mongol emperors opened the door in China for rebel movements to gain followers, and upstart warlords fought the Mongols and one another for control of the country. While farmers and merchants struggled to survive the physical destruction of the battles and wars that swept back and forth across the countryside, those who served as civil servants faced the additional risk of being seen as supporting the wrong side in a delicate and constantly shifting political environment. Some, of course, took on active roles in the government or with rebel groups, assuming the risk of making the wrong choice in exchange for their pursuit of personal gain.

What, however, of the artists and scholars who struggled over the decision of whether to withdraw from public and pursue a quiet, scholarly life, or to engage in the political sphere in the hopes of bettering the lives of the common people? Although they may have had their hearts in the right place, and not have considered themselves actual supporters of a particular regime, they often risked the wrath of skeptics who doubted their motives. These artists and scholars faced a dilemma common to people of conscience in similar situations around the world and across the centuries: How does one best live one’s life in turbulent times? How to balance the pursuit of one’s personal passion for art or scholarship with one’s public responsibilities as a human being to others?

John Spurling’s historical novel The Ten Thousand Things, explores these questions through the life of a historical figure of that period, Wang Meng, an artist of considerable talent who also occasionally served as a magistrate. Spurling includes a painting by Wang as a frontispiece to the book, which I’ve reproduced here, and which plays a role in the story. Other historical figures, including artists, scholars, and political figures, populate the novel as well. Though I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of all the details in the book, I did search out more details on some of the characters (an obsession my smartphone only reinforces), and what I did find mostly fit in with how they are represented in the story.

As the story opens, Wang sits in prison on (an unfounded) suspicion of conspiracy against the new emperor of China, the victorious warlord who, having defeated the other rebel Chinese armies, went on to oust the Mongols, end their Yuan dynasty and found the Ming dynasty. Confined to his cell, Wang reflects back on his nearly eighty years, and how the experiences he has had and choices he has made during the tumultuous period of the decline and fall of the Mongol’s Yuan dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Ming, colored and altered his understanding of himself and the world. The novel represents, in fact, an extend flashback of Wang recalling and writing about key moments in his life.

As a painter Wang doubts his own abilities, but his work is admired by friends, art collectors and other artists. Wang in fact wishes throughout his life for nothing more than to be able to retire off to a quiet spot in the countryside and spend his time improving his technique and painting the mountain scenes that he loves so much. Inevitably, however, the real world pulls him back again and again into the fray. Sometimes his involvement comes by force or out of necessity, but other times he finds his own conscience leading him to reengage with the outside world, to use his education and abilities to better the lives of the Chinese people as a civil servant.

Though his participation in the Mongol government lasts only a relatively short time, Wang comes to find his past as a civil servant a burden as the uprising against the Mongols gains strength: despite his claims of having had only the purest intentions in serving as a magistrate, he constantly faces questions about his loyalty. A similar dilemma arises for Wang when the rebel groups begin to coalesce into a few large factions which compete to be the one that will overthrow the Mongols and claims the emperorship; caught in a region controlled by one of these groups when he returns home to care for his father, Wang again accepts a position as a civil servant, deciding that he cannot remain on the sidelines:
 “Why? Because this was not so much a matter of assisting [the rebel leader] Zhang’s regime as of bringing relief to many ordinary people --- mostly farmers and traders --- in the city and district of his birth. Public order and justice, he told himself, were of more importance than the purely selfish question of his tangled loyalties…” (p. 221)  
When the political dynamic later shifts around him, his decision to serve comes back to haunt him again; whatever his reasons for becoming involved may have been, some among the new leadership in power are suspicious of his loyalties given his earlier willingness to serve other rulers.

Wang shares with many of the artists and scholars he feels closest to this dilemma about whether and how to help the wider public, and the risks that come with serving in government; it is, however, far from the only question that occupies his thoughts. In Spurling’s novel, Wang also reflects deeply on the inner world of his painting, as well as the works and methods of other artists he encounters or studies. Through his contemplation of his own work and that of others, and his discussions with artists and scholars about each other’s work, he develops his only abilities as a painter, as well as his appreciation of what he finds to be the wondrous variety of the world --- the ten thousand things of the title, a reference to the Chinese concept of all the parts that make up the heavens and the earth.

Through these imagined discussions between influential artists of 14th century China, Spurling reveals to us the techniques, subjects and meanings that Chinese artists were exploring in that period, as well as the importance they placed on a connection to --- or movement beyond --- their cultural and artistic traditions. For the uninitiated (such as I), and coming from a western perspective, Chinese landscape paintings --- while beautiful --- can seem to have little variation, one to the next. But through Wang and his artist friends we come to a better understanding and appreciation of the truly wide variety of themes and techniques that these paintings represent.

John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things succeeds splendidly in the way a historical novel should, introducing us to the culture and norms and concerns of a distant age and place, and through this journey, gives us a fresh understanding of our own daily world.

Quote from this book:
One of the quotes in the epigraph to the book particularly sticks with me:

“The empire, long united, must divide, and long divided, must unite. Thus it has ever been.”
--- Attributed to LUO GUANZHONG:
Three Kingdoms (?14th century)

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf