The Terror of History. On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization
by Teofilo F. Ruiz
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2011
200 pp., illus. 2 b&w. Trade: $24.95 / £16.95
ISBN: 9780691124131; eBook: $24.95, ISBN: 9781400839421.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
This book by a scholar of Portuguese and Spanish cultural history is not a scholarly enterprise although it borrows many of its examples from the author’s erudite background, but rather it is a personal, deeply subjective attempt to come to terms with the questions raised by the atrocity of life. The opening pages are on the Florentine Plague, which killed half of the population and during which some citizens became flagellants, others turned to sex and alcohol, still others turned their eyes to the beauty of the surrounding scenery, while a last group buried the dead and went to their work every morning as usual. As Ruiz underlines from the very beginning, the problem is that there is no answer to life’s atrocity: the best one can do, he argues, is to continue to do his job, against all odds; all the rest is nothing but hiding away from the fundamental meaninglessness of human life, human society, and human culture. Of these false solutions, Ruiz then discusses three: first, religion; second, materiality and the senses (mainly eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse); and third, aesthetics (and perhaps, although the author is not very explicit on this point, knowledge, science, technology).
The author blends historical and personal examples, knitting together major case studies of his own research and individual experiences, and transforming the book into something that hovers between the personal memoir (the journey of a young man having left Cuba and discovering a new life in the sixties, eventually becoming a professor at UCLA after an education in Princeton) and a meditation on the human attempt to blindfold oneself to the horror of history. Lovecraft’s famous saying: “In the beginning was Fear” could have provided a good motto for this book, whose ambition is to free the reader from the false illusions of God, Love, and Art, in order to bring him to a Stoic acceptation of life’s hardness.
The tone of the book is mild. Ruiz is not attacking religion, romance, and aesthetics as if it were drugs (or examples of false consciousness, to reuse the Marxist terminology one might have expected here). Instead, he often demonstrates more than just sympathy to these illusions, and he shows a real understanding of what pushes people to embrace mysticism, corporeal excesses, and a belief in beauty as the true solution to all human and historical evil. Yet at the same time he also warns us against the deceptions of these answers.
Ruiz does not claim his classification of defence strategies against history to be original. His master is clearly Johan Huizinga, whose seminal work on The Autumn of the Middle Ages is quoted as a major source of inspiration. But contrary to the Dutch historian, Ruiz proposes an essay that foregrounds the interpersonal dialogue with the reader. The reader of this book is less addressed as a scholar than as the freshman discussing the Meaning of Life in Professor Ruiz’s office at UCLA. It explains the charms of this book, but also its limits, for The Terror of History is not a research-driven or oriented book, but a kind of academic self-help publication for upper middlebrow book-clubbers.