Sunday, June 20, 2010

Living at the intersection

Walter Russell Mead has spent the last week reading a new book about the life of Charles II. In an essay that is mostly devoted to an interesting and favorable review of that book, Mead explains what, for him, is the value of reading biographies:
I’m a sucker for biography. This isn’t because I believe in the ‘great man’ theory of history and think that the decisions and character of certain individuals determine the flow of history as a whole. That’s not what I get from biography, even from the biography of great world historical figures like Winston Churchill. As often as not, it is the flow of history as a whole that makes great individuals, or gives them the circumstances that make them more or less great. If Churchill had died in 1938 he would be largely forgotten today, seen at best as a brilliant but erratic and fatally flawed politician much like his father. If Abraham Lincoln had lived out his second term, it’s quite possible that history would remember him with less reverence than it does now. The scandals, quarrels and failures of Reconstruction might well have tarnished his image, and Lincoln’s instincts to treat the defeated (white) south kindly might look less like charity and more like racist solidarity with fellow whites against newly freed slaves. Had Mikhail Gorbachev been assassinated by some furious communist in 1990 he might be revered today all over the world, and people would still be saying that if Gorbachev the Great had only survived, Russia would never have descended into post-communist chaos and misery — and he would have steered the country into a bright, democratic future.

In any case, I note that even the most fanatical adherents to the ‘Great Man’ theory (yes, Thomas Carlyle, I’m thinking of you), spend a lot of time writing about circumstances and forces that act on their heroes. Carlyle might be right that the French Revolution would have proceeded differently if Mirabeau had lived longer or Lafayette been less of a blockhead, but the whole grandeur of his extraordinary history is his depiction (in terms often taken from classical epic) of the more-than-human forces that were shaking France to its foundations, dissolving the old order, and forcing people to grope blindly and frantically about in search of some new foundation on which they could build.

Biography isn’t about our mastery of history; it is about living in history, being shaped by as well as shaping culture and events, about charting paths through a wilderness, about living at the intersection of historical forces and trying to make do. .... [more]
Literary Saturday: A Gambling Man - Walter Russell Mead's Blog - The American Interest