This book is, first and foremost, a reflection on the human condition and on the manner in which we attempt to explain the world and make meaning of our lives. It is, most of all, about the manner in which humans, either collectively or individually, attempt to deal with catastrophes, with the injustices that are part of history, and with the inexorable passing of time.
While grounded in my wish to answer the concerns and existential questions that students have posed to me throughout my almost forty years of teaching, I also wish to address these questions for myself.
I have long grappled with these issues. I do not know that I have provided an answer either to the reader or to myself, but I have tried as honestly as I can to deal with these topics.
What I do, therefore, is to try to show how in the western world humans have sought to make meaning of the world in which they live, and to explain to themselves and others the reasons for the brutal exercise of power, natural disasters, and acts of inhumanity against other people. I look over the long expanse of western history as a broad canvas in which to place these discussions, drawing examples from different periods in history.
Although there are many different ways of coping with the “terrors of history,” I focus on three specific answers to the question of how we deal with the passing of time, historical disasters, and natural catastrophes.
These three ways are a) religion; b) embracing the material world or sensual experiences; and c) the desire to understand and explain the crimes of history and the cruelty of nature through aesthetics, that is, to render the world and all its problems into art.
In dealing with religion, I seek to show how religion provides solace to many individuals in spite of the incomprehensible nature of some of history’s great crimes. Religion, in orthodox and heterodox variants, seeks in the end to abolish history and to stop time. I explore examples—often taken from literary and historical sources—of the embracing of sensual pleasures as a means to combat the horror of existence. Finally, I look at art as a way in which the same results are achieved.
I do not argue that one path is preferable or superior to the other. Often they overlap. But I also argue that these three ways of making meaning in the world are forms of escape from history and time.
A parallel argument is a polemics against the idea of progress. If, on the one hand, by progress we mean technological advances, an increase in our material culture, and other types of economic and technological developments, then one must agree that there is progress. If, on the other hand, we wish to measure progress in terms of men and women’s humanity and kindness to other humans, then the last century and the last decade are vivid examples of the kind of crimes that individuals and nations perpetrate against other people in the name of religion, patriotism, and greed. That is certainly not progress.
This book is mostly inspired by almost forty years of teaching, by experiencing a loss of faith in my 20s and my understanding of the whole sweep of western history from Mesopotamia to the present.
Students who have formulated many of these issues in their incessant questioning about the world and, most of all, about their place in this world have, inspired me first to write and then, reluctantly, to publish this book. I say reluctantly because as a professional historian I have long feared that this was not the kind of book—personal, filled with questions and doubts—that professional historians usually write.
But we are, as authors and as human beings, a combination of many different things.
One of the objects of this book is to show the reader, and to grasp myself through its writing, the different layers of culture to which I have been exposed over my many years in academia and as an avid reader of fiction, mostly nineteenth-century fiction, from my adolescence onwards.
There is of course a whole collection of writers and artists (often in what may seem a strange combination) who have inspired this book and many of the questions raised in it. In rough chronological order, these authors range from the epic of Gilgamesh to Plato, St. Francis of Assisi, Boccaccio, the Marquis de Sade, Victor Hugo, Michel de Certeau, Walter Benjamin, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and others.
In art, Goya’s so-called “Dark Paintings,” (of which “Saturn Devouring His Children,” serves as the cover for this book) have had a tremendous imprint on my way of thinking about the past and the future.
And then, of course, the poets who I quote profusely in the last chapter and in the conclusion to the book, beginning with the early and mid nineteenth-century poets to James Thompson’s devastating vision.
But in the end, my students, my classes, my sense of a world in which injustice and inequality rule were the main locomotives for the writing of The Terror of History.
Although I insist that no particular way of making meaning is superior to the other—they are after all cultural constructs—I am most fond of the last chapter and the conclusion.
In both I attempt to show how the pursuit of knowledge and the beautiful serves also as a form of escaping history. Since, in writing this book, I too am engaging in a process of making meaning of the world around me, these last pages resonate more with my beliefs (or, more accurate, lack of belief) than other parts of the book.
I am also particularly fond of pages 93 and 94, where I discuss love and love-making (two things that are, strangely, conceived as different in the western world) as one of the best alternatives to the “terror of history.” Although, as I freely admit, I have never been able to give myself entirely to the world of the senses, I am also willing to admit to the power of the flesh in erasing time and history.
Commenting on the Japanese film In The Realm of the Senses, where the characters engage in a deadly pursuit of sexuality carried out to the extreme, I wrote:
While most of us will not take sexual encounters to this fatal conclusion, it is clear that most of us have been, even if fleetingly, there at one time or another. That is, at a point in which the physicality of the act seems to throw a veil over other parts of our lives. In the moment, the moments, in which there is no thought, no reason, no god, no history.
What I would wish for this book is for those who read it to understand that it is a personal reflection, my reflection.
But I also wish readers to bring themselves into the book and to reflect on history, on their individual and collective histories.
As I mention in the book, the truth is that history has no agency. History does not do anything. We do. If we wish to survive as a species, if we wish for a future that is not as laden with troubles as our past and present have been and are, then we must act.
While denying the validity of progress, my take is not an entirely pessimistic one. We can only move forward as full humans when we take our masks—as Nietzsche suggested—off. Or, when we come to accept that what gives meaning to our lives has been constructed, invented. And that the inventions and formulas we call history are often constructed for the benefit of the few and the burden of the many.
Nonetheless, in spite of this cruel reality, there is beauty in the world. There is meaning in the world that transcends our often futile efforts to make sense of the world as “we have found it.”
Francis Bacon is attributed with saying: “thou shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I do not think that many of us today would admit to the idea that there is a Truth with a capital T, or that there is real freedom of the self. There are, I fear, many truths formulated in the myriad contexts of our lives and cultures. Or, perhaps, there is no truth at all.
In the end, finding the truth is far less important or possible than seeking the truth. Thus, I wish the reader to find his or her own way of asking these questions for themselves, and perhaps to come to a better understanding of these problems that I have had done in this book.
I would be most grateful for your comments, suggestions, and criticism. The search does not end here.
Teofilo F. Ruiz received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1974. He has published or has forthcoming fourteen books and more than seventy articles. He has received numerous awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the Mellon and Guggenheim Foundations. In 1994-95, he was selected as one of the Outstanding teachers in the United States by the Carnegie Foundation, and as the Distinguished Teacher at UCLA in 2009-10. One of his books, Crisis and Continuity, was selected for the Premio del Rey Award by the American Historical Association. Ruiz is presently a Distinguished Professor of History and of Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA.