Saturday, February 2, 2008

Joan Acocella on David Levering Lewis' Revisionist Muslim Spain

Lewis, David Levering; “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215” (Norton; $29.95)

The whole review in the Feb. 4, 2007, New Yorker's worth the time, but the conclusion particularly grabbed my attention. The twist on how our values filter our understanding of how past peoples acted rightly or wrongly, and the now-pervasive intellectual rethinking, in the wake of the '60s as the radicals gained tenure, of the pieties of conventional top-down history makes for bracing criticism. Acocella admits Lewis' way with words and his vivid descriptions, but she castigates him for his imbalanced indulgence of the Islamic actions at the expense of the stereotyped thuggery of the Franks, and Christian Europe, for that matter. In an era when both cultures certainly shared a dogmatic, hierarchical, monarchical, and militarized mentality bent on subjugation and extermination, Lewis appears to bend too far in granting the Muslims a tolerance that he denies the Christians. Both depended on missionaries devoted to conversion or subjugation. Those options resisted, elimination. It appears neither empire claims the moral high ground in what may be a less convivial Spain than has been attributed by recent historians seeking an elusive siesta when the three beleaguered Peoples of the Book rested in harmony. Ask the Jews.

If, as Edward Said wrote, the old history books were covertly ideological, the current ones tend to be overtly ideological, as each new generation of scholars rides in to rescue supposedly worthy peoples who were wronged by earlier scholarship and, in their time, by axe-wielding conquerors. But all these peoples, or all the ones in Lewis’s book, were conquerors. If the Christians took Spain from the Muslims, the Muslims had taken it from the Visigoths, who had appropriated it from the Romans, who had seized it from the Carthaginians, who had thrown out the Phoenicians. Lewis does not pretend that the Muslims were not conquerors; he simply justifies their conquest on the ground of their belief in convivencia, a pressing matter today. I can foresee a time when another matter important to us, the threat of ecological catastrophe, will prompt a historian to write a book in praise of the early Europeans whom Lewis finds so inferior to the Muslims. The Franks lived in uncleared forests, while the Muslims built fine cities, with palaces and aqueducts? All the better for the earth. The Franks were fond of incest? Endogamy keeps societies small, prevents the growth of rapacious nation-states. The same goes for the Franks’ largely barter economy. Trade such as the Muslims practiced— far-flung and transacted with money— leads to consolidation. That’s how we got global corporations.

Each new problem in our history engenders a revision of past history. Many of today’s historians acknowledge this, and argue that their books, if politicized, are simply more honest about that than the politicized books of the past. This pessimism about the possibility of finding a stable truth may be realistic, but it seems to sanction, even encourage, special pleading—of which “God’s Crucible,” for all its virtues, is an example.

[Here's the complete review. I only cut-and-pasted the last two paragraphs above.]

Image: Appropriately romanticized but martially rampant from the review: "Detail of Carl von Steuben’s depiction of the Battle of Poitiers, fought in 732, the year Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees." Speaking of Said's own overt attempts to unveil "Orientalism,' that dusky lass center stage, under a shield for the moment, looks she escaped from "The Death of Sardanapalus," by Eugène Delacroix (1827). See for yourself:

1 comment:

alexandra said...

Hi I found your blog through Bo's blog, and I will be your reader, if don't mind:)) I am master of serbian medieval literature, polish, thinking of Celtic studies in Scotland :))
I have a blog but in polish:(( Greetings from Serbia!!