BOOK REVIEW / The shape of things past: A history of civilizations - by Fernand Braudel, trs Richard Mayne, Allen Lane/Penguin Press pounds 25

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AT FIRST glance, the problem of civilisation seems to be one of vocabulary. When Gandhi was asked for his opinion on Western civilisation, his answer was that 'it would be a good idea'. Implied in this flippancy is the notion that what we call civilisation is less the majestic architecture of skyscrapers and cathedrals, the displays of air squadrons and marching bands, the louder-than- thou pronouncements of the daily press, than some essential human quality Gandhi found lacking in the West.

The word 'civilisation', denoting the process by which this quality is achieved, is an 18th- century neologism penned by the French economist Turgot. According to ethnologists, who have taken to heart Pope's dictum about the proper study of mankind, certain societies are 'civilised', that is to say, materially advanced, while others are merely 'cultured'. The dichotomy rings false: in Germany, Poland and Russia, 'culture' (meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'the refined understanding of the arts and other intellectual achievements') takes social precedence, while in France, Britain and the United States, 'civilisation' (which the OED defines as 'an advanced stage or system of social development') is more highly prized. But, pace ethnologists, can there be one without the other?

Fernand Braudel died in 1985, widely recognised as the father of a new kind of history which saw as its scope not only the chronicle of politics and warfare, but the business of economy, sociology, geography, psychology, literature, linguistics, the arts: civilisation, then, in its broadest sense, which includes the attributes of culture. In the 1950s, Braudel headed a movement that tried to reform the conventional teaching of history in the French schools by introducing a curriculum that began with anecdotes and

dramatic characters, and ended with a global vision of history's events. 'Without even standing on tiptoe,' he wrote later, 'the historian could glimpse the fields and gardens of the neighbouring disciplines.

The new method needed a textbook, and Braudel wrote the first section of a three-part manual, published in 1963 under the collective title Le Monde actuel. The movement failed, and l'histoire continued to be taught according to conservative norms. The manual, however, survived, and Braudel's 600-page contribution, Grammaire des civilisations, has now been slightly updated and skilfully rendered into English by Richard Mayne as A History of Civilizations.

The English title is a rather curious choice. A 'grammar' has all the connotations of a system of rules by which relations between parts can be observed; 'history' implies little more than a chronology of those parts, and one that has been pre- established at that. It is evident that Braudel's interest lies in the observation of history from a sober and objective distance. 'We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by con-

temporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours.' A History of Civilizations, therefore, will not dwell on immediacy.

Civilisations, Braudel tells us, define themselves not only through what they produce but also through what they reject, a sort of definition by omission, as when the Christian East, before the fall of Constantinople, rejected Rome and looked towards the invading forces from Asia. Furthermore, Braudel insists, civilisations require societies to support them; civilisations can always be located on a map. Students following Braudel's book would study the emergence and development of about a dozen civilisations: Islam, Africa, the Far East, China, India, Japan, Korea, Europe, Russia and America North and South, and in the process learn to distrust the facile explanations of geography (in the case of Africa, for instance), the dogmas of economy (China and Russia), the lures of science and the arts (Europe), and, above all, to be wary of attributing praise and blame. In fact, Braudel's book is above all a cautionary lesson, attempting to teach an overview of history and yet trying to avoid over-simplification and catchphrase thinking.

The problem with this task is not that it is colossal, but that it is impossible. Contemporary details are necessary to see what happened anywhere in the past and, in spite of his own proscription, Braudel happily introduces illuminating stories and revelatory comments so that, from time to time, a character, place or movement appears in full colour - Mohammed, the kingdom of Benin, the Italian Renaissance, modern Quebec - like an illustration in the text. Nor is Braudel shy of endowing societies and events with human emotions in order to explain a change or a rupture. Speaking about the Chinese Revolution, for instance, he argues that 'Pride has its part in the process - pride was at least one link with the ancient past, when China was confident of its role at the centre of the universe.'

Notes like this, however canny, cannot but be read as shorthand, drawing our attention to one single characteristic of a vast and complex social movement. In spite of its wide range, the historian's viewpoint remains Eurocentric: implicit in the comparisons, in the adjectives, even in the chronology of this book is the assumption that Braudel's Europe (or is it France?) lies at the core of the civilised world - tolerant, enterprising, sometimes even humble, and nevertheless steadfast. But would it be possible to write A History of Civilizations without belonging to one?

How, then, to read this handbook that proclaims not to be one? One-volume world histories are legion: H G Wells, Salvador de Madariaga, Sir Walter Ralegh, Friedrich Heer among many others have written syntheses to prove, variously, that humankind is doomed or blessed, never changes or will always change. Braudel seems to have written his Grammaire to prove that what matter in history are the vast sweeping changes of multiple civilisations, changes in which individuals have hardly any say. Thomas De Quincey, inheritor of the Greek tradition, argued in 1844 that history, being composed of events that can be combined in an almost infinite number of ways, is inexhaustible and cannot be interpreted, or can be interpreted only as the human figures we imagine in the shapes of clouds. Braudel must have agreed: he saw history, that kaleidoscope of civilisations whose essentials he tried to encode, as a force in itself, beyond the individual actions of a single human being. 'Human beings do not make history,' he wrote mysteriously at the end of an unfinished essay on France's identity. 'Rather it is history that makes human beings and thereby absolves them from blame.' That rather astonishing hope suffuses the whole of Braudel's book.

Comments