The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization

This book reflects on Western humanity’s efforts to escape from history and its terrors–from the existential condition and natural disasters to the endless succession of wars and other man-made catastrophes. Drawing on historical episodes ranging from antiquity to the recent past, and combining them with literary examples and personal reflections, Teofilo Ruiz explores the embrace of religious experiences, the pursuit of worldly success and pleasures, and the quest for beauty and knowledge as three primary responses to the individual and collective nightmares of history. The result is a profound meditation on how men and women in Western society sought (and still seek) to make meaning of the world and its disturbing history.

In chapters that range widely across Western history and culture, The Terror of History takes up religion, the material world, and the world of art and knowledge. “Religion and the World to Come” examines orthodox and heterodox forms of spirituality, apocalyptic movements, mysticism, supernatural beliefs, and many forms of esotericism, including magic, alchemy, astrology, and witchcraft. “The World of Matter and the Senses” considers material riches, festivals and carnivals, sports, sex, and utopian communities. Finally, “The Lure of Beauty and Knowledge” looks at cultural productions of all sorts, from art to scholarship.

Combining astonishing historical breadth with a personal and accessible narrative style, The Terror of History is a moving testimony to the incredibly diverse ways humans have sought to cope with their frightening history.

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2 Comments so far »

  1. Simon G. Barrett said,

    Wrote on February 7, 2012 @ 10:50 am

    8 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
    2.0 out of 5 stars
    Secular parable, or, Elvira! we were good together, you and me, October 21, 2011
    By 
    Simon G. Barrett (london, england) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization (Hardcover)

    This book is not what it is marketed as. It’s actually a confused, ramshackle, half-baked, inconsequential mess. If I start in ad hominem it is because Ruiz invites this; he cuts rather a pathetic figure, the very picture of the alienated, a Cuban exile from the sheltered pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie, a man who has lost his culture (he has a little French) presumably without family ties (he rejected his Catholic upbringing while not precisely ‘rebelling’) and an obscure, childless academic unwillingly sequestered in the prison of self. (No great shakes on the dancefloor either, truth to tell.) How do I know all this? Because he tells us – but he tells us very little else.

    This book should properly be called My Quest for Meaning. Its meagre thesis (which is clumsy, muddled, repetitive) is that we escape from life’s hardships by religion (that is, voluntary repression), pleasure (consumerism) or work (creativity), those three time-honoured forms of ‘escape from history’ (in Ruiz’s obscure formulation) in effect providing *meaning*, a word he shies away from because he personally finds life meaningless; he does not recognise that meaninglessness is also a meaning! And of course even his categories are not watertight. There is gratification in religion and sacrifice in art; one can become a ‘slave to pleasure’ – though one feels Pascal’s problem probably was that he wasn’t getting enough of it. ‘Too much of anything is bad’, as my censorious grandmother would tautologically put it, but how much is *enough*? His categories also rather tellingly omit various common types of meaning-giving experience: his first (self-denial) should include kindness or the helping of others, his third (work) might usefully include punishing the body, or sport, and his second (gratification) crucially omits love and other ‘bonding’; how far, I wonder, do his students provide Teofilo Ruiz with meaning rather than the other way about? [These ‘off-cuts’ from his categories seem almost to form their own Rubik’s Cube consisting of giving love, taking love and denying oneself love.]

    When not baffled, Ruiz tends to the portentous, and I can’t resist a couple of gems. ‘To live or write history is to encompass those narrated moments that were once the past, present, and future…a sense of time in which the present is always becoming the past, in which the present is always giving birth to an undetermined future. A sense in which the future soon ceases to be and becomes both present and past.’ Maybe it would work better in Spanish; it is reminiscent of Castro’s rolling, interminable periods. More pithily, on Paris as aesthetic experience, ‘the past, while borrowing from a previous age, always aims for an unknown future; thus, transcending history..’

    I must emphasize I am reading from a proof copy, but this book as it stands is neither history, nor philosophy, nor even memoir (mainly a tired roster of favourite books and movies – Elvira Madigan, anyone?), but therapy. The reason why this is not a self-help book is because there is only one person it is intended to help. It gets a 2nd star from me because we do learn something along the way, as from a novel with an unreliable narrator (is comedy of self-deceit too harsh?) and there is just one memorable apercu (available on request) – but the interest for us as de facto analysts lies mainly in the gaps (his parents, for instance). Only trouble is, the analyst gets to pay the patient. O tempora, O Princeton!

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  2. Mary Ellen Kruse said,

    Wrote on February 7, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A beautiful book!, October 26, 2011
    By 

    Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization (Hardcover)

    This is a beautiful book! The musings of a brilliant mind in an organized logical narrative exploring the ways humankind responds to the harshness of life (history). As it is also his personal journey in search of meaning, the narrative is interspersed with his own poignant reflections, memories and comments. He has taken a difficult subject and in his conclusion has made it beautiful. This book is a keeper to be treasured and reread.

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