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30 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars historian's ambivalence...mostly, 15 Oct. 2007
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This review is from: The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (Allen Lane History) (Hardcover)
The existing reviews give a good sense for what this book covers and I would like to try to add a bit beyond what has been said. I am not a historian, just a general reader. (But the book was pitched to general readers, so I think I can have a say).

First, Mr. Blanning has clearly "been there, done that, and got the t-shirt to prove it" when it comes to his subject matter. He is the master of the choice example, which could only be achieved through extensive travel, terrific language skills, and years of thinking and teaching. He is positively interesting, and pulls the reader in. Would love to have dinner with this guy, my treat.

Second, like many great historians, Blanning is attracted to ambivalence. In the concluding chapter he is quite explicit: there are two narratives that can be maintained about this period, a progressive one and a pessimistic one. Actually, one would be very hard pressed to purely progressive or purely pessimistic - it's up to each person to mix the two according to taste and all sorts of mixes are plausible given the evidence. Maybe a more interesting way to put it is that this period of history is not one of pure progress by any means. Strikes me as realistic.

One of his favorite sources of ambivalence is whether "x" is a revolution or an evolution. As in industrial, commercial, communications, and so on. He seems to fall in the evolutionary camp but I found him hazy in his commitment - he strikes me as more "evolution with punctuated equilibrium." Again, realistic. Bottom-line: his ambivalences make him an interesting thinker.

In truth, I came close to giving him 4 stars, however, for several reasons. First: the material at the end of the book - the concluding chapter--would have been more helpful at the beginning of the book. Not a big deal. Second, he should have defined some limits to his subject matter. This becomes very apparent in Section 4: War and Peace. At several points he acknowledges that he is attempting summaries in a few pages that would normally take several volumes. Not a good idea. Section 4 is for the reader with a hardcore interest in war and a solid knowledge base - not me, and I was always feeling lost.

Finally, I wonder if he did the Church right. He is not a fiery anti-cleric, but he seems to have little ambivalence about religion and churches (as seen most directly in chapter 7), and so tends to lose his effectiveness. Is the story of religion during this period just one of accumulation of wealth, misuse of power, and so on? At one point he writes that perhaps most bishops were well-educated, pious, diligent and effective administrators (p. 370), but the outburst goes nowhere.
If Blanning has an Achille's heel, I think it is that on the issue of religion--which was such a central force in the lives of people in this period--he cannot really sustain any ambivalence. We learn how long it took people to walk places but nothing of their interior lives as Christian people or the centrality of the local parish to community life. I am reminded of the old peasant lady who houses a communist official in the Georgian film "Repentance." As the official eats one her cakes--shaped like a church--and brags about a road that will be built, she snarls "What good is a road if it does not lead to a church?" I suspect most of the people who are Mr. Blanning's subject matter would agree with that sentiment, but in this book we learn mostly about the road.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Nov 2009 20:02:58 GMT
JJA Kiefte says:
It's Achilles' heel (not Achille's heel)
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