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`The History of a History Man' (after Patrick Collinson) [Edited and expanded],
This review is from: Notes on a Century: Reflections of A Middle East Historian (Hardcover)
[Expanded review uploaded, 31 May 2012. Edited/ Expanded to Add (ETA) sections are marked with square brackets]
Lewis' biography is a book of two halves: on the one hand it is straight biography, with an academic slant in which he describes his life so far and how he helped develop the ground of a new area of academic research - the study of Middle Eastern and Levantine history and politics. [Lewis is the first person to have been have had both the linguistic and historiographic skills to professionalise this area of academic study.] On the other it is a defence of his own views on this subject and [many others and] a series of attacks, both [semi-]veiled and naked, on those with whom he has crossed swords in the past, most notably the late Edward Said [more of whom later].
This latter aspect is both irritating and engaging in equal measure. It is irritating because some of his subjects are now dead (i.e. Edward Said who died in 2010) and are thus no longer around to defend themselves from Lewis' robust defence of his own position. (I must express an interest here in that I am a fan of Edward Said's writing, but not of Lewis, who I find to be too right wing for my tastes.) It is also, however, engaging as it shows how deeply held (and fought over) are the views of academics studying this subject as how important they can be influencing policy making. [I would argue, however, that Lewis spends too much time castigating Said and defending his own position, to the detriment of both himself and Said. For instance Lewis argues that Said's views on Orientalism have become orthodoxy and have thus come to poison the academic waters. However, Lewis never really explains why this is the case, thus making bold statements, backing them up with a couple of well culled quotes, but not providing enough evidence to the reader to weigh-up his assertions. What's more, Lewis treats Said as a straw man, whom he is able to defeat with a mere puff of academic air, which is a shame because if Said's view of Orientalism is so wrong then it needs to be shown to be so, rather than dismissed with the merest of asides. As Said is now dead, he is no longer in a position to defend himself against Lewis, giving Lewis a somewhat hollow victory.]
[It is not just Said that he attacks in this way, he also attacks those who disagree with him over his refusal to recognise the post-Great War massacre of Armenians as Genocide - Lewis' point is that Genocide relates to state sponsored acts of systematic violence and that whereas the Holocaust was a state sponsored and sustained act of violence against Jews in occupied Europe, the attack on Armenians in Turkey was not systematic, state sponsored. In addition to which, whereas the Armenians had separatist inclinations, the same could not be said for the Jewish community who had no inclination to leave their home nations. Whilst Lewis rightly recognises that the term `genocide' has been expanded over the past 20 years he is unwilling to accommodate the acts of violence against Armenians living in Turkey as genocide. In doing so he puts himself against what is rapidly becoming the accepted position, that this was an act of genocide.]
Academic life can [at times] be as vicious, if not more so, than hand-to-hand combat [but all in all, Lewis can, at times, be far too defensive and this is to his detriment [and there are too many sideswipes at people with whom he has disagreed]. Disagreement is a healthy part of academic life [and must be recognised as such], but turning on those with whom we disagree, living and dead, in ones biography can appear to be petulant. A no doubt unintended consequence of reading of Lewis' book is that I will now go back and read Said's `Orientalism' along with Lewis' back catalogue to reacquaint myself with their respective positions and get a better idea of where they diverge.]
In some senses Lewis' can be read as a response to Said's autobiographical essay `Out of Place' in which Said presents himself as the outsider looking in*, in this book Lewis presents himself as the social insider, going deeper into the unknown - though I am not sure he would appreciate this comparison . [It is clear, however, from this book that Lewis has gone from being an Englishman to being an international resident, one who is comfortable not just in his home country, or his adoptive home (America) but also comfortable wherever he lays his hat. This can mean that at times his book (unnecessarily) spells out titles that would otherwise be common parlance, e.g `Times of London' for the British newspaper `The Times' or `The Manchester Guardian' for `The Guardian', neither of which titles are used in Britain. It is therefore probable that Lewis and his editors have their eye too much on the American market, not on the British, a common mistake in modern publishing - my Amazon reviews `passim ad nauseum'.] (Whether Lewis would agree with such a comparison is doubtful, we are the heroes of our own life story and reading this as a response to Said's own work will no doubt be viewed as highly problematic.)
[I would also take issue with Lewis defence of Samuel P Huntingdon's book `The Clash of Civilisations: And the Remaking of World Order'. In some quarters, mainly in right wing American thinking on foreign affairs, the thesis put forward in Huntingdon's book has been taken as being the best way of explaining the dangers facing the West in the post-Cold War era. It also fits in with Lewis' view that inter-communal violence is a natural part of human existence, or as Thomas Hobbes put it `life is nasty, brutish and short.' Not only has Huntingdon's thesis now been superseded by the social-economic thesis that the West is in decline, both economically and socially and that the next hundred years will see the East rise into economic ascendency, but that Hungtingdon's thesis is manifestly wrong in that creates unnatural divisions and turns the Muslim states into international bogey men; it was a thesis very much of the time of its ascendency (the early 2000s, post-September 2001), however, it has now been superseded.]
[Finally Lewis presents the old demographic straw man, beloved of the European Right, that by the end of the twenty-first century Muslims will be in the majority in Europe. Whether this is true or not is open to debate, however, it does come across as demographic scare mongering especially when Muslims have become the `other/ outsider' in many western societies. Whether or not Muslims will become the religious majority in Europe only becomes a problem if you believe that Western Judeo-Christian society has an automatic right of rule in Europe, it also poses a basic question about the humanity of those we see as being the other in our society.]
As my review suggests, this is no dry and dusty tome of academic reminiscences or long rambling tales of High Table and the Senior Common Room, rather it the true history of a history man (to borrow the title of Patrick Collinson's autobiography). It is, in essence, both an exploration of how history is written, how it should be written and how history as an academic subject can influence the world around it, both for good and ill. [Lewis is an academic with whom I profoundly disagree at times, however, he is also engaging in a knock-about sort of way and even if one does not agree with him, he is an engaging and enjoyable writer - even if the engagement is to want to throw the book across the room in sheer frustration at some of his positions.] It is the kind of book that can be read on holiday (or as I did, on the bus on the way into work) without breaking into an intellectual sweet, but which, having read it, one comes away feeling more informed, rather than less.
* Said was a Palestinian Christian, a self-exil from his homeland whereas Lewis is an Englishman now resident in America.
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Initial post: 3 Feb 2014 19:15:17 GMT
Thank you for an amazingly insightful, and well constructed, review.
I am also a big fan of Said, although I am not as well read up as I'd like to be.
Is there any other authors you would recommend for an insight into middle eastern cultural and political history?
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