August-September 2011

Much of my August reading was taken up by Rebecca West’s monumental Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her extraordinary account of travels in Yugoslavia just before WWII. The volumes had lain on my bookshelf for about twenty years, after I bought a 1942 edition in a second-hand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, and I at last resolved to bring it to the top of my reading-list. It is an amazing tour de force, sparkling with erudition and insight, but also weighed down with some plodding and ingenuous generalization and numerous vague assertions. West’s main thesis is that humanity is burdened by the Black Lamb of brutal sacrifice, exerted by a powerful and superstitions priesthood, and on the other hand, is irreversibly damaged by the cult of suffering and martyrdom in pursuit of unearthly goals, as personified by the Grey Falcon. Liberal by instinct, she uncovers the tortured histories of the Balkan communities that comprised the South Slavs in the 1930s, but her argument is torn by contradictions. She identifies the mixture of race, religion, language and culture that influences and cross-pollinates the various tribes of Yugoslavia, sympathizing with them for their suffering under various incompetent Empires, yet criticizing them for their ancient feuds and ‘race memories’. At the same time she elevates the idea of nationhood, and cultural tradition, as a pointer for future peace, as if cleanly defined nations could emerge from the ashes to which a rampant Nazi Germany (and to her, less obviously, Communist totalitarianism) is about to reduce them. Thus, while showing keen insight into the fragmentation that other writers (such as Robert Kaplan in Balkan Ghosts) have written about, she grossly understates the challenges to nationhood inherent in a backdrop of such remorseless medievalism. A rich selection of quotations – mostly admirable – appears in my Commonplace entry for the month: seeCommonplace2011.  (August 31, 2011)

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