Book Review: The Undivided Past
By David Cannadine
One of the perks of being a great historian is that you get to uncork a truly strange book at least once in your career. David Cannadine, author of works like the magisterial The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and the hilarious Aspects of Aristocracy, is now the Dodge Professor of History at Princeton, and his latest book, The Undivided Past, looks at first glance like a mighty strange book indeed. It’s about the common causes of humanity; it’s about how fraudulent some of the main dividers of humanity are; it’s about unexpected brotherhood and sisterhood. Ultimately it’s about hope, and Cannadine is the first to acknowledge how strange that is in today’s world.
He focuses on six tectonic plates along whose fault lines mankind has always split: religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. Each one seems unbridgeable, and he admits right at the outset that the study of each one could easily consume a lifetime’s research – this book is a series of sketches only, some suggestions from a deeply-read historian on some ways history may at times be too facilely practiced. “It has rightly been observed,” he tells us, “that one of the prime justifications for studying and writing history is to free us from the tyranny of present-day opinion,” and certainly present-day opinion would have it that things like race and class and nation have been tearing humanity apart for millennia. Humans fight because they are Christian versus Moslem, French versus German, black versus white, but in Cannadine’s new view, these constructs are entirely too simple. “The real world is not binary,” he writes, “except insofar as it is divided into those who insist that it is and those who know that it is not.”
This in itself is a bit binary, and perhaps simpler than Cannadine’s obviously anguished humanism is willing to admit. His central concept in these pages is the fluidity of alleged historical divisions, and although he’s far from the first historian to point out the relativism of both reactionism and realpolitik, he makes points that are always worth making: mainly, that humanity is united far more than it’s divided. Fearlessly (if at times a bit simply – this is a book in hurry to cover a lot of ground), he goes straight to those six biggest division-points and dissects just how divisive they really are.
It’s an eye-opening, courteously contentious performance, full of thought-provoking bits like his look at the “color-blind legacy of antiquity” and the relevance of race to seemingly race-synonymous subjects like slavery:
… for more than a millennium, from the Vikings to the Ottomans, the trade in slaves was overwhelmingly in white people, from eastern Europe and Asia. As such, it was geography, not race, that determined who was a slave; this was equally true in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in America, where marriages between colonizers and indigenes were commonplace.
And he can be refreshingly fair even on the dinged-up subject of Christianity, whose many historical graces have been completely buried in recent years under the ceaseless invective of the “New Atheists.” Those firebrands can’t be happy with Cannadine, who on occasion states simple truths that nowadays seem like fire-breathing heresy:
Christianity, which for much of its history has been belligerently and intolerantly opposed to alternative religions, as well as to heretical and heterodox versions of itself, but which has also been a powerful force in the twentieth century against such evils as racism and the mistreatment of women, in the cause of proclaiming a common humanity.
It’s true that his zeal to make his six enormous cases – that civilization, nation, gender, race, class, and religion haven’t been quite so divisive as historians tend to portray them – he sometimes makes bizarre pronouncements, as when he writes, “Like most late-nineteenth century European royalty, Victoria became a uniquely venerated symbol of national identity and imperial greatness …” Or when we’re supposed to believe, “For most people, work has only ever been part of their life (especially when it is seasonal, casual, or intermittent) …”
But such stay eccentricities hardly detract from the glowing heart of compassion that gives life to this very strange book. Only a historian of Cannadine’s caliber could make such a slim, powerful case so passionately, especially since our author must know how useless it is to write of such things at all, much less so knowledgeably. His contention is that the fluid movement of ideas, commerce, and dialogue right across the dividing lines of gender or nationality or class is the very life-blood of mankind, and that it’s always been stronger than its obstacles. A glance at any morning’s news feed will tell a very different story, but the bravery of the contention deserves a respectful nod of the head. If humanists ran the world, The Undivided Past would be their schoolroom primer. Fitting then to give it the final word:
Whether envisaged individually or collectively, the reality of the human past has always been informed by dialogue, interaction, connection, borrowing, blending, and assimilation, at least as much as it has been by disagreement, hostility, belligerence, conflict, separation, and unlikeness.