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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.
"This is an attempt by the erudite Ruiz (history, Spanish & Portuguese, UCLA; Spain's Centuries of Crisis: 1300-1474) to use his knowledge and experience to make sense of our messy lives and our desires to bury a future we cannot control. . . . In separate chapters, he discusses three forms of escape from history: religion, materialism, and estheticism. But the book isn't meant to be history as much as an intensely personal meditation on how we deal with our worries about the world, stuffing inside ourselves our fear of impending extinction. Ruiz uses his own experiences to illustrate points, even including a piece of fiction he wrote when young. More personal than Annaliste history, with which it's best compared . . . serious readers will find it worthwhile for its author's attempt to embrace elusive questions about our personal lives."--Library Journal
"You can't judge a book by its cover, as the old saw goes, but every so often the cover art may stun you into long contemplation. Or horror, in the case of Teofilo R. Ruiz's The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization (Princeton University Press), which greets the prospective reader by way of Goya's 'Saturn Devouring His Son.' Drawing on the great Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga's work, Ruiz organizes his musings around three grand strategies for finding happiness, or at least mitigating total dread: 'through belief (in a whole variety of orthodox and heterodox forms), [through] the life of the senses, and/or through culture and the pursuit of the beautiful.' Under each of these headings, he arrays quotations from and reflections on a kaleidoscopic array of ancient and modern authors and phenomena: Sophocles, Proust, utopian communes, witch-burning crazes, The Decameron, an insurrection in Brazil in the 1890s, the Marquis de Sade, and The Epic of Gilgamesh, to give a representative sampling. Plus there are memoiristic bits. He mentions teaching 'a class on world history from the Big Bang to around 400 C.E.' The book seems more ambitious still. . . . [A] short book displaying enormous erudition."--Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
"Ruiz is, first and foremost, a man of letters. His references to literature, film and art, from homer to Goya to Tolkien, will be refreshing to those who crave something more than archival material and footnotes from their history books. . . . There is much to admire about this book. It is the product of a lifetime of hard work and serious thought about life's fundamental questions. Above all, Ruiz does not shy away from the consequences of atheism, a position he has held for four decades since losing the Catholic faith."--America Magazine
"The Terror of History is an absorbing book that will not let the reader skip pages. It challenges the intellect while launching arguments in the mind over content."--R. Balashankar, Organiser
"The Terror of History is an enjoyable book, though disturbing at the same time. As said, it is not an academic book; it covers largely personal reflections and considerations. I would recommend it to any curious reader keen to investigate some of the most dark and challenging moments in the history of humankind and see if and how we coped with them."--Luca Guariento, Kelvingrove Review
"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."--World Book Industry
Posted May 2, 2014
Having read the advertising for Professor Ruiz's Great Courses series of the same name, I was expecting more overlap. In the latter Ruiz discusses events and process that were not just terrible but for which human beings were responsible--the heresy and witch hunts of the period 1300-1700. Ruiz also discusses mysticism, which has plays a more prominent part here. The main terror that provides the rationale for the title of the book appears to be the plague of the first part of the 14th century, which was arguably not anthropogenic, although human responses may have made it more horrific than it had to be. Since history is usually considered to concern human action and their consequences, even if unintended, the title of this book is in some way a stretch.
Ruiz investigates three responses to the plague--religious, which can be stretched to include the mystical, hedonistic, and the aesthetic/scholarly. Fair enough, but I was left wanting more and a bit different, and finally bought his Great Courses series.