Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is one of the most imaginative works of twentieth century fiction. The book is a dream, a vision, literally so. It depicts, as a framing narrative, a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the great figure at the head of the Mongol Empire. The two of them exist in a dream state, caught in a suspended moment. They discuss wonders and marvels, the result of Polo’s travelling. These are the cities of the title. Continue reading →
Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population. Continue reading →
Microhistory can largely be defined as it sounds. It is not grand; it is not grandiose. It is small and intimate and its subjects are often obscure.
The subjects of more famous works of microhistory, for example Martin Guerre, the focus of an excellent book by Natalie Zemon Davis, are plucked from the great mass of the unknown, or have their stories transfigured from myth to something resembling reality.
Such stories are deeply personal in every case. There is something in them which avoids the coldness of even the most effective biography and the rigid, unfeeling rosiness of hagiography. They are personal. Thus microhistory can illuminate ideas about personhood, self-knowledge, and self-perception in years past. And it can, in the way all literature has the potential to do, tell us a more than a little about ourselves. Continue reading →
America, Matt Sienkiewicz asserts at the beginning of his new book The Other Air Force, ‘is not a subtle nation’. In many ways – religious, political, cultural – the United States is seen as the enemy of nuance; its values are perceived to be bold, brash and often in conflict with those of older societies and older systems, in Europe and the world over. Continue reading →
The question of individuality is an important one. What makes us individuals may not be similar in fundamental terms to what makes us people, but it is an essential component of personhood. Being different, being unique – these are facts to treasure, and there is something redeeming in being able to notice such things in others and in oneself. This uniqueness ought to extend beyond the intimately personal and into other areas of life; the right to act individually, without coercion of compulsion, is a vital one. And the ability to go about one’s business uninterrupted and unmolested is a fundamental aspect of living in a free society. The same can be said for the ability to think individually, to harbour different thoughts, some of which will be entirely unique. Even if they are incorrect or offensive to the current orthodoxy, the right to do so must be protected; and it follows that the same rights should be extended to speech. Continue reading →
Earlier this month in Syria, a siege was broken. Rebels in Aleppo, aided by more religiously extreme elements and passively supported by humanitarians the world over, succeeded in meeting – ceremoniously shaking hands, like the Allies during the Second World War at the river Elbe in 1945 – by breaking the lines of those troops loyal to the Assad regime and its foreign backers. Continue reading →