May 20, 2010
Books~World Without End (and remarks from Rachel Maddow)
I distinctly remember a book called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, sitting on my parents’ bookshelf in the loft of our house for much of my childhood, and then on a shelf in a spare room of my mother’s house for all of my adolescence, and always in my continual quest to find something to read, I would see it, and decline to pick it up and read it. It looked boring, in my childhood judgment.
Then last Christmas, literally as I was about to leave to get on a plane back to New York, my mother brought out her copy from the spare room for me and said she thought I would like it. Why then, I have no idea. But I did read it. It was not boring.
Pillars of the Earth follows the trials of a family of builders, and their adopted town, in their ambitions to build a cathedral in 12th-century England. The eventual heroes are Jack, the illegitimate son of an outlaw woman and a mysterious traveler, and Aliena, noble-born, disinherited, and self-made merchant, whose unlikely romance flourishes against all taboos and obstacles thrown in their way. Quickly it became one of my favorite books; despite somewhat flat and clunky writing, Follett’s storytelling is masterful. I wanted it never to end.
I didn’t know there was a sequel until tipped off by a colleague as we were trading book recommendations: World Without End, released almost 20 years after the original. Oh joy!
“We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage–almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance,” writes Thomas Cahill in his introduction to How the Irish Saved Civilization, and there could hardly be a better characterization of the situation of the characters in World Without End, whose story picks up 200 years after the conclusion of Pillars of the Earth with Caris and Merthin, descendants of Jack and Aliena, childhood friends navigating a troubled love affair on the verge of the beginning of the Black Plague. Except that I would add to the graces of historical narrative, the desperate efforts and innovations of people bent on little more than survival. Reading World Without End, I found myself again stricken strongly with the lament, “Wow, they really didn’t teach us anything in school about how history actually works.”
Many conflicts are illustrated through the hardships faced by the characters of medieval Kingsbridge: peasants versus cruel and despotic nobles, poor families against hunger and cold, reason against magical thinking and superstition, independent women and ambitious girls against institutionalized misogyny, the rigid and all-powerful church against the interests of the people it governed, circumstances continually stacked against people without money or influence, and rule of law against the presumed superiority and “might makes right” mentality of the ruling classes. In one sense, the both the book, and the course of history, could be conceived of as the narrative of the vulnerable learning to stand up to bullies of all kinds, in all times and places.
But Follett’s narrative implicitly proposes an even more central conflict of history: that between people who are sincerely trying to accomplish, build, or create something; and those seek primarily to advance their own position or ensure their own power. The astonishing but elegantly simple thesis of World Without End is that the advancement of humanity rides on the triumph of those who create or build something real over the obstructionism of those who seek only to advance themselves (usually by controlling or oppressing other people). The heroes of this book are not heroes because they’re particularly admirable as people (often, they aren’t), or because of their resilience in the face of impossible odds, or even because they’re less self-interested than their powerful adversaries, but because they find a purpose in building something real, or in making their world richer, more fair and less cruel as it directly affects the real lives of themselves and their neighbors, when they see that the only obstacles to a truly better world are the ego, incompetence, rigidity, or spitefulness of those in higher position. They didn’t set out to change the course of Western civilization, but just to do something worth doing–building a cathedral, a hospital, a bridge–or even simply what they needed to do under the circumstances to survive or to preserve their human dignity and autonomy–starting a new business, becoming master of a craft, figuring out how to grow a new crop to lift your family out of serfdom, standing up for your legal rights when they’re all you have left. And in so doing, they became the great gift-givers of history, the hinges upon which would hang the fate of the world as we know it today.
In yet another curious incident of thought-pattern synchrony this week, Rachel Maddow gave the commencement address at Smith College, telling the graduates that, sometimes, “personal triumphs are overrated,” illustrated by stories of people whose personal aspirations to fame turned out very badly for society, as opposed to people who found “glory” in real creation and lasting contributions to human well-being. “Don’t be the granddad, don’t be the grandma, whose temporal, personal triumph is something that you only hope gets forgotten in history,” she said. “Gunning not just for personal triumph for yourself but for durable achievement for life is the difference between winning things, and leadership.” I can’t help thinking that Merthin and Caris would agree. The entire speech is well worth watching.