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When The Great Horn Boomed
The Proud Tower: The Patricians by Barbara Tuchman
© 2013 James LaFond
A Portrait of the world before the War: 1890-1914
1966, Macmillian, NY,
1. The Patricians: England 1895-1902, pages 3-59, and the foreword
In 1962 Barbara Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize for The Guns of August, a book about the first month of the war that destroyed European civilization and launched the U.S. on the road to global supremacy. Mrs. Tuchman brings the craft of a novelist and the selectivity of an interior designer to her nonfiction work. She soon realized that it would be difficult for people of the 1960s to really fathom a world foolish enough to walk blindly into something like WWI with the joys associated with children arriving for an ice cream party.
The Proud Tower is Mrs. Tuchman’s prequel to WWI, an expose on the character of the movers and shakers in Europe and America from the Gilded Age to the holocaust of trench warfare and the Spanish Flu, which together took some 60 million lives. She begins the book with a quote from which she extracted her title,
“While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.”
-From The City in the Sea, by Edgar Allen Poe
‘We Have Been Misled’
Barbara devotes her foreword to demolishing the myth erected by the survivors of The Great War [as WWI was known before its apocalyptic sequel] that the European and American world of the early 20th Century was some sort of cultural pinnacle buttressed by peace and hope. In this brief she goes into no details, saving them for the body of her work.
This is a period of history that I have been deeply interested in since I read a novel set in the Philippine Insurrection some 40 years ago, titled The Walls of Jolo. The 20 years leading up to WWI was in fact an orgy of killing around the world; an almost sporting hunting of inferior humans by the eugenic super warriors of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ armed with their Maxim guns. How could it surprise anyone that they would come home to Europe and turn these weapons of destruction on one another, like two rednecks coming back to their trailer park drunk on moonshine arguing about who got the choice cut from the deer they just poached.
The author states in the forward, “all statements of how lovely it was in that era made by persons contemporary with it will be found to have been made after 1914.”
She continues in the next paragraph, “A phenomenon of such extraordinary malignance as the Great War does not come out of a Golden Age.”
Mrs. Tuchman goes on to remind us that “The diplomatic origins, so-called, of the great War are only the fever chart of the patient; they do not tell us what caused the fever.”
As dense and massive as this book is at a close set type on 528 nine-inch pages The First Lady of History closes with a reminder that she has just dipped a ladle into a cauldron, “The faces and voices of all that I have left out crowd around me as I reach the end.”
Reading Barbara Tuchman is an adventure of discovery. Being Barbara Tuchman must have been a thrill.
This is such a dense work I will be reading and reviewing it in sections.
Deities among Us
Ten days ago I saw a 60 Minutes episode in which a high school boy who developed a cancer testing procedure was being interviewed by the lelftist reporter, the last one remaining from the original 1960s cast who I think is named after a pretty bad beer. When the boy referred to the current U.S. president by name, the reporter, fawning worshiper of whichever lying thief happens to occupy the Throne of the American Autarch, corrected the boy and demanded that he refer to the criminal-in-chief according to his title, not by his name. I wanted to slap the old man then and there.
In my mind there is no way that the Wall Street Puppet in the White House can be as important to us as a kid who makes a major breakthrough in the fight against something that is literally eating us alive. The implication is of course that that one man is more than a man. This reflects the age-old craving of the fawning, cowardly, womanly elements of human society—currently best represented by ‘news’ reporters—for an alpha-human leader, a deity-among-humanity to be held aloft and vested with our wicked aspirations. After seeing that episode, and despite having three major projects in the works and 11 books in my review stack, I knew I had to pick up The Proud Tower, for some insight into our culture’s curious addiction to royalty and nobility, even if just of the instant-executive-politician variety.
‘Mere Numbers’
The first section of The Proud Tower is devoted to understanding the ridiculous collection of eccentrics and fools who manned the top posts of the British Empire from 1890 until the death of that grim old witch Queen Victoria; the preternaturally vile creature who preened in her garden and chambers for a half century while her thugs forged chains for a world.
The rulers of Britain were drawn from the top 200 families in England, who controlled a similar portion of the economy as the top 1% in America today. The lesson here is that empires always produce this kind of disparity. The focus is on this elite of the elite, which makes for a nice study of the general society. If you want to understand what the real concerns of Leonardo are when you view one of his paintings you look in the background for the supporting figures, the landscape and the shadows that close in.
Likewise, you can learn a lot about the regular Brit’s plight when you see them through the eyes of the insufferable snobs they labor for. The patricians were immensely interesting people. They saw themselves as the perfected product of a ‘splendid isolation’, superior to all before, below and after them. They behaved like a cross between actual temporal pagan gods and the squabbling inmates of some inane reality show. This resulted in enough eccentricities to staff a Tolkien novel.
What really struck me was the open contempt they had for their hosts—for these people were some of the most bloated parasites in human history. We, in our time, might chastise some hedge fund manager for being a cunning parasite sucking the blood out of our children’s future. But that bastard has at least stolen for himself! The patricians had the world’s jugular handed to them on a silver spoon. In those days the people who ruled the world were as deluded as modern neo-Nazis who believe in sacred blood lines, racial memory, and the importance of parentage over deeds. We should recall that Hitler’s creed was drawn from the same bigoted ethos that clouded the great nations of the world’s collective judgment as they stumbled to war with all of the insight of drunken toddlers.
‘Those Damned Dots’
Like the British statesman quoted above who could not abide decimal points, the top patricians come off as decadent and often lovable fools. Even their greatest thinkers and leaders seem like senile dazed professors being led around like prize show dogs by some dutiful servant who actually knows how to get from Point A to Point B.
I was thrilled to find out that these overdressed drunken fools who partied hardier than any 1970s metal band, were broken into clicks like ‘The Souls’ and the cronies that hung around with the Prince of Wales. But always in the shadows are the poor bastards bearing the burden. Barbara points out something that Egerton noted in his book on the Zulu Wars, Like Lions They Fought, that the British aristocracy was so much better fed than commoners that there was nearly a head difference in height between the rich and the poor. They also outlived the average Joe by a full generation! And get this, on the farms that paid for the parties and horses and jewels and clothing of the hereditary rich, the common man rose to work at the sound of ‘the great horn’ at dawn and busted his ass until dusk. Then, when he was worn out, he was shuffled off to die in a ‘work house.’
Within these pages will be found many a witty quote, many a deep thought, many a telling misconception or doomed prejudice. My favorite observation was by George Wyndham, Private Secretary to Balfour, one of the most influential buffoons steering the British ship of state into its continent-sized iceberg. Commenting on why Balfour was so admired by the Irish loyalists in Dublin Wyndham said, “great courage being so rare a gift and so large a part of human misery being due to Fear, all men are prepared to fall down before anyone wholly free of fear.”
That is a profound observation on the quality counted on by great leaders from Moses to Hitler when leading entire peoples into danger. Many insightful statements like this can be found along the way, as Mrs. Tuchman takes us on a tour through the minds of a class of people evenly split between deeply pondering minds and wastrel parodies of substance, so removed from the life of the world that they are free to devote their energy and influence directing its course even as they stumble blindly through it, literally held by the hand and ushered from mansion to carriage to mansion. If you think science-fiction like Blade Runner is strange, or that the characters in Tolkien are implausibly eccentric, read The Proud Tower
Eventually, on January 24, 1901, the witch who ruled a world died, ‘redoubling the general sense of an era’s end’. Mrs. Tuchman leaves us with one final anecdote about the symbol of the passing age that had been named after Victoria. When the Queen was out on her yacht in rough seas she was made sick by the ocean swell. Her response was to demand of the admiral that the sea not misbehave again. Barbara Tuchman finishes The Patricians with, “But the waves would not stand still.”
The lady’s sense for metaphor is second to none.
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