Some weeks ago a long-time friend told me about the book, “Age of Anger…”, which I briefly introduced in this post on July 21st.
The book was my vacation project this past week. I found it to be highly informative, and highly recommend it for book club discussion, or simply for individual reflection on the nature of human beings, ourselves, our systems, nations…. Marie, the friend who had recommended the book to me, said the book was being passed around among her siblings in various parts of the country.
There are many reviews of the book. Here are some.
The book has a very large “cast of characters”. After reading, I took an informal “census” in the index, and found about 380 characters in all, most of them actors with influence roughly within the 200 years between 1700 and 1900 [See Postnote 3]. Many have immediately recognizable names. Most, like the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who leads the book, are more obscure, but nonetheless very influential, influencing later tyrants. Most of the key characters are men. The frame seems the philosophical differences between Francois-Marie Aroust (nom de plume Voltaire, 1649-1722) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
Of the characters, only about 20 are women.
Tim McVeigh is in the spotlight in more recent history. ISIS makes the cut.
Before he is executed for his crime, McVeigh ends up as next door neighbor in a Colorado super-max prison to Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. After McVeigh’s execution, Yousef says “I have never [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as [McVeigh].” (p. 288) In 2001, Yousef’s uncle “completed what [Yousef] had started: the twin towers’ destruction. [That Uncle, Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed, is now known as the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks….” (p. 285)
The cast of Age of Anger seems to center on characters who came to be of influence in 1700s France, then England, then the U.S., with many other important players, mostly leaders in places like Russia, Germany, India, Turkey. As we know, “countries” are basically personified by larger than life individuals who for good or ill are installed and enabled by their subjects. Our own country, today, is an example.
Reading Age of Anger helped me to fill in blanks in my own knowledge of historical events. “Ressentement” (resentment) is an important and oft repeated word, as is Individualism.
My opinion, typically – perhaps a human trait – we blame somebody, say Hitler, for the resulting disaster that befalls us. But it always comes back down to all of us who, in various ways, enable and indeed encourage the leader behavior which ultimately does us in. This is especially true in societies like our own, where we freely choose our own leaders, by our action (or inaction – non-involvement).
As I read, I kept looking for my favorite commentator on human insanity: George Orwell in his classic, 1984. Near the end of the book came a quote about the “Proles” (ordinary people) on page 325 (see postnote). The Proles of all ages, ourselves, in my thinking, have always been the enablers, the kindling wood and the cannon fodder for the assorted pretenders to greatness, the folks like Napoleon, Hitler and all their similar ilk. We meet the enemy; and it is ourselves.
The end result always, for even the most charismatic ideologues, regardless of ideology, seems constant and universal: defeat, often disaster. It is often the angry, dispossessed and impressionable young who are enlisted to do the dirty work in wars or whatever – look at the composition of our military, of gangs….
The Age of Anger is very well worth your time.
For me, I find myself thinking about how the book challenges me to do what I can to change for the better the tiny portion of the world in which I live. Our America – my America – seems to have had an exceptionally good and exceptionally long run. But the storm clouds, literal and figurative, are gathering.
Where do we fit in all of this.
POSTNOTE: p. 325 of Age of Anger: “So long as they [the Proles] continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern… Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”
In my recollection, Orwell leaves to our imagination the end of his story (published in 1949), which is set in England, but pretty clearly modelled on a totalitarian society.
Then, while technology was improving, no one could really imagine the presence days means of communication and thought and action control of ourselves, unless we take command of our own lives.
Absent our own actions, as individuals, our world will not end well.
Where do you fit in as the solution to our problems?
POSTNOTE 2: After publishing this post I read the Opinion section of today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune. This commentary by firefighter Peter Leschak seems pertinent to the conversation.
POSTNOTE 3: As I read, my own ancestry (French, English, Irish, German) came unexpectedly into more focus. My French-Canadian ancestors, all of them, arrived in what is now Quebec between 1618 and 1757, mostly missing the continental impact of the Enlightenment in France and England. As to the German ancestry, I knew for a long time of the German revulsion towards France, largely due to Napoleons adventure. My great-grandfathers brother, Herman Heinrich Busch, born 1852 in Westphalia, migrated to the U.S. in early 1870s, wrote back to the old country Feb. 14, 1924, about remembrances of his grandmother of Napoleon’s occupation of what is now Germany. He said, in part: “France’s history has always been full of war and revolution for the last three hundred years and Germany was always the oppressed, if they will ever become peaceful.” (p. 279 of Pioneers, The Busch and Berning Families of LaMoure County ND.). I knew Great-Grandfather Busch, first to come across, had migrated to the United States about 1870, the story was, for health reasons and to escape war. He was about 22, and his handwriting and text was extraordinarily fine and literate, though he was a farm kid. Age of Anger identifies 1870 as the formation of the Second Reich by Kaiser Wilhelm II (The First Reich is commonly considered the time of the Holy Roman Empire 800-1806). Part of the early Second Reich involved Germany’s temporary subjugation of France…. One chapter of history ends, and another begins.