Editor’s Choice September 2006

Orson Agonistes

What to read this month

Welles would go on, in at first a headlong and later a bravely hopeful way, and, as Callow recounts here and as he will recount in subsequent volumes, Welles would make movies with flashes and aspects of great beauty and brilliance (most notably, I think, his Othello and Chimes at Midnight). But in all his subsequent efforts he was, as Callow discerningly remarks, essentially “an experimental artist, deeply unconcerned with … the idea of a finished art-work.” When not yet a man, Welles had made two pictures that were carefully wrought masterpieces, but, submitting to his own boyish and wanton profligacy, he had helped ruin the second before it was born. That he afterward shrank from the pursuit of perfection seems inarguable. Surely in large part, as Callow maintains, Welles’s character—his anarchic and “exploratory urges”—was his fate. But Callow doesn’t acknowledge the toll Welles’s chosen medium itself exacted. That perfect ballroom sequence lasted maybe fifteen minutes on film. It took nine ten-hour days to shoot. Moviemaking is colossally complex, constantly frustrating, a torment that engenders frenzy and despair. In such a realm, to have perfection within one’s grasp, as Welles had with Ambersons, and then recklessly be a party in its demolition would break any artist, especially one who had climbed so far on merely prodigious talent and good fortune. Welles could never summon the wherewithal for another attempt.

Framing the Early Middle Ages, by Chris Wickham (Oxford). Historical research incessantly accrues, but at certain times the study of a particular subject or era enters a period of unique originality and brilliance. The 1960s and 1970s proved to be a golden age for the study of both American slavery and British imperialism; the 1950s was such a time for scholarship on European intellectual history. Since the 1990s, the historical profession’s most spectacular achievement has probably been the study of late antiquity—the period in Europe and the Mediterranean world between A.D. 250 and 800, which saw the end of classical civilization as well as the triumph of Christianity and Islam.

The research has been both voluminous—the archaeological picture for some countries has grown a hundredfold—and transformative. Historians have profoundly altered their understanding of religious, cultural, intellectual, social, economic, and even military developments, and with it their understanding of, say, the fluidity between barbarian and classical societies, between Islam and Christendom, between paganism and Christianity, and between Eastern and Western Christendom. This historiographical explosion shows no sign of ending, perhaps because the dynamism of the subject fuels the dynamism of the research: ultimately, the scholars are attempting to fathom far-reaching historical change, and although it’s true that all of history is marked by flux and transition, this period is especially so. (One of the myriad fundamental questions historians are wrestling with, for instance, is the rather obvious but terrifically complex one of how societies in northern Europe absorbed a religion whose outlook had been shaped in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.)

That two lasting works of synthesis—both marked by stunning sweep and analytical depth—have been published in three years attests to the fecundity and vitality of this scholarship. The radically revised Rise of Western Christendom, by the doyen of the field, Peter Brown, distilled a generation of scholarship on late antiquity, concentrating on cultural history, specifically the processes by which Christianity rose to dominate western Europe. Now Chris Wickham, an Oxford historian, has published his summa, a history of the period between A.D. 400 and 800 that almost wholly ignores cultural and religious matters, concentrating instead on socioeconomic change. A work that comparatively examines ten regions (Denmark, Ireland, England and Wales, Gaul, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia and Greece), it assesses such matters as state structures, the aristocracy and the peasantry, urbanism, and above all systems of exchange. It’s usually clearly written, and often cleverly so, though as a systematic, Marxian history, it’s always intellectually demanding and hence slow reading (it took me forever to finish its nearly 1,000 pages). But while few general readers will peruse it (and at $175, it’s aimed exclusively at academic libraries and the largest public ones), history doesn’t get any better.

Inventively and commandingly integrating documentary and archaeological sources, Wickham carefully compares the intricate and often patchy evidence, revealing the complexity of the societies and changes he’s probing (most crucially, the innumerable and multifaceted social ramifications of the contraction of trade and taxation that attended the gradual fragmenting of the Roman Empire). More than almost any history I’ve read, Wickham’s manages to be at once grand and rigorous. In its adroit and confident treatment of an array of subjects and disciplines, and in its exhaustive bibliography, this book, like Brown’s, has encapsulated and synthesized a burgeoning field of scholarship at the point of perhaps its greatest creativity.

Photograph, John Springer Collection/Corbis

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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