Monday, December 26, 2016

Glimpses of World History

Glimpses of World History
© 1942 Jawaharlal Nehru
1192 pages



In 1930,  a man who would later become the first prime minister of India was thrown in jail for a period of two years. There, removed from his family and regretful that he was forcibly absent from his daughter Indira's life, Jawaharlal Nehru labored to impart what wisdom he could through a series of letters. Beginning in October 1930 and ending in August 1933, the letters -- written in a loving and erudite pen -- cover the whole of the human story, from prehistory 'til the "present day" of 1938.   Composed from memory, notes, love for his daughter, and fervent if beleaguered hope for humanity, Glimpses is an extraordinary collection.

Of course, their author was an extraordinary man.  I first encountered him some six years ago, when I watched the film Gandhi and found him such  a sympathetic figure that I read his biography and became utterly transfixed by him. Most striking was a story his biographer, Shashi Tharoor shared -- that Nehru was so unnerved by his support in office that he wrote an anonymous letter warning people to be more skeptical -- "Nehru has all the makings of a dictator...we want no Caesars" .  Having read Glimpses, having spent upwards of a month with Nehru, reading these intimate letters to his daughter,  I can more readily believe that he wrote such a thing.   Here was a man whose deep appreciation for human history allowed him to create from memory and notes, an epic history of the world without recourse to a library -- who would, in the progress of the letters, continually connect them to one another in one fabric of historical reflections.  He was as conversant with the weaknesses and pains of the human experience as the potential and glory. 

Glimpses reminded me much of H.G.Wells' Outline of History, and this is no accident; Nehru quotes it a few times, using it as one of his sources. While Wells and Nehru share a common worldview, however -- scientifically centered and politically progressive, the two combining in a ready belief that science was on the precipice of conquering politics and economics with state socialism --  Nehru writes more broadly of the world.  Not surprisingly, India and  Southeast Asia are at the book's heart. Even when writing on other topics, like Ireland's perennial fight with England,  allusions to India are common.. These connections are partially the result of him writing as teacher to his daughter, but as he admits the letters serve him as well, allowing him to reflect and inwardly digest the lessons of history. As an actor in India's ongoing drama for independence, no doubt there are lessons he hopes to apply in practice. He also draws out these lessons in contradiction, contrasting "priest-ridden" India with  China, which he views as more rationalistic even in antiquity.  (Again with Wells, Nehru is not a fan of organized religion,  largely viewing it as nothing more than elaborate conspiracy to keep people from thinking about being poor. He does not blame it for every ill of the world, however, referring to it often being used as the mere cover for more mundane conflicts.)

What does Glimpses offer the modern reader?  For starters, Nehru's history regularly visits India, southeast Asia, and the middle east in a way that westerners at least probably do not encounter. I have never read about India colonialism, for instance, and have only encountered Persian history post-Sassanids when I  sought it out deliberately.  There is the virtue of novelty, then, but Nehru makes this all the more valuable by relentlessly chronicling areas' histories in connection with one another; they're not disjointed. Even when Nehru is forced to make sudden jumps, he offers recaps and reviews to remind his daughter, of what we discussed previously. (Considering that there are nearly two hundred letters, this is especially helpful.)     There is also Nehru's teaching style to consider. This is not an academic history, but the counsel of a parent to a child, and it is therefore tender. When he devotes four chapters to the trade crisis and Great Depression, one suspects he is writing more for his own benefit, but Nehru frequently stops chronicling to reflect. It is here when he is musing on the lessons these recollections to have teach us that Nehru sounds most loving, most wise.  He is a pleasure to listen to, to spend time with, and this is an invaluable attribute for an author.  Even if a reader disagrees with a man, it is possible to listen to him, take him seriously, and earnestly reason together with him -- if he is a sympathetic author. If he is a boor bellowing in confrontation,  there is neither wisdom nor argument to find, only courage in one's prejudices. 

Nehru is no boor -- and neither is he a bore.  While Nehru was a political figure, his history does not limit itself to politics; he frequently dwells on literature, architecture, and poetry, frequently including verses for his daughter's consideration.  (He also includes tables of trade and population statistics, because fifteen year olds eat that stuff up.) Obviously, I prefer Gandhi's strident village anarchism to any sort of state-centered scheme, but Nehru isn't an extremist. He writes of science that humility goes hand in hand with knowledge, as every discovery only creates further questions. He exhibits that humility most of the time, frequently chronicling the unintended consequences of government actions and the chronic moral frailties of man. If Nehru has a blind spot, it  is authoritarian socialism, and particularly his enamored take on Stalin. While the author is happy to accept Roosevelt's tinkering with the American economy as a kind of socialism, he declares that Hitler's tinkering with the German economy had nothing at all to do with socialism despite its "National Socialism" name.  Both were using the state to 'buffer' the economy on behalf of :"Society", so -- what's the difference?  

The big difference between Nehru's writing on Stalinism and his writing in the hundreds of pages before is that with Stalin, he is writing on the present, without benefit of hindsight.  I imagine that if Nehru were to live in our own time, he would present a view of Stalinism -- and Maoism, and Pol Potism, and Juche, and the other variations which have killed and enslaved many millions in the 20th century --  that is more critical,  his being able to see the consequences from afar.  I do not believe his love for the common man would be diminished in the least, nor would his hope. This was a man who concluded his letters in the 1930s, when Japan and Germany stood astride the world, when the democracies were ailing and impotent, when India still languished under foreign domination -- and yet he urged his daughter to not take a dismal view of the world:

For history teaches us of growth and progress and of the possibility of an infinite advance for man; and life is rich and varied, and though it has many swamps and marshes and muddy places, it has also the great sea, and the mountains, and snow, and glaciers,  and wonderful starlight nights (especially in gaol!), and the love of family and friends and the comradeship of workers in common cause, and music, and books, and the empire of ideas. So that each of us may well say: -- 'Lord, though I lived on earth, the child of earth, Yet was I fathered by the starry sky''.

Glimpses was a book, for me, six years in the waiting, and worth the waiting.  I hope to spend more time with Nehru in his Discovery of India



4 comments:

  1. I'm impressed - and not only by the size of the book! You certainly don't restrict yourself to one view point or culture. That alone marks you out as unusual these days. Keep it up!

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    1. Thank you! I do my best to resist the tendency to drift into a filtered bubble. Falling into echo chambers is easy enough!

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  2. What were the circumstances of his imprisonment? Does he say much about the positives and negatives of British imperialism/colonialism in India? I confess that my knowledge of India is limited to a couple of novels: Heat and Dust; A Passage to India. They, of course, are no substitutes for history; however, much depends upon who is writing the history. P.S. I very much enjoyed reading your review/posting, and I am envious of your reading energies and scope.

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    1. Nehru was imprisoned frequently because of his role in the free India movement. These letters were written during his sixth stint in jail, prompted by him refusing an order to confine himself to a particular city and to cease all politic activities there. His response was that the only authority he recognized was the India National Congress, and to take a train ride out of town to see Gandhi.

      The effects of British rule in India come up frequently, with an expected focus on the negative. Nehru doesn't express overt hostility towards the British, though, and urges his daughter not to hate them. Most of them are living under the influence of forces greater than they (imperialism and capitalism) and don't intend evil. Although he was not a religious man, I think his close relationship with Gandhi (who he says taught him not to hate) kept him grounded.

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