Reading history: the witch hunt and the profit motive

“In Trevor-Roper’s view, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were part of the reaction against growing doctrinal pluralism, and were ultimately traced back to the conflict between the rational worldview of such thinkers as Desiderius Erasmus and other humanists and the spiritual values of the Reformation.”

History was an art, insisted Hugh Trevor-Roper, but even he was not free of the historian’s occasional ambition to be a “scientist”: in his The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Trevor-Roper proposed a kind of thermodynamic theory of witch hunts:  as the social pressure rises, things begin to boil (you know: p = tv etc.).  Presumably it follows that the wearing off of the witch hunts would serve as a gauge of some kind of lowering in the “social pressure” — the “social pressure” in question remaining undefined.  But both the rise and the wearing off of witch hunts had direct causes minutely and clearly described in Roper’s essay, which — though wholly unnoticed by its author — are so obvious as not to require any special theoretical apparatus such as “social pressure”.

If you wish to stick with the scientific ambition, you could say that instead of the (very vague) thermodynamic model, an epidemiological model is called for:  the witch-hunting meme is like any other virus in his native environment:  it is a disease vector which under normal circumstances is under control — lies dormant in harmless fairy tales and, in our own times, TV mini-series — but give it a chance and it begins to replicate geometrically causing a break out of the disease. Why it should break out so easily is not hard to understand:  we are wired by nature to suspect that some people within our midst are secretly conspiring against our interests because in fact this is the case — think of the most obvious (and supposedly “harmless”) examples:  brewers secretly manoeuvre to corner the beer market, doctors the prescribing of medicines, etc.

But better yet — and far simpler — is the economic model.  As any accountant will tell you: when you wish to understand something, follow the money.  In the 17th century, the witch hunting meme began to replicate suddenly when some enterprising genius — acting in his best understood self-interest — discovered that it could be used to achieve money and status.  Trevor-Roper describes the way in which witch hunters — all self-made, self-proclaimed men — made money and gained social status, chiefly by blackmailing and extortion (though also to some extent by rewards of property seized from their victims) — he even describes the public displays of wealth by their wives, but — perhaps historians by their nature are blind to the profit motive — he fails to see money as the driving force of the phenomenon.  He can’t imagine that the witch hunters were pursuing profit and proposes that they were merely responding to some kind of “social pressure”.

Likewise, he describes how the field soon became crowded with many practitioners competing for the business and how eventually they turned on each other.  (This was another brilliant exploitation of the meme:  how come this witch hunter know so much about witches?  perhaps he himself has secret dealings with the devil?).  When witch hunters themselves began to burn at the stake, the business became too dangerous and quickly emptied of volunteers.  (Perhaps they moved on to promote penny stocks).

If you look at every other witch hunting phenomenon — from Roman persecutions of Christians, to Moor hunting in Iberia, to Jewish ritual murder cases, to McCarthyism — they all follow the same structure:  someone discovers a “secret plot” scheme which he can exploit to his advantage; soon others get on his bandwagon and the thing becomes a huge money- (and tragedy-) maker; eventually the field becomes overcrowded, the entrepreneurs turn on each other and — the phenomenon dies out.

Viewed in this light, civilization — “progress” — is really a kind of arms race between human inventiveness on the one hand (people inventing ever new ways to exploit ugly aspects of human nature for personal profit) and human inventiveness on the other — the commonwealth trying to adopt ever new rules to prevent the same bad habits from wreaking havoc.  (Er…  Hobbes?)


The really interesting thing about this phenomenon is that none of the successful witch hunts has ever sported a meme about money:  in other words, there has never been a witch hunt against monopolistic connivings of drug companies, for instance.  It is always about some weird and disgusting thing:  people stealing babies to drink their blood, etc.  Why?  I think the explanation is that the entrepreneurs who drive the witch hunts go out of their way to hide their true motive.  Therefore the theory of the “evil them” cannot involve money.  In the words of Borges:  “What is the single word prohibited in a riddle about chess?  Chess.”

That it is possible to write a decent novel and not understand what it is about

Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi

The critical praise Twilight in Delhi has continued to receive is surely due to the description of Muslim life in Old Delhi before the Partition; the patterns of speech (with flowery formulas, pious quotations and love poems), hobbies (kite flying, dove-keeping, poetry meetings), magical medical practices, fable-telling, clothing, housing, the marriage customs and wedding ceremonies, the funeral practices – they are all attractive aspects of a way of life now, as the expression has it, “mostly lost”. I say “mostly” because they are not entirely gone — similar practices still survive in some parts of North India – even some parts of Delhi; they are much rarer now than they used to be; coming upon them is a matter of exotic delight; but they were clearly already threatened when the book was written – in 1939. Reading the novel one cannot help feeling that the author foresaw and rued their passing – the way a Japanese poet might preciously rue — on a balmy August afternoon — the imminent (to him) passing of the summer. And this is pretty: regret for things past is a touching sentiment, especially when it is, as it is in this novel, unstated, only implied, and when it comes from the pen of a a 29-year-old (as Ahmed Ali was at the time of writing).

Hostility towards the English and constant bewailing of the fall of the Mughal Empire – it sounds so familiar to Polish ears – are in a way part of this way of life. Remembering valiant deeds of 1857 and offering occasional charity to beggar descendants of royal blood seem customary – meaning, perfunctory — like the embroidered cap or the praising the prophet – it is all part of the formula, it need not be taken seriously: after all, despite the horrors of 1857 — mass expropriations, exiles, and executions – the old way of life still continued fifty years later (the novel is set in 1910-18) pretty much the way it had been before the conquest. The real change – and the real loss of 1857 – took place only at the top of the social hierarchy to which none of the book’s heroes has ever belonged anyhow.  The ruing of the Empire’s loss is aesthetic.

But human beings mistake formulas for content and Ahmed Ali’s introduction to the book (written in 1993) makes it plain he does: there is a lot more there about colonialism – complete with the inevitable quotation from Edward Said. This subtracts from the novel: it interprets it in a tired nationalistic light, and in a suddenly florid prose — the sort Indians fall into whenever they speak of The Nation — and with the familiar old moralism of the defeated. Of course, the defeated invariably find moral fault with the victor – yet, what right had the Mughals had to conquer and rule India that the British did not?

The moralizing of the defeated is a powerful emotional cocktail and Ahmed Ali fell for it himself: in time, he came to believe his novel was about colonialism, when in fact, it is about the disappearance of a certain way of life. Yet, that way of life has not disappeared because of the British but because of – demography. By the end of the nineteenth century the poor stopped dying in the usually atrocious numbers meaning that their numerical advantage over the middle-class suddenly increased many-fold; by the beginning of the twentieth, they began to get access to information, meaning that they began to realize their strength; finally, in the course of the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, governments put guns in their hands. In one half of the world, the poor used those guns to kill the rich; in the other, to tax them. Everywhere, the old way of life came to an end.

A way of life is a form of art. Like any art, it can be more or less artful. What we call the “old ways” often seem more artful than the new ways because they were the ways of a kind of social class which has ceased to exist today: a smaller (and therefore more interconnected), richer, and far less busy middle class. Given time and resources, humans engage in art – in the broad sense of the word, meaning any beautiful skill, including mastering the smoking of the hookah. And so the heroes of Twilight in Delhi do: they pursue artful hobbies, which include poetry, alchemy, embroidery, singing and dancing, elaborate family rituals. Today, the socialist great leveler has eradicated that class — we moderns either have time or money; and while in the West there has been an offsetting gain — the life of the very poor improved as a result of transfer taxation – it is hard not to look at the life of those of our grandparents and great-grandparents who had been of the better sort with a kind of nostalgia. It was so obviously prettier than any life we live today. (This realization has driven a lot of the best art of the modern age from The Leopard, to The Buddenbrooks, to Fanny and Alexander).

Reflecting along those lines, it sometimes becomes hard not to doubt the utilitarian principle: does the greatest good of the greatest number justify destruction of goods (in this case the good is a way of life) just because they cannot be universally held? Perhaps there is something to be said for the Borges formula – that of Babylonian Lottery – let there be injustice in the world, some very rich and some very poor, but assign who gets what totally randomly — and to assure cooperation, reassign it frequently.

The characters of Twlight in Delhi provide a strong argument for the Lottery concept. Although Ahmed Ali presents them with charity; and they earn our sympathy by the sadness of their fates – all life is fundamentally tragic because it ends in disease and death; there does not seem to exist any apparent reason why this particular lot, and not their water-carrier, say — should enjoy rents on a few houses and some agricultural land. They are neither especially kind, nor gentle, nor wise; they manage their private lives with the same mixture of thoughtlessness and fumbling the rest of humanity do; and for all the artful beauty of their lives they manage to make themselves and each other seriously unhappy.

This also presents in a stark light the main problem with all novel writing:  human lives — which are by necessity any novel’s main subject — are not particularly worth knowing about, and therefore reading about, and therefore, it would seem, writing about. Perhaps, like a certain other descendant of Polish nobility (see footnote 1), I am too smart, too well-read, and too philosophically inclined to find anything of interest in a novel about people

Are there any novels about penguins, I wonder?


(1) One Nitecki, of course: cf. the famous chapters of Ecce Homo with titles like “Why I am so wise”, etc.  As the Italians say, beh!  

How to read Indian historical scholarship

A PhD-level readings-course is good for one thing, if for nothing else: it teaches you how to read 2500-3000 pages a week – without actually reading them.  The method is this, in brief:  one takes a book (or an article), skims the introduction and reads the conclusion fairly thoroughly; by this time one either a) gets it – and moves on – or b) one gets what one has yet to get — and knows precisely which section of the middle matter of the book (or article) to zero in on in order to get it.

 This method works fairly well in all fields of scholarly endeavor, from biochemistry to economics to Chinese medieval sociolinguistics; but there is one field of scholarship where it fails entirely: Indian historical scholarship. For some reason, by and large, the introductions and conclusions of scholarly papers on Indian history are entirely unhelpful and generally leave one more confused and less informed than one has begun. This seems to be in part due to the bizarre theoretical apparatus Indian scholars (by which I mean scholars of Indian history, whether Indian or feringhi) like to employ; but also to the puzzling mismatch between the overpowering ambition to theorize verbosely on the one hand and the frankly disarming inability to do so coherently on the other.

(I leave it to better men to explain why either should be the case).

Indeed, the best way to read scholarly papers on Indian history is to skip the ambitious introduction and conclusion and to focus on the unadorned middle section of the essays, where one is liable to discover the usual profusion of those weirdly delightful and ever-surprising facts which make India the treasure-chest of wonder she is: such as that Rajasthani Rajputs insisted on not adapting their combat techniques to new technological realities, which the ignorant Mughals in turn misinterpreted as stupidity (in the famous adage that „Rajputs know how to die but do not know how to fight”)1 ; or that the one significant upshot of the century-long Italian mission to Bihar was a lengthy unpublished treatise — in Italian — in defense of the caste system (er…  Ecoes?)2; or that sometime around the year 1600 an unsavory free-lancing Portuguese named Sebastiao Goncalves Tibau founded a kingdom on a muddy island in the middle of crocodile infested swamp in West Bengal.  Maybe it wasn’t much of a kingdom, but it was his.

Putting down the book, I close my eyes and muse: perhaps it would be unfittingly dull and boring for an Indian scholar to plow through so much delightfully zany detail and produce out of it, like chaff out of wheat, a perfectly rational theory: perhaps zany facts require zany theories. Or perhaps the history of India, like her present, really is what it so often seems to be, fundamentally incoherent, and no one, not even the best brains of the Academia, can ever hope to make sense out of it.

(Having said all this, if you read Meena Bhartava (ed.) Exploring Medieval India like it says here to do, you will like it).


1 In a broadly unfair simplification, although at the turn of the 16th century, sudden availability of good equestrian stock made horseback warfare possible in principle, tradition-loyal Rajputs preferred to gallop to battle, and, once having arrived, dismount and — face the enemy’s elephants, cannons et al, as manly tradition demanded:  on foot.

2As in: echoes of, of course.

National Museum in New Delhi, continued: Sohrab dies at the hands of Rustam

This story, from the Shahnama, figures in Pamuk’s Snow.  There, Blue, an Islamist terrorist/fugitive, argues:  “This story was once read by every boy from Belgrade to New Delhi, but today not one bookstore in Istanbul stocks it. Question: is it beautiful enough to die for? Beautiful enough to kill for?” His (or, rather, Pamuk’s) argument is, in other words, that modernization/westernization has deprived Turks of their past, estranged them from it, deprived them of one source of just pride (i.e. culture), impoverished them, made them rootless.

The argument is intuitively appealing (certainly at individual level, memory loss feels like a kind of emasculation); and does underscore an important fact: modern Turks are completely unaware of some very basic aspects of Ottoman history and identity.

But the theory also reveals the inherent weakness of the very concept of national identity:  modern Turks are no more deprived of their identity than, say, Poles — (which Pamuk simply wouldn’t know — when it comes to theory-making, there is no substitute for breadth of knowledge).  Modern Poles don’t know their history, either; and what they do do know of their literature is not much worth knowing:  it is just what and how schools elect to teach it. Like Turks, we are a new nation, too: living within new borders, missing much of our genetic stock (Christian or otherwise), the economic class which had once exclusively born the right to be called Poles — “the nation” — i.e. the armed gentry — has been physically eradicated and what of it hasn’t been eradicated, has been scattered across seven continents:  with the result that today’s Poles by and large aren’t genetically related to the old Poles. The name survives, but when a name means something it has never meant before, can one truly say that it has survived?

Or consider Portugal, so very proud of her great discoveries. Yet, modern Portuguese aren’t the descendants of the discoverers — they live today in places like Goa, Macau and Brazil; but of those who did not venture on the high seas:  the left-behinds.

This miniature is also from Shah Alam’s studio.