Monday, September 11, 2023

What a World, What a World.

For a shockingly long time because I have been shockingly busy, I have been reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's massive history, The World: A Family History of Humanity. 

If you want to be a member of the human community, if you want to understand the ol' Biblical quotation that there's nothing new under the sun, if you want to be a richer, more informed, more intelligent human being, you might want to read some Montefiore. He himself is history, a descendant of both Moses Montefiore ("The most-important Jew of the 19th Century) and a major branch of the Rothschild family.

Take ten minutes here and listen to an interview with Montefiore, where he talks about Symphony for the Devil by the Stones as the "best song about history." Or read the review in "The Economist," which I'm pasting at the end of this post. Or go through the 428 songs on Montefiore's playlist of world history also below.

With a "doorstopper of book," there's a lot you can learn. And a lot you can glaze over. And a lot you can forget the moment you read it. You can't expect the remember much less weave together all the names, tribes, eras and places you can hardly pronounce.

What got me, maybe more than anything else, is something I believe has meaning to our everyday lives. It might work to negate our silly belief in the predictive abilities of gurus, futurists, Ted-speakers, and bloggers. It's how much we don't know about the times we are living through and have lived through though we were there and presumably sentient.

It's why, in fact, I will never believe in the forecasting claims and predictive assertions of AI. Or the purported data-science behind this or that Ad Tech. I just don't believe it. I believe it's mathematically impossible.

Because where people see one-hundred things happening and one-hundred interconnected events, and machines and algorithms might see one-thousand and Quantum machines might see ten-million, in reality there are billions and billions more.

We might--in looking at trends, or markets, or ideas see ten. But there are 100 billion neurons in the human brain--even a dumb person's brain--and those 100 billion neurons have 100 trillion connections and there are eight-billion people now on the planet. Go. Find a machine that can unravel that calculus and predict things considering those variables.

I never expected to know a lot about the Achaemenids or the Inca or the empires of Benin.

But I thought I'd know what was going on during Nixon's time, or Reagan's or Clinton's or Yeltsin's or any one of giants who ruled during my majority. I was paying attention, reading two or three newspapers a day, a smattering of magazines, talking to people, hearing the news, caring--and I've missed 99.7-percent of it.

Not because I'm dumb or don't care or was napping or playing with the kids, the dog or the wife. Not because I was watching Seinfeld re-runs or playing Wordle, but because of all those neurons I mentioned above.

If ontogeny replicates phylogeny, those 100 trillion connections times eight billion times 100 trillion are all the variables of things that are happening and are not happening. Who can follow, much less foresee?

The best we can do, as humans and as advertising people, is find what Bill Bernbach, the father of modern marketing called, "Simple, timeless, human truths."

Everything changes.

Everything except those simple, timeless, human truths.

That’s a prediction I will live with.


A delightful world history, told through influential families

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s moreish chronicle is laced with sex and violence

Ghenghis Khan in combat. Miniature from Jami' al-tawarikh (Universal History), ca 1430. Found in the collection of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Artist : Anonymous. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The World: A Family History. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. W&N; 1,344 pages; £35. To be published in America by Knopf in May; $45

Lockdown, for Simon Sebag Montefiore, was not a time for baking or box sets. Instead he set about recounting the history of the world through the lives of its most influential families. He begins over 4,000 years ago with the rape and vengeance of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon, the self-made ruler of the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia. He ends with the Trumps and the Xis. Sargon’s family faced the same problems that afflicted nearly every dynastic empire that followed: “The bigger it grew, the more borders had to be defended; the richer it was, the more tempting a target it became for less settled neighbours—and the greater was the incentive for destructive family feuds.”

The device of weaving together the past using the most enduring and essential unit of human relations is inspired. It lets readers empathise with people who helped shape historical events and were shaped by them. They have hopes, fears, lusts and ambitions that are familiar, even if they are manifest in ways that border on the psychopathic. The method also allows the author to cover every continent and era, and to give women and even children a voice and presence that they tend to be denied in more conventional histories.

Despite the book’s formidable length, there is never a dull moment. The story moves at pace across terrible battles, court intrigues, personal triumphs and disasters, lurid sexual practices and hideous tortures. Almost every page offers what used to be known in Fleet Street as a “marmalade dropper”. Amid the sensationalism, you find yourself adapting to the cruelties of moral universes that are both alien and, on their own terms, comprehensible.

The technicolour cast includes the Borgias, the Habsburgs, the Kennedys and the Nehrus. Between the great, the good, the damned and the merely incompetent or criminal, there are far too many stars to mention. But some stand out:

• Darius the Great defeated eight rivals for the throne of Persia and ensured stability by marrying nearly all his female relations. Ruling with splendour and conquest for nearly 40 years until 486bc, he declared: “I am Darius, King of Kings. Whoever helped my family, I favoured; whoever was hostile, I eliminated.”

• Liu Bang was a hard-drinking peasant nicknamed “Little Rascal” who became a warlord. Through clever generalship and (for the time) enlightened politics, he founded the Han dynasty in 202bc. It ruled China with only a minor interruption for more than 400 years.

• Aged 56, and still exceptionally beautiful, Empress Zoe, niece of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, drowned her husband Romanos in his bath in 1034 with the help of a 25-year-old paramour. Despite a brief exile, Zoe was kingmaker and the real power in Constantinople until her death 16 years later.

• Thanks to his family’s obsession with consanguinity, poor Carlos II, the last Habsburg king of Spain, was born with a brain-swelling, one kidney, one testicle and a jaw so deformed that he could barely chew. Only semi-literate, he died in 1700 of explosive dysentery.

For her ruthless cunning and insatiable appetite for power and sex, this reviewer’s favourite character is Empress Wu, who at 14 was a palace maid and rose to become the most dominant woman in Chinese history. To secure her place as empress consort, she may have strangled her own baby so as to accuse a rival of murder. She died as empress dowager at the age of 81 in 705ad, having seen off internal and external foes for over 50 years, supposedly kept youthful by drinking the semen of much younger (and usually doomed) lovers.

A perennial theme is the dynastic problem caused by having too many sons, who fight each other for the throne—a difficulty exacerbated by the sensual temptations afforded by absolute power. For instance, Ismail, a slave-trading sultan of Morocco, fathered 1,171 children by the time he died in 1727. (His heirs still rule today.) As Nizam al-Mulk, an 11th-century vizier, observed: “One obedient slave is better than 300 sons for the latter desire their father’s death, the former their master’s glory.”

A solution sanctioned by Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, was to make fratricide an official policy. Having had his own brother strangled, he decreed: “Whichever of my sons inherits the sultan’s throne it behoves him to kill his brothers.” Around 80 Ottoman princes were strangled by bowstring so as to avoid spilling royal blood.

The author tells these stories with verve and palpable relish for the unbridled sex and inventive violence that run through them. His character sketches are pithy and witty. Mary, Queen of Scots was “a calamitous bungler of impulsive stupidity and unwise passion”. The Duke of Buckingham, a Jacobean playwright, rake and Catholic plotter, was “slippery, graceful and vicious”. The footnotes, often short essays in themselves, have the acid drollery of Edward Gibbon.

As the chronicle reaches more familiar territory some of the zest is lost. Margaret Thatcher is no Empress Wu; Donald Trump, grandson of Friedrich Drumpf (owner of the Poodle-Dog, a bawdy restaurant in Seattle), seems quite forgiving compared with Genghis Khan. Occasionally the segues are lumpy: “Meanwhile in China…” But overall this book is a triumph and a delight, an epic that entertains, informs and appals in enjoyably equal measure. 


The Playlist:

No comments: