Magazine article History Today

New in Paperback: We Review a Selection of Books Newly Available in Paperback

Magazine article History Today

New in Paperback: We Review a Selection of Books Newly Available in Paperback

Article excerpt

From the embarrassment of riches on the shelves of any good bookshop, one's eye is often first caught by an attractive cover. This is certainly so with Curiosity by Barbara M. Benedict (University of Chicago Press, 17.50 [pounds sterling]), which proudly displays Caravaggio's `Narcissus'. This is the best produced--and most expensive--volume under review. The title of the book also excites, well, a certain curiosity.

The author examines key `early-modern texts'--though they stretch into the 19th century--to discover how curious the English were. Despite the growth of the scientific method, they identified curiosity with pride, transgression, ambition and perversity: it was a thrilling but threatening Pandora's Box that led to atheism and hubris. Look where Dr Faustus ended up, or Robinson Crusoe. The message of Gulliver's Travels is that `curiosity consumes the consumer'.

Benedict has written an erudite, nuanced work; but I couldn't help wondering just how dominant was this admittedly widespread anti-intellectualism. This is one for the serious student, who may be able to grapple with the following: `They [Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels] definitively demonstrate that curiosity is cultural ambition, manifested by ontological transgression--transcendence or monstrosity--and registered by empiricism.' In view of initial impressions, the phrase `all that glisters' comes to mind.

Runner-up in the cover stakes is Antoine De Baecque, Glory and Terror (Routledge, 13.99 [pounds sterling]), fronted by `The Triumph of the Guillotine' by Taunay. The author shows how seven corpses became political symbols in revolutionary France, marking new stages in the Revolution. The first is that of the charismatic Mirabeau, the `Shakespeare of eloquence'. His death in March 1791 led to a public post-mortem to dispel rumours of poisoning. Death was becoming a public spectacle. It was certainly so when the body of Voltaire was reinterred in the Pantheon in Paris. Then in September 1792 the Princess de Lamballe was executed, mutilated and paraded naked through the streets, an act of savagery that its perpetrators liked to think of as political purification. This is not an easy read, but Glory and Terror provides a unique and macabre point d'appui from which to weigh key stages in the French Revolution.

The author of Islam's Black Slaves (Atlantic Books, 8.99 [pounds sterling]) is Ronald Segal, a name synonymous with quality. His new book examines the slave trade that has dodged widespread attention. Yet the Islamic trade lasted longer and involved probably several million more slaves than the Atlantic. The book ranges from the seventh century to the 1990s (with the public auction of human beings in the Sudan). At its heart lies a fascinating comparison between the two systems. The Islamic version was `relatively humane in its treatment of slaves'; it involved less plantation work and more women. On the other hand, it produced massive numbers of concubines. The Koran enjoined that a master might `enjoy' his slaves; and black eunuchs were used not only in harems but for gay sex. In the epilogue to this fine work, Segal sheds light on the Black Muslim backlash in the USA. The Nation of Islam has developed a `racism to confront racism' which dishonours the history of an Islam whose slavery, for all its faults, `avoided the institutionalised racism of the Christian West'.

Islamic history also features in Andre Raymond's Cairo (Harvard UP, 12.50 [pounds sterling]). Beginning with the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640, it chronicles the birth of Cairo over six centuries, before assessing the Mamluk period and Ottoman rule and then the phases of Westernisation. Palaces are described, ceremonies delineated, vicissitudes traced, and individuals (from Saladin and Nasir Muhammad to Nasser) relive their former exploits. Here Cairo's past is endlessly fascinating. Its present, however, is ominous, due to a population explosion. …

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