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Now in Paperback

December 21, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The End of the World: A History, Otto Friedrich (Fromm: $11.95). This tour of cataclysms in human history--from the sacking of Rome and the Inquisition to Auschwitz and nuclear war--is guided by the author's sometimes humorous but more often caustic comments about human nature. Otto Friedrich is not encouraged by our past, and, thus, this is largely a cynical book. Friedrich's cynicism has less to do with historical realities, however, than with his own colored perspective. Placing humanity between a rock and a hard place, Friedrich is as disturbed by our "widespread desire to avoid thinking about an impending catastrophe" as he is by our tendency to talk about it with "nervous loquacity." To symbolize our skill at evading thoughts of calamity, Friedrich quotes the parting words of a Strategic Air Command officer who has just given him a tour of a defense facility: "Well, goodby, then, and happy Mother's Day." We're supposed to find this comment absurd, of course, because the officer works at a missile facility. The irony is used so often in these pages, however, that it becomes cheap. Similarly, Friedrich cites our superstitious explanations for disaster but fails to analyze them in any depth: During the Black Death, he writes, astronomers thought crises were caused by a grand conjunction of the three "superior planets," while town authorities outlawed the wearing of black clothing, gambling and work after noon on Saturdays. A senior editor at Time, Friedrich refrains from exploring questions that might suggest insights into the nature of humans or culture. He mentions, for example, a connection between the erosion of the Aquinas' Scholastic system and the realization that the church and its priests were unable to fight the Black Death, but he doesn't look at how a heightened awareness of mortality led to the rapid spread of mysticism, the proliferation of charlatans, witch doctors and seers. Nor is a solid rationale given for placing the Black Death (biological destruction) and the Inquisition (cultural manipulation) under the same rubric. The questions that do grab Friedrich's attention are more rhetorical: Do "we see Auschwitz as the epitome of life itself, an incarnation of the darkest principles of Machiavelli and Hobbes, or . . . (do) we see it as a mirror image of the true life?" Even here, though, answers are not pursued with philosophical rigor. An exception: Friedrich does seem sufficiently moved by the work of artists such as Petrarch to forgive their superstitions. "She closed her eyes," wrote Petrarch after his lover suddenly fell ill and died of the plague, "and in sweet slumber lying, / her spirit tiptoed from its lodging-place. / It's folly to shrink in fear, if this is dying; for death looked lovely in her lovely face."

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