The Invention of Western Civilization
By Robert A. Williams Jr.
Palgrave Macmillan, 265 pp., $28
The poet Shelley announced that “We are all Greeks,” referring to the enormous influence of the ancient Hellenic worldview — from Homer to Socrates to Aristotle — on modern Western societies. In this pointed work of intellectual history, Robert A. Williams Jr. traces the idea of the savage from its roots in Athens to contemporary judicial rulings on American Indian rights, arguing that “the ancient notion of an irreconcilable difference between civilization and savagery has helped to shape and direct the West’s response and actions toward the non-Western world from its earliest beginnings.” Beginning with the half-human brutes described in Homer’s epic poems, Williams says, Greek society embraced “the idea of the savage as a fierce, irreconcilable enemy to an expansion-minded form of civilization.” Despite what he calls a protest movement from Hesiod to Socrates that extolled savages as nature’s aristocrats, and an implied rebuke against the corruptions of civilization, either view of the savage revealed anxiety about the individual (and society) making the observation.
Even after Christianity displaced pagan Greek and Roman thought, the seeds planted in Athens continued to flourish, as “Christian dogmatists used the worst stereotypes they could dig up to describe the non-Christian barbarian tribes on the frontiers of the Roman Empire as irredeemable savages.” Adopting the paradigms handed down by Homer, European rulers exploited them through centuries of Holy Wars, colonization, and imperial expansion. On American shores, Columbus first described indigenous residents as good-natured and generous, while later English settlers in Virginia leaned toward seeing them as “wild beasts.” Either way, Williams argues, they were seen as “stereotypical savages, which meant that Christian Europeans could conquer and colonize them.” Richly researched, filled with detail, this is an ugly history, but Williams tells it beautifully.
ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO
By Jonathan Tropper
Dutton, 324 pp., $26.95
Drew Silver — known to just about everyone, including his parents and daughter, by his last name alone — is a one-hit wonder. Once the drummer of a post-punk band that dissolved soon after its single hit song made all its members semi-famous, Silver has seen his career dwindle to more intimate venues: mostly weddings. As for his personal life, his marriage has collapsed; his wife is about to remarry; and his daughter, Casey, has grown up to be lovely, smart, and college-bound — no thanks to his admittedly lousy fathering. Living at The Versailles, an apartment building kept profitable by divorce, a refuge for “sad and depleted men,” Silver spends most days hanging at the pool with fellow sad-sacks, trying to ignore “a dull, humming grief for all the things he can never get back.”
Into this puddle of suburban ennui drops a bomb: Casey, slated to start at Princeton shortly, comes to tell Silver she’s pregnant. She tells him before telling her mother, she says, because “I care less about letting you down.” The book pivots between farce and despair, and Silver is a devastating portrait of post-divorce loneliness and horniness. There’s a crackling buddy dynamic between father and daughter, leading to truly moving moments, and the peripheral characters are wonderful, from Silver’s rabbi father to his poolside buddies.
CURIOUS BEHAVIOR: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond
By Robert R. Provine
Belknap, 271 pp., $24.95
We human beings, along with all our intellectual and artistic achievements, are also “farting, belching, yawning, hiccupping, coughing, laughing, crying, sneezing, vomiting, itchy, scratching, ticklish herd animals,” according to Robert R. Provine, a University of Maryland psychology and neuroscience professor. Why we do these things when some other animals don’t — we are alone in producing emotional tears, for instance, and in laughter — and what these behaviors have to teach us about our evolutionary past and our developmental pathways is the subject of Provine’s very entertaining book.
“Curious Behavior” covers silly territory — Does reading about yawning make you yawn? Is it possible to tickle one’s own foot, and does using the opposite-side hand make it more ticklish? — in service of serious questions. The contagiousness of yawns, for instance, may tell us something about mirror neurons that may play a role in human empathy and in disorders where empathy is disrupted, such as autism and schizophrenia. Provine sometimes reaches for scientific explanations when history would serve better (the gender difference between whose jokes get laughed at probably owes more to power disparity than funniness), but mostly he’s an amiable guide through occasionally impolite territory.