Saturday, March 03, 2007

Books you don't have to read part 1, The Shield of Achilles

Time is short, and there's a lot to do. All the while the defenders of the current order of understanding set out their case in well-upholstered cultural products; documentaries, newspaper articles and books, books most of all. At vast length officially approved intellectuals explain the world to us and, with mechanical regularity, receive their share of praise.

Take Philip Bobbitt. The Shield of Achilles is described as 'awe-inspiring ... a triumph' by William Shawcross, and 'a majestic book' by Simon Jenkins. Sir Michael Howard says that 'it will be one of the most important works on international relations published during the last fifty years'. It boasts high praise from The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, The Times, and the former speaker of the US House of Representatives. Frederic Raphael asks 'what review could do justice to the range and intelligence of a work so full of ideas, proposals and fears and hopes for the future of civilization?'

It's a good question. The book is absolutely vast; its index ends on page 922. By the time the reader reaches the beginning of the main text she will have waded past a dedication ('To those by whose love God's grace was first made known to me and to those whose loving-kindness has ever since sustained me in his care'), an extract from the Iliad (Fagles' translation), a foreword, a prologue and a poem by Czeslaw Milosz - 33 pages of Roman numbered pages, including two interludes in verse, before the reader plunges into the profoundities of Bobbitt's oceanic prose. If we are not to take the declarations of his reviewers on faith we might have to read the thing, and 'have our view of the world turned upside down by this superb book' (Chris Patten, Guardian).

Except ... except we don't really. Bobbitt makes it clear almost at the outset that what lies ahead will be hidden shoals, shipwrecks and disaster. On page xxi, before we have even cleared the beach of the preliminaries, Bobbitt plants his black flag; 'For five centuries it has taken the resources of a state to destroy another state'. At first glance this sounds terrifically bold and intellectually exciting. We are in safe hands here, this is going to be some journey! And yet, consider the claim even for a moment and its ludicrous falsity soon becomes clear. Was the Stuart monarchy destroyed by state? Did the ancien regime fall as a result of an attack by another state? Tsarist monarchy, was this brought down in 1917 by an invading army?

In what aspires to be, and has been widely described as, an attempt to reshape our understanding of the nature and purpose of the modern state, we find at the outset a claim that makes no historical sense. Ask yourself why none of those who praised the book noticed this. Did they not reach the second sentence of the prologue? Did they call on the public to cross an ocean without themselves rolling up their trouser legs?