BOOKS

The Roar of the Literary Canon
Making sense of war and peace in literature.

 

July | August 2011 contents
Gazette Home

 


TELEVISION A high-tech look at the fossil record. Jurassic CSI

INTERVIEW Checking in with John Legend C’99

ART Artist and cosmetic-surgeon Eric Finzi C’77

BOOKS Canon fodder. Grand Strategies

ARTS CALENDAR







Share |


 

 

 

GRAND STRATEGIES: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order
By Charles Hill L’60
Yale University Press, 2010. $27.50.

By Dennis Drabelle | Diplomacy used to be considered the province of a suave and cultured elite, but if an anecdote told by Charles Hill is typical of the profession today, it may have lost its luster. In 2003, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had a conversation with an unnamed State Department official. Kissinger was comparing the French stance toward the imminent Iraq War with the policies of Cardinal Richelieu when it dawned on him that “the State Department guy had never heard of Cardinal Richelieu.”

As a cure for such ignorance, Hill offers the remedy of literature—history, philosophy, and above all works of imagination—that has a bearing on “statecraft and its essential ideas.” In Grand Strategies, he draws upon his own high-powered career—which includes stints as an aide to Secretary of State George Shultz and a consultant to the secretary general of the United Nations, as well as teaching posts at Yale and the Hoover Institution—to put together a guided tour of the literary texts he considers useful for a diplomat’s education. And an erudite, stimulating tour it is.

Hill begins with a bravura re-examination of the Greek and Roman classics, weaving several works into a tapestry of primordial political development: the Iliad (an early depiction of diplomacy, in the attempt by Odysseus and others to persuade Achilles to quit sulking and fight); Aeschylus’ dramatic trilogy The Oresteia (“the state comes into being to replace the blood feud as the source of justice and the foundation of civilization”); and Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War (which presages the founding of “an international system of states”). Within this section comes a glittering set-piece on the Trojan Horse, the story of which is told most fully in Virgil’s Aeneid. Although at first glance the Trojans’ acceptance of the horse might seem to have been careless almost to the point of suicide, Hill shows how cunningly the Greeks sold their ruse. He ends his discussion of the Aeneid by noting that the second (and less admired) half of the epic is essentially a drawn-out battle—a reminder that “no matter how far humanity may go to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples.”

Thirty pages and a millennium-and-a-half later, Hill departs briefly from his concentration on literature to cite a painting: Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533), which depicts two French diplomats looking morose, presumably because of their inability to bridge the gulf opening up between their Catholic sovereign and the restive King Henry VIII of England. This leads the author to introduce an item he will keep circling back to: the Treaty of Westphalia, which not only ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 but also ruled religion out of bounds as a European casus belli. “For a believer in the Great Dates of History,” Hill writes, “1648 marks the founding of the modern world order, the year in which the traditional concept of peace as a universal phenomenon in God’s keeping was replaced by the idea of peace as a relationship between states.” This order, Hill argues, lasted well into the 20th century, when Adolf Hitler shattered it.

The book ranges widely, tying writers together not only because they touched on similar topics but also because they admired and borrowed from one another. In one dazzling series of paragraphs, Montaigne yields the floor to Cervantes, who ushers in Thomas Mann, who hands the baton to Shakespeare. The reader learns that a surprising number of great writers were diplomats of one sort or another early in their careers, including Milton, Rousseau, and Washington Irving. Occasionally (and especially in the endnotes), Hill tosses in personal asides, some of which will resonate with Penn alums of his vintage: he quotes English professor Robert Spiller C’17 G’20 Gr’24, one of whose American Lit courses Hill took, and mentions that as a grad student he was employed by the Whitman scholar Sculley Bradley “to go to the Gotham Book Mart to scout out first editions.”

Even for a book that reflects a lifetime of reading, this one is rather free with superlatives. We are told that Pericles’ funeral oration is “the greatest speech in history”; that Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid is “still the best in English”; that David Stacton’s People of the Book is “the best modern novel about the Thirty Years’ War” (how much competition can be there be?); and so on. By the same token, I’m not sure Hill advances his cause by pushing books that may tell us a lot about statecraft but are painful to read. For example, he goes on at length about Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities without mentioning the novel’s mawkishness.

Yet most of the books discussed in Grand Strategies can be recommended without reservation. As for those that can’t, a (literal) elder statesman is entitled to have his say, especially when he delivers it with such clarity and breadth of vision. Grand Strategies is a wise and very well-read man’s selective tour of Western literature (with a few books from other cultures imported, too). It’s a trip well worth taking, even it you don’t have a diplomatic bone in your body.


Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.
     
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/24/11