Will the New York Review of Books Classics subscription people ever send me a fast book to read? I don’t want to quibble with them since their selections have thus far been so various and good each in its own way. But they are all slow, attention absorbing books; fast, easy breezy reads seem to be anathema. I don’t mind, really, it’s just that they are all backing up. I am in the midst of April’s book and have May and June on my table begging to be read. But Paul Hazard’s intellectual history, Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715 is not to be rushed. But I don’t want to rush it, it so good!
Hazard has such a delightfully dry sense of humor that sometimes I am not immediately certain he is joking. There is a section in which he details the history of writing history. He has dealt with kings and wars and then comes out with this:
Well then, let us put profane history aside and let us concentrate on the one history that really matters, the history dictated by God. Here all is plain sailing; from the creation of the world to the coming of Christ there is an interval of 4,000 years, or, to be quite precise, 4,004.
Huh? I even wrote in the margin, “is he serious?” He goes on to talk about Chronology, the science of figuring out that 4,000 number and how it was arrived at: combing the Bible and counting begats and lifespans. And he manages it all in a seemingly quite serious manner for two pages. He then starts to bring in disputes over the numbers from other counters, but the biggest trouble of all are the Egyptians and the Chinese, both of who insist they have been around much longer than 4,000 years. Of the Chinese he says:
They claimed, and wanted people to believe, that they had existed from a time so remote as to have been anterior to the date when God created light. Was there ever such barefaced impudence!
That made me laugh.
He goes on to talk about Pére Paul Pezron, a Cistercian monk who, in 1687, tried valiantly to fix the date discrepancies by using a different version of the Bible and a different outside the box counting method that got him 5,500 years instead of 4,000. This allowed him to fit in the Egyptians and Chinese. His triumph, Hazard says, was short lived:
It was not merely that even these additional years were not enough to satisfy the arithmeticians, but it was considered a very rash proceeding to go picking and choosing between the different versions of the Scriptures just to suit the convenience of the Egyptians and the Chinese, and Pére Pezron was given to understand that he was slipping from chronology and landing himself in impiety.
What a hoot!
So you see why I am not able to read this book fast? I would miss so much of the fun. Hazard’s irreverence is delightful and must be savored!