A lively, witty whirlwind tour of a calamitous century when Europe and so much of the rest of the world was up in arms, from Polish historian and biographer Zamoyski (Chopin, not reviewed).
To call this maxi-history shallow seems unfair: Zamoyski’s piquant, frequently hilarious descriptions of the numerous idiots, frauds, warmongers, and hypocrites who have been lionized as 19th-century heroes zips along at roughly 50 pages per 10 years. What hobbles so much erudite razzle-dazzle is the breadth of Zamoyski’s challenge: an attempt to unify every act of political rebellion, philosophical upheaval, and cultural convulsion throughout the western world—from Poland to Haiti, from Paoli’s 1755 Corsican rebellion (misinterpreted by Rousseau as a rejection of civilization and a return to a pastoral state of “nature” when it was, in fact, precisely the opposite) to the fall of the Paris Commune. The author shows that, stripped of its mysticism and dreamy idealism, romanticism and patriotism were irrational transfers of what had previously been religious ideas about individual salvation and the divine rights of kings into myths of the noble savage and the savagely noble nation. Typically symbolized by a muscular, bosomy woman in flowing robes, Lady Liberty was no Miss Congeniality. In Poland, Spain, South America, and France, she was no better at defining freedom, defending her borders, nurturing culture, regulating trade, and managing her economic resources than the nasty old kings she replaced. In a tone that slips merrily from the darkly sarcastic to the unimpeachably wise, Zamoyski’s pursuit of unhappiness hops about capriciously, frequently changing locations, time periods, and personalities in a single paragraph. The result strongly debunks past and current notions of 19th-century freedom fighting.
Brash, breezy, and subversively irreverent: Zamoyski makes sausage out of Lafayette, Rousseau, Marx, Bolivar, and other sacred cows—exposing patriotism, romanticism, and the host of other -isms born in their time as dangerous deceptions that are not to die for. (50 b&w illustrations)