Letters on England by Voltaire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Voltaire’s Letters from England, originally published in 1733, is a solipsistic treatise on political, religious, and cultural observation during his stay from 1726 to 1729 of the benign nation that welcomed the thinker with open arms when he fled from persecution in his native France.
But the book is not a blinded paean to a rival country with a long sophisticated warring history with an intent to retribute his spites to his mother country as an expatriate. Instead, Voltaire takes a stance of a piqued paratactic storyteller in the fashion of Herodotus’s Histories or a trenchant journalist in the school of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. In Voltaire’s eyes, that the English are practical folk with a propensity for realism: reflective, respectful of etiquette, cool-headed, and effusively proponent of scientific discoveries are conspicuous in the overview effect of France seen across from the other side of the Channel.
From the manners of English Quakers to Isaac Newton’s (whom he admires as the brilliant sun of Halios) quantum physics and the law of the universe in great detail, the subjects of interest and the depth of knowledge demonstrate that Voltaire is more than a rebellious French enlightenment thinker. He is a true intellectual whose reason is constituted by the consilience of multidisciplinary subjects in depth. The book is a testament to a genius of a particular kind who embodies a man of letters in its truest sense.
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History is a story of a people who have accumulated their cultural artifacts, political crafts, and societal conventions into a great reservoir of Tradition that becomes the bedrock of a country. Therefore, it is always helpful to understand the origins of political and social systems as well as cultural propensities of a country if you want to pronounce your opinion on the stimulating current affairs of a country without Ignorant Prejudice.
The one such apposite example can be illustrated in the case of Brexit, which is the UK’s withdrawal from the E.U, seemingly unwelcome by people who are involved in international businesses and those who want to work and live in the UK as non-citizens. As an outsider who has never been to the UK, I think it deemed inappropriate to criticize its decision to exit the E.U. for the reason that only the decision makers and the people favoring the Brexit should know better. Nonetheless, one thing is certain that the current Brexit fervor and all its inclusive phenomena are never a new thing.
The proverbial English isolationism or exceptionalism, a quaint sense of Englishness different from its continental counterparts, goes back to King Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome in 1532. His unquenchable passion for Anne Boleyn, while still married to Catherine of Aragon, led him to bold separation from the Church of Rome, the Pan-European, supranational ancestor of the EU and the Leviathan of Christendom, which would disallow his divorce from his wife who was an ardent Catholic from ardent Catholic Spain. With an audacious proclamation of being the Head of Church of England, Henry VIII ordered a confiscation of the lands and wherewithal of monasteries and convents all over the Island and banning of professing the papist religion to his subjects from the Duke to the Butcher. Furthermore, the king constructed Royal Navy to remind himself and his subjects that England was Fortress bound by watery demarcation. In this manner, Henry VIII gained the absolute jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical as well as political matters and rejected any foreign authority within England. In fact, the substantial consequence of all of it is the king’s creation of England – not Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) or the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) – as a national and cultural identity, firmly entrenched in religious, political, and cultural sensibilities of the English that we frequently associate.
In view of Henry VIII’s schismatic separation from the Church of Rome, today’s Brexit movement is a historical reprise of the English exceptionalism that has something to do with its geographical characteristic as an island that shaped the particular national character known as “Englishness.” Hence, Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England can be regarded as the forerunner of Brexit today and the invention of the cultural sensibilities encompassing all things English deeply embedded in its national character. With this in mind, we can look at the Brexit phenomenon in a more sensible and balanced perspective and understand that history is not a thing of the past but an ongoing process that moves on within its cultural legacies for centuries.
Author’s note: this is based upon my reading of an article about ”Henry VIII’ s invention of England” from this month’s issue of BBC History. Knowing one’s history can quell blatant antipathy. Hence this essay.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It has been twenty years since Bill Bryson, a writer originally hailing from a small town in Iowa, fell in love with Great Britain where people are delighted in small pleasures, call strangers “Love,” and orderly wait on lines in public without peevishness. So much so that he has even married one. Now it is high time that Bryson returns to the States along the lines of Odyssey, who returned home in Ithaca twenty years after the decade-long Trojan War and another decade of travails. In retrospection of the memories collected on his beloved adopted homeland, Bryson decides to take a valedictory jaunt around the island small but big enough to nurture him with a wealth of culture and a bounty of humanity. And he does it on public transportation and by hiking equipped with his trademark razor-sharp wits, intractably keen intelligence, and his usual touchy-feely way of observing people and things that either irk or pique him. All of it comes to fruition in this highly amusing and genially forthright travel memoir.
You will be surprised to find out that the British think that the cereals are their invention. You will be overawed by the ubiquitous hedgegrows dated back to Anglo-Saxon times embroidering on the British landscape. Bryson will also take us for a ride in a London cab driven by an affably jocular cabbie who has to pass the Knowledge Test to memorize almost everywhere in the City of London. But London is not his demarcation of traveling. Bryson will further come along with you to Bournemouth, Exeter, Liverpool, which is his favorite city, Manchester, and even up north to Scotland all by train or coach, and by walking. With his truculent feistiness, irrepressible inquisitiveness, and scintillating sense of humor fabulously ingrained in his choice of the apropos words and jovial descriptions devoid of malice, Bryson is a cool cicerone, and your excursion will never be a bore.
The book seems to be primarily aimed for British readers who might be curious about what a foreigner would think of them and their country as a whole. In that regard, Bryson’s words are predominately British in the sense that the words and expressions he uses in the narrative are familiar to the British. For example, “bank holidays,” “coach,” “lorry,” or “Sainsbury’s” are peculiar to the British ways of life. But this kind of cultural barrier is kindly tackled by Bryson by providing you with a glossary of the British terms at the end of the book.
I have read other books by Bryson because of the same reason that induced me to select this book: his story-telling like narration is very appealing to me with his proverbial witticism smeared in every word he employs. He may appear to be a grumpy American man, but he has a heart to feel and see milk of human kindness in every quotidian thing or nondescript person by using the most appropriate words in wonderfully lucid expressions. There is a charm in his writing that will make you an admirer of his writings, and this book is no exception. It is Bryson’s long love letter to the small island he has fallen for head over heels with sincerity sealed with kisses and memories.
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