Sunday, March 14, 2010

Paul Johnson, Historian

Paul Johnson has been for years one of my favourite writers and historians. I first encountered him through his History of Christianity written in 1977. I was amazed at what I learned about Christianity thanks to him. It would hold me in good stead over the years as different self proclaimed prophets would insist on their personal view of the church without consideration of "history" or "facts" for that matter. Thanks to Paul Johnson I would continue to study history, not just of the church, but of medicine, science and various subjects enjoying so much the view point that historians can give to diverse subjects.

Paul Johnson was a Roman Catholic born in Manchester in 1928 who graduated Magdalen College, Oxford. He went on to be editor of the New Statesman. Today in his 80's he's a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and New York Times

The next Paul Johnson I read was Modern Times, 1984. This was a remarkable history of the 1920 to the 80's and served for me as an almost prescience of the next two decades of political activities in the world.

I loved his History of the Jews 1970 because frankly I didn't expect to learn that there were Jewish cowboys and Jewish gangsters. He did a marvellous job of dashing stereotypes.

His book Intellectuals 1988 was truly an eye opener. So often at the university we are taught the thoughts of philosophers without consideration of their lives. Like advertisements by sports figures who claim that a particular soap or tampon is the best, we wonder what they actually use. Intellectuals did just that, telling us what these great men of history had done in their private lives, juxtaposed with what they said in their writings. .

The life of Sartre, Marx, Russell and others were laid out next to their words. "Practice what I preach and not what I do," might well have been the 19th century rationalist motto. This very idea of 'transparency' simply wasn't a consideration long before the advent of modern media, gossip columns and Facebook.

It wasn't until much later that I learned he'd had a long term marriage to psychotherapist Marigold Hunt with whom he had 3 sons and a daughter. His own affair in which his spurned mistress divulged that he liked to be spanked became public knowledge. Certainly his wife developed his appreciation for the unconscious which tends to muck up the rationalist view and explain all those "character defects' of the mere human. However one might have hoped that his own short coming might have made him more merciful to the likes of Bill Clinton who he rather hypocritically criticized.

Johnson admitted to his affair when his 50 year old mistress went public

but said that he still believed in family values while acknowledging himself a 'sinner'. His wife, like Mrs. Clinton appears to have been less judgemental and more merciful. Perhaps that has something to do with his stating that there are strong arguments for ordination of women as priests . Ironically he continues to favour celibacy in male priests. His conservative Catholic position has made his a strong critic of Dwarkins.

I read his book The Creators 2006 in which he eulogized Walt Disney for one but overall I found it somewhat dull and certainly less racy than Intellectuals. This may well be because the really good and creative among us aren't so prone to exciting distractions.

I've just now finished his Churchill (biography) 2009 and as usual simply loved reading this truly gifted writer. He's been amazingly prolific writing more than 40 books and countless articles. A truly erudite man he began as quite radical and ended up such a conservative that George Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

As a man of letters it does speak well for him that Tom Stoppard is his friend too. What a remarkable life and contribution he has made.


carolina said...

I would like to know what you think about his out outrageous claims supporting fascist regimes. On BBc radio 4 mr Johnson "historian" (am using the term VERY losely) claimed chilean general Pinochet avoided civil war, along with that he admired him. However, a state of internal war was declared by the junta, led by Pinochet on 11/9/73 to 10/3/78. During this time thousands perished and fell victim to torture, rape, kidnapping of their children, dissapearance and forced exile. This completely contradicts what this "historian" claims. If he believes him to be a saint that is his subjective opinion, but announcing lies on air when so many have sacrificed their lives for truth and justice is disgusting. The gentleman ought to retract his comment a.s.a.p. if he wishes to maintain his public image in tact

haykind said...

I have noted that leftist's, often called communists, are quick to criticize the worst of the right but deny their own dirty laundry. The rightists, often called fascists, are as likely to criticize the worst of the left without looking carefully at their own dirty laundry. To date though in terms of numbers killed leftist Stalin and Pol Pot definitely with their multi millions make rightist Pinochet look like a moderate.
Ethnocentrism and retrospective falsification commonly involves comparing the past to ideals and/or today. The Americans can be faulted for siding with bad choices because of the historic 'strong man' issues inherrent in developing countries. The choice was not between best and better but like most politics the worst of a bad lot. We're seeing that play out in Egypt today but note in Libya already the 'good' rebels have taken to torture and heinous behaviour that makes Ghaddafi look less evil. What went on with Pinochet is going on right now in Syria. Most of Egypt too doesn't want civil war. Civil war isn't all that's its cranked up to be.
I liked Paul Johnson and might not have read Marx if it weren't for his making history 'interesting' . I loved H.G. Wells for doing the same. It's a gift to make what so many make stuffy approachable. Thomas Cahill is another of my favourite writers who can bring history into the home. Thanks to Paul Johnson I know alot of the 'controversies' but I don't have to 'take' sides per se with extremists. I'm Canadian and as a Canadian I'm inherrently too polite.
Pinochet is an easy mark today but when people were first looking at him the context was not dissimilar to an outsider trying to understand who to support in Sudan today. Ironically Chile today with Uruguay second are the most admired of South American nations with the best conditions and greatest transparency and least graft. An evolutionary would say the cancer of Pinochet resulted in the reaction that produced the improvements that make Chile a leader. I'm not supporting any tyrant and agree Paul Johnson like any historian can be wrong. I just think that it's very easy to be reductionist looking at the past and clearly we all, including Johnson, no doubt would want better means and better ends but there's always the devil known and the 'road not taken'. Personally if any leader caused the rape or torture of any of my family I'd find it hard to see anything positive in them. Yet even Hitler built the Autobahn and Volkswagon and we all know hundreds of thousands of jews would have been saved if America had entered the war earlier rather than holding out till the great powers killed each other off. Good 'realpolitic' but not very charitable.