Please go now to read Alan Jacobs’s tribute to Rebecca West’s monumental book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The book is a 1,200-page account of the English writer’s journeys — it’s supposed to be a single 1937 trip, but I think she really took two, maybe three — through the Balkans in the 1930s. But it’s really about the complexity of humanity, and the weight of history, and the puzzle of historical causation. In his blog, Alan writes:
At one point West visits a place she calls Kaimakshalan — more accurately Kajmakčalan— a mountain on the Greek-Macedonian border. “And what has happened there?” she asks. “The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” What she confronted over and over again in her travels through the South Slavic world was how entangled history is, how incessantly events link to other events, the chain disappearing into the mists of time. West wrote as Europe was falling into ruins once more, and came to see quite clearly just how many of the catastrophic events of her own time stemmed from the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds on the Plain of Kosovo in 1389 — but how could that be explained to a modern person, occupied by the present-mindedness endemic to our world?
Lord have mercy, is that ever true about this extraordinary book! It is a magnificent work of prose, to be sure, but to me, the most amazing and enlightening thing about it is West’s revelation — I think that is the only word — of the Balkan way of living in history, and how the past determines the present, and the future. West doesn’t have a big overarching theory; she simply went around Balkan places talking to Balkan people, and writing down what they said. The eerie thing about it is that reading her accounts of these meetings, you can see why it’s plausible to believe that this or that thing had to happen the way it did, and how the people with whom West speaks are perfectly right to believe certain things that, from 30,000 feet, are fairly crazy. And maybe they are crazy, all things considered, but the point is that within the logic of particular Balkan peoples and particular Balkan histories, they make sense, even when they are mad. That is the point, how confusing and complicated all of this is.
To clarify, West certainly isn’t issuing an apologia for anything or anyone, necessarily — though she certainly defends the dignity of the south Slavic people against those who looked down on them. The main thing, as Alan observes, is her showing how impossibly entangled historical events and causes are, and how hard it is to really know things as others know them.
I’m trying to think if I’ve ever read a book that was so challenging and profound, but also so accessible and engaging. I keep a copy on my iPad, and read around in it from time to time. Reading it as an American in the 21st century is a profoundly unsettling experience. I always think when I’m reading it, “How tragic for us Americans that we never pay attention to history,” and on the next page, “How blessed are we Americans that we never pay attention to history.” It’s that kind of book.