It is difficult for a professional historian to stand aside from his or her métier and write a book in which the personal continuously intrudes into the narrative,” writes Teofilo F. Ruiz. In The Terror of History, the U.C.L.A. professor of history harnesses his personal story to his professional métier. Or is it the other way around? With heavy doses of memoir and confession, this is surely among the most intimate reflections on history to appear in recent years. Terror has much to say about the ways in which we respond to life’s disasters and discontents and the stark consequences of choosing one response over another.
Ruiz is, first and foremost, a man of letters. His references to literature, film and art, from Homer to Goya to Tolkien, will be refreshing to those who crave something more than archival material and footnotes from their history books. Terror has two points of departure. The first is Giovanni Boccaccio’s description in The Decameron of how Florentines responded to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. Some took refuge from this horror in religious belief and ritual, including extreme forms like flagellation. Others embraced the pleasures of the senses. Still others, like Boccaccio himself, took the aesthetic route of writing, painting or some other artistic expression. All these responses, according to Ruiz, are characteristic efforts to escape the movement of history in search of something timeless and permanent.
The other point of departure is Ruiz’s own search for refuge as a teacher and writer. The three chapters dedicated, respectively, to religion, to the world of the senses and to the lure of knowledge and beauty are filled with arresting vignettes taken from both the history of Western civilization and the author’s own life. Ruiz regrets that he does not have more to offer by way of answers: “Age, I fear, does not necessarily confer wisdom.” His occasional asides on current events or swipes at contemporary figures tend to distract from the book’s wider vision, but readers will enjoy the journey nonetheless.
There is much to admire about this book. It is the product of a lifetime of hard work and serious thought about life’s fundamental questions. Above all, Ruiz does not shy away from the consequences of atheism, a position he has held for four decades since losing the Catholic faith. The book’s conclusion features the dark poetry of James Thomson: “There is no God; no Fiend with names divine/...This little life is all we must endure,/ The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,/ We fall asleep and never wake again.” Ruiz admits that such a creed provides no clear answers to the question of whether or not one’s life or work has any meaning.
I consider the book’s most haunting passage the author’s description of a moment when he is trying to avoid his wife’s request to empty the garbage: “Eventually I go to the bathroom to take a shower. I am alone. I look at myself in the mirror. I see nothingness around and in front of me. Nothing is to be accepted. Nothing is to be believed.” A look in the mirror, even more than a look at the world around us, can be a temptation to despair. Faith tells us that this sometimes repellent mirror image is only part of the picture, that there are other images—some of them close at hand—that remind us of what we are yet meant to be. Still, Ruiz says that he can no longer make sense of the world through religion.
Yet Terror has some unfinished business. In the first chapter, the author refers to a fourth way in which some Florentines responded to the Black Death. They helped. They cared for the sick. They buried the dead. Ruiz credits such people with giving the rest of us hope. It is curious, then, that he does not dedicate a chapter to this fourth group. Yet surely such people are worthy of consideration. What animated them in 1348, and what animates them now? Many, though not all, of these have been people of faith. And I dare suggest that, though the author locates himself primarily in the aesthetic category, he has more than a foot in this final group that he mentions but does not explore.
How does someone without faith make sense of this more excellent way? I would very much like to read Ruiz’s account of the people who give us true hope amid the terror of history.