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[T]he persistent and growing achievements of the Enlightenment and its belief in the perfectibility of human life shape the last portion of the book. The problem is that Gombrich doesn't always see its vulnerabilities or the dangers that threatened it. For example, he expresses a sympathy for socialist ideals that may have prevented him from fully acknowledging that the failures of the Bolshevik Revolution had some source other than the fact that "the outside world intervened." Gombrich knows that history keeps repeating itself, but in this respect he is almost a progressive. So, he confesses in his added chapter, in 1936 it seemed "unthinkable" to him that after the Enlightenment an era of intolerance and torture could arise again - unthinkable enough, perhaps, that he could not fully take into account what must have been right before his eyes.

This faith, though, ultimately provided the confidence to make this book work as it does; it really does provide a sense of home. That this was an illusion may have been one reason that this book never appeared in English. Gombrich may have had an inkling of this. In his writings about art, he argued that we make sense of images because of our presuppositions. Art, though, can demonstrate how those presuppositions are mistaken; it teaches new ways of seeing. Could there have been an element of that here - a sense that despite all he did see, he didn't see well enough because of his presuppositions? This resurrected history deserves reading for all its delights, but its optimistic illusions may help explain why histories for children are now so hard to write.
    -ESSAY: A History for Kids That Isn't Child's Play (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 10/03/05, NY Times)
E. H. Gombrich is most famous as the author of The Story of Art (1950), which started out as a book for teens, but was so readable and worthwhile that it became a standard university text and went through multiple editions in numerous languages. But back in 1935 he was just another twenty-six-year-old Viennese with a doctorate in art history when a friend asked him if he'd be interested in translating an English language history of the world for kids into German. Upon reading it, Gombrich suggested instead that he write one himself--which he proceeded to do in just six weeks to meet the publishers tight deadline. The resulting Little History likewise became a bestseller and was translated into a number of languages, but only now, thanks to Yale University Press and the translator Caroline Mustill, is it appearing in English, with revisions that the author himself was still working on when he died in 2001. The result is a book of considerable charm, one that begs to be read aloud to children, as Mr. Gombrich read it to his future wife as he wrote, but one that reveals certain core assumptions of the author that have not withstood the last seventy years very well and were tatty even at the time.

The book begins like any fairy tale:
All stories begin with "Once upon a time". And that's just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time.
It proceeds in 40 chapters, beginning in the Earth's primordial ooze and continuing on to a final chapter -- added for the English edition -- which tries to explain the devastation of WWII in light of the upbeat Whiggish version of man's relentless progress and the benefits of reason that had come in the preceding chapters. That Mr. Gombrich's central thesis ultimately proved disastrously wrong will hardly lead the young to enjoy the book any less, while it adds greatly to the interest of the text for adults. Captured in amber is the early 20th century optimism that man was outgrowing, or had outgrown, the need for God and faith, and grown into his own mind, the capacity to reason in the abstract, which had brought us such delightful new sciences as Darwinism, Marxism, and the like. One can't help but wince when, while writing of the horrors of WWI, he says:
But just once there was a glimmer of hope. In Russia a revolution had broken out in 1917.
We obviously have the benefit of hindsight, but even by 1935 Mr. Gombrich should have known this was no hopeful sign. That such a wise and compassionate man still saw it as such reveals as much about the 20th century as does the history that he shows us led to it. The fairy tale he set out to tell, of the rise of secular humanism, ended in tragedy, but the 20th Century did not, thanks almost entirely to the resistance of America, which never fell under rationalism's sway. It is to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the resurgence of Judeo-Christian conservatism that readers have to look for the "happily ever after" of this tale.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Ernst Gombrich Links:

    -The Gombrich Archive
    -BOOK SITE: Little History of the World (Yale University Press)
    -Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) (kirjasto)
    -ESSAY: THE LITERATURE OF ART (E.H. GOMBRICH, Atlantisbuch der Kunst: eine Enzyklopädie der bildenden Künste)
    -INTERVIEW:The big picture - interview with art historian Ernst Gombrich (David Carrier, Feb, 1996, ArtForum)
    -PROFILE: History man: As Ernst Gombrich's 'Little History of the World' is published for the first time in English, his granddaughter remembers one of the 20th century's leading thinkers. (Peter Conrad, October 2, 2005, The Observer)
-VIDEO INTERVIEW: Karl Popper (ERnst Gombrich, Channel 4 programme 'Uncertain Truth', 198)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Leonie Gombrich (Weekend Edition, 10/30/05, NPR)
    -OBIT: Sir Ernst Gombrich: Art historian whose book Art and Illusion has remained central to the philosophical and critical discussion of visual arts for 40 years (Michael Podro, November 5, 2001, The Guardian)
    -OBIT:Sir Ernst Gombrich OM (Daily Telegraph, 06/11/2001)
    -REMEMBRANCE: E.H. Gombrich (1909–2001) (Charles Hope, 12/20/01, NY Review of Books)
    -REMEMBRANCE: Ernst Gombrich, 1909–2001 (New Criterion, December 2001)
    -ESSAY: A preference for the primitive: Gombrich's legacy,/a> (Wilkin, Karen Wilkin, Spring 2003, Hudson Review)
-ESSAY: A History for Kids That Isn't Child's Play (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 10/03/05, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: To refresh Western eyes (Nigel Spivey, 23/11/2002, Daily Telegraph)
    -ARCHIVES: Gombrich (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich (Tim Blanning, Daily Telegraph)
-REVIEW: of A Little History of the World (Scott McLemee, Newsday)
    -REVIEW: of Little History of the World (Kirkus Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art by E.H. Gombrich,/a> (Henri Zerner, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of THE IMAGE AND THE EYE: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. By E. H. Gombrich (MARINA VAIZEY, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE PREFERENCE FOR THE PRIMITIVE: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art By E.H. Gombrich (BRUCE BOUCHER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE ESSENTIAL GOMBRICH: Selected Writings on Art and Culture By E. H. Gombrich (Michael Kimmelman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Preference for the Primitive by E. H. Gombrich (Martin Gayford, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art by E. H. Gombrich (Christopher S. Wood, The New Republic)

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