- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

The length and breadth of this valuable work shoudn’t deter readers from tackling it. Leo Braudy’s new book “From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity” is a comprehensive account of the changing views of masculinity and how they influence our politics and social relations. If the title is wordy, even awkward, the thinking is deep. (Mea culpa: This reviewer is an acquaintance of Mr. Braudy.)

What better time for it than now, when military directives dominate the news and we are reminded daily how men and women in uniform represent our national honor around the world? The changing nature of the American military machine and its mission invites speculation on how policy matters will affect those most involved — and vice versa.

The subject is vast, but there is little reason to believe Mr. Braudy can’t cover it. Perhaps best known for his searching book on the nature of celebrity, “The Frenzy of Renown,” a 1987 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, he has again amassed more than enough material to service a host of seminars and college courses.

“‘From Chivalry To Terrorism’ is a work of synthesis,” he writes. “Readers looking for new research will probably not find it here. What they will find, I hope, are new juxtapositions of subjects usually thought to be unrelated and new interpretations of old assumptions about the relation of men to war.” He finds ways of connecting sexuality and technology, citizenship and racism, war and pornography . Which, of course, is the point of taking on such an open-ended project.

There is a wealth of intellectual insight to be found on nearly every page, sometimes offered at a dizzying speed, jumping from Elizabethan England to ancient Greece and back again with barely a pause. Mr. Braudy’s approach is professorial to the last degree, which isn’t surprising. He has been a professor of English literature at several institutions of renown, currently the University of Southern California. His other previous published works include books on film history and criticism.

His speculations here will provoke debate across the spectrum on the notion of the heroic. The old argument and tension between nature and nurture is only one of the issues explored. (Pity the poor student sitting in on any one of the chapters, were they to be presented as lessons of the day.) Beginning with the Middle Ages, and continuing up to the present, the author methodically assesses the myriad images and events that have shaped American and European cultural norms. It’s a feast for the senses as well as for the mind.

In doing so, he touches on etymology, changing gender norms, sexual fantasies, battlefield tactics and much, much more. Writers of all stripes may find the most provocative material to be Mr. Braudy’s consideration of how the language used to describe and validate our opinions actually shapes them — he took a similar tack in “The Frenzy of Renown.”

Finally, it is comforting to follow his reasoning about humanity’s ability to absorb the best of the traditional virtues of a masculine culture. In the final chapter (“Parting Words: Terrorism as a Gender War”), he ruminates about aspects of a global society since September 11, gently chiding those people who decry terrorism’s negative effects on human organization.

“When the interstate highway system was begun in the United States in the 1950s, critics said that it would destroy local culture, but in many cases, it led highways around towns and allowed them a chance to foster their own traditions,” he suggests. (He fails to mention how such highways often have also limited small-town growth and facilitated urban flight.)

“The twentieth century began with much talk of the clash between civilization and barbarism,” he writes, ever hopeful in his meandering attempt to put a positive spin on the contemporary scene. “But civilization in that limited sense may be a worn-out and discredited concept that needs to be replaced with something at once more all-embracing and more sensitive to individual difference.”

A note to book hounds: An extensive bibliography, organized conveniently under chapter headings, makes “From Chivalry to Terrorism” equally valuable as a reference work.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.


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