By Molly Nelson
In early August, Phi Beta Kappa will host its 43rd Triennial Council in Florida, where delegates from its 280 chapters and over 50 associations will have the opportunity to meet one another as well as some of America’s foremost scholars and intellectuals. One of the featured speakers at this year’s Council is Teofilo Ruiz, who received a National Humanities Medal earlier this year. Ruiz received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is currently a professor of the social history of late medieval to early modern Spain at UCLA. He is a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, and has served as chair of the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese. His lecture title for the Council is “The Other 1492.”
Ruiz’s most recent book, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization, examines the effects of catastrophes on Western society and the ways in which it attempts to cope with them. “The unpredictability of history — the weight of endless cycles of war, oppression, and cruelty beyond description,” he argues, “shapes our individual and collective lives,” thus the longevity of society depends on its ability to rationalize or explain its ugliest components.
Drawing from Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, Ruiz argues in The Terror of History that society copes with pain and suffering in history in three primary ways: 1. Religion, 2. Embracing the Material World, and 3. The Pursuit of Beauty. Religion and religious experience can often justify and explain the inexplicable. It assigns meaning to the deplorable and the insufferable, and provides the comforting belief that it is all part of a greater plan that the deity or deities have for us. Embracing the material world, Ruiz argues, offers us solace by steering our attention away from the problems of history and ideas and towards the accumulation of wealth and the experience of embodiment via substances and sex. “By making love, working, owning things, spending money, building careers…we gain membership in a larger community,” he explains, giving meaning to our lives that might otherwise have fallen prey to the terrors of history. Ruiz proposes the pursuit of beauty as the third and final method of historical reconciliation with or escape from chaos and tragedy. In the pursuit of beauty we find a life of ideals which allows us to transcend time and place.
Ruiz’s The Terror of History bears particular importance in our modern society. The culture of post-9/11 America, for example, is in its very essence characterized by a continuous struggle to cope with chaos. As we are bombarded with painful and disturbing stories, sound clips, YouTube videos, tweets, and photos by not only the media but also ourselves, we feel the weight of Ruiz’s so-called terror of history. Perhaps escapism is just as prevalent — if not more — today as it was during the time of Bubonic plague. “The option is to cheat time and history by exiting as soon as possible,” writes Ruiz, “or, at least, to escape completely at those moments in which ephemerally we seem to step out of history altogether.” The terror of history, then, is inescapable so long as history itself continues.
Molly Nelson is a junior at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in English. Carnegie Mellon is home to the Upsilon of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
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