Monday, March 7, 2011

Cohen's "History In Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth" (Cadillac)

After a good while of considering and searching for a decent history of The Boxer Rebellion, I happened across Cohen's "History In Three Keys" on Amazon.  Despite being out of print at the time, or available for near $100, recos and the premise led me to seek it out on Ebay.  I managed to snag it 'nearly new' for a decent price.

I started this one just before leaving for Florida/Fort Myers, and have just wrapped up reading it poolside, and over delicious beer and vodka/lemonade.  I can think of a better way to pass vacation time.

As I say, the premise here (based on what reviews suggested to me, initially) was a key draw.  Cohen approaches the Boxers, and his crafting of the text, in three distinct parts.  The metaphor of key is apt in both senses - unlocking the history in its various components, but also in striking a specific key or 'tone' for each of the three parts of his text. 

Cohen succeeds in every way.  This was simply a great history to read; a delight to explore a (short) period of history I knew nothing at all about, but also for 'unlocking' (or at least, reinforcing) the critical lenses we should all have in place when approaching constructed visions of the past.  Some of this is old hat for any social scientist or conscientious reader of history, but it's worth quoting Cohen's succinct vision here:

"When the past is treated as myth, it’s meaning is governed to an overwhelming extent by the concerns of the present.  As the center of gravity of present concerns shifts, therefore, the meaning of the past necessarily shifts along with it, sometimes to a quite extraordinary degree.”  P. 238.

Like I say, this should be a gimmie, but it's too often backgrounded in our use and articulation of past events.  Great starter.  Cohen comes closer to my heart in evoking Clifford Geertz, Edward Said, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Barbara Myerhoff and Mary Douglas (holy anthropological pantheon!), etc. in his approach, particularly in Parts II and III.

Part I, a narrative history, sets the stage.  Part II Cohen describes as a historical ethnography, rich with quotes and other socio-psychological touch points of the lived experience (incl. an account of the dynamics that led to the religio-magical dimensions of the Boxers and Red Lanterns).  Part III illuminates how the Boxers were used and interpreted in various ways, internationally, but with considerable focus on China itself, through it's tumultuous 20th C.

It seems too simple to review the narrative history here, but to paraphrase Cohen, 'you don't read about lions to learn about giraffes, but you read about both for a better understanding of the animal kingdom.'

In that vein, Cohen's 'keys' have reignited an academic 'me' in my recent passion for historical texts.  While I wouldn't look for such dense readings at every outing, I'll be using each of the lenses he's reinforced with much enthusiasm and enjoyment.  Simply an incredible read.

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