Original sin

I abhor the word “romp” in book reviews. “Somebody or another takes us on a romp through/to somewhere, yada yada yada.” That creates a difficult position for me in composing an unsolicited review of Original Sin (A Cultural History) by Alan Jacobs.

The ultimate scene in the film Russian Ark consists of nothing more than dancing. An orchestra plays and masses of costumed dancers fill a ballroom in the Winter Palace. For the scene to be riveting (and it is outstanding), the viewer must have foreknowledge that it was shot in a single take. The orchestra, the costumes, the dozens and dozens of dancers executing complicated steps were really as perfect as they appear on film.

Original Sin is, from the first page to the last, like that ballroom scene: a massive undertaking of incredible complexity that comes together such that it seems like an effortless good time.

Those who have put thought to paper know that it’s difficult labor. Jacobs sets out to trace the history of original sin in 274, 6×9″ pages. It could not have been as easy as he makes it look. I imagine that he spent arduous hours in that peculiar torment of rewriting, but his toil is the reader’s treasure.

Whether he’s discussing Robert Owens’ utopian mill and the birth of socialism or Gregor Mendel’s experiments, no idea is left forever on pages turned. He weaves Dionysos, Milton, Hellboy, R.D. Laing, Tom and Jerry, Dutch Calvinism, William James, the birth of American anarchism, Coleridge, the abolitionist movement and the proverbial “much, much more” together in the sort of tapestry that is good history in wide angle. And the footnotes are so delightful that the reader looks forward to asterisks.

Jacobs is a practicing Christian, he tells us as much–if subtly–early in the book. It is not, however, a Christian explanation of the concept; more importantly, it is not an attempt to refute a Christian concept. I’m not sure that a non-Christian could bring the necessary feeling of personal exploration that animates this book. If there was an attempt to convert me, i missed it.

I was having too much fun enjoying Jacobs’ deconstruction of modern conservativism in a short, but utterly devastating, eleven pages. That’s not the only thing that gets deconstructed, but it is not a book about who’s right and who’s wrong.

The last sentence of the afterword (which is about the Blues) reads, “If there is a proper response, a truly wise response, to the narrative of this book, it surely begins with the recognition that if everyone is bad to the bone–if all of us strut and fret our hour upon the stage, filled with the consciousness of injured merit, fairly glowing with self-praise–then our condition is, first and above all else, comical.”

Amen

Original Sin: A Cultural History; Alan Jacobs; HarperOne; 2008; ISBN: 9780060783402

Available at all the major web book stores (Powell’s, Borders and Amazon), and i found it at my local public library.

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~ by Lex on November 4, 2009.

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