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The ‘Gothic Fox’

In response to:

Going Baroque from the October 20, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

Of the lettered sins, authorial whining about reviewers is probably the most tiresome, surpassed rarely, and then only by the procrastinations of publishers. So it is with much diffidence I offer some marginal comments on Professor J.H. Elliott’s otherwise illuminating and generous review of my Gothic Fox [NYR, October 20], a review made additionally helpful by brilliant summaries of my last two books.

Professor Elliott doubts the validity of my assertion that “The Counter-Reformation is to the cultural tradition of Spain and her Indies what the Industrial Revolution is to that of the English-speaking peoples everywhere….” He believes that comparisons such as these should be chronologically and geographically matched, otherwise the difference in their character and timing makes them “more than usually elusive.”

Is this really so? Is it not possible to compare the age of Alexander with that of Napoleon? Or the Dutch commercial patriciate with that of Phoenicia, Venice, or Catalonia? Ought we to refrain from re-reading Gibbon when considering the downfall of empires other than that of Rome? Can we not compare the economic feats of Parsees, Jews, and Quakers, even though they are distant in character and in time and space.

This is nonetheless an interesting conceptual problem, one I thought to have resolved at least in part with the sentence immediately preceding the quotation chosen by Professor Elliott, in which I attempted to establish the legitimacy of my interpretation by putting the two cultural achievements in perspective, observing that “nothing in the Spanish cultural tradition can compare with the prowess of the Catholic Reformation, and nothing that the English people have done can compare with their Industrial Revolution.”

Professor Elliott also doubts that statements about the “love of change” of the English-speaking peoples are necessarily applicable, for example, to the obsessive conservatism of Puritan New England. This may well be so, but I would comment that the readiness to innovate and the ability to thrive on diversity are bound up inextricably with the cultural traditions of the English-speaking peoples, and that they possibly find their most convincing illustration in the North American experience, whose origins range from the very different non-conformist communities of Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia to the sui generis orthodoxies of Jamestown and New York, all of which eventually contributed to the tidal wave of relentless innovation associated with modernity.

May I close by reiterating my gratitude to Professor Elliott for his most encouraging comments.

Claudio Véliz
Boston, Massachusetts

J.H Elliott replies:

In his last published book, L’identité de la France, Fernand Braudel urged the claims of comparative history, “a history that seeks to compare like with like—the condition of all social science if the truth be told.” But what constitutes “like”? Every historian who sets out to compare two or more societies is liable to discover very quickly that the like, on closer inspection, turns out to be unlike. While differences may in fact prove to be more illuminating than similarities, all such comparisons, as I suggested in my review, tend to be elusive. This should not of itself discourage would-be comparativists, and I see no need to succumb to the pessimism embodied in the French adage “comparaison n’est pas raison.” But it is obvious that the criteria for the initial selection of units of comparison need to be carefully determined. Hence my plea in my review of Claudio Véliz’s The New World of the Gothic Fox for “a careful definition and matching of the units of comparison.”

I do not, however, believe that close proximity in time and space are essential for successful comparison, and I am sorry if my words should have given Professor Véliz this impression. The choice of the societies to be compared should surely depend on the historical problem that is to be addressed. Because they were contemporaneous and shared a common European culture, a comparison between the France of Louis XIV and the England of William III is likely to help us resolve a wider range of historical questions than a comparison, say, between France and Bali. But the historian interested in exploring the relationship between power and pageantry might well find a Franco-British comparison less illuminating than one between the France of Louis XIV and the Balinese “theater-state,” as described by Clifford Geertz.

The historical problem addressed by Claudio Véliz in his book is that of the failure of Iberian American societies to emulate or surpass the economic achievements of British North America. He believes that the answer is primarily to be found in their differing cultural traditions: the English cultural tradition encouraged change and innovation, while the cultural tradition fostered by the Spanish Counter-Reformation did not. While he may well have a strong case here, I do not believe that he proves it in this book, or that he adopts the best strategy for doing so.

Where the English cultural tradition is concerned, he places, to my mind, far too much emphasis on the innovative society which developed after the coming of the Industrial Revolution (a concept, incidentally, which now seems much less solid to economic historians than it did a generation ago), while approaching too sketchily and selectively the English cultural tradition of the pre-industrial era. By contrast, he stops the Spanish cultural tradition in its tracks before industrialization becomes a global phenomenon, ignoring subsequent developments and assuming the dead weight of an enduring “Counter-Reformation” culture, resistant to change.

It seems to me that, if his intention is to answer the historical question that he poses, Professor Véliz is not starting his comparison from a level playing-field. To level the playing-field it would be necessary to compare British and Spanish (or North American and Iberian American) culture in the period leading up to industrialization, in order to determine whether the former was in fact more conducive to the acceptance of change, and, if so, how and why. At present he is asserting what still needs to be proved, as when he states that “the readiness to innovate and the ability to thrive on diversity are bound up inextricably with the cultural traditions of the English-speaking peoples.”

A comparison of the two cultures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries might indeed show that Spanish Counter-Reformation culture was dangerously inhibiting to technical and economic innovation. But equally it might show that a comparison of the two cultural traditions is not of itself sufficient to explain the growing divergence in the economic performance of the two civilizations from the late eighteenth century onward, and that other considerations—political, social, or even geographical—need to be brought into play. Indeed, he is bringing just such considerations into play when he rightly draws attention to the diversity of the communities established in British North America by the mid-eighteenth century—a diversity which cannot simply be explained in terms of loosely described “cultural traditions,” but which needs to be set into a historical context that will take into account, for instance, the failure of the British crown to control American space.

While, therefore, as a committed comparativist, I applaud Claudio Véliz’s intentions, I continue to believe that the complexity of the issue to which he has addressed himself demands a comparison at once more precise, and more profound, than the one which he has offered us.

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