The Dragons of Expectation – Robert Conquest

What a strange, mish-mash of a jumbled up book this is! I liked it, hated it, looked forward to reading it and wanted to throw it at the wall, sometimes all at the same time.

It was like looking at one of those paintings that are disturbing but you can’t not go back for another look!

And I also enjoyed watching Michael, my partner, go through the torture of reading it too!

The book doesn’t have a single theme, which is one of the things that makes it so frustrating to read. Some parts of it were interesting, intellectually stimulating and absorbing. Other bits were a diatribe about something, a piece of academic snobbery or politically very annoying.

The themes covered in the book are the decline of academic rigour, political ideologies and why they are outdated, USSR and Stalinism, how academia has destroyed our appreciation of Art and how the EU should be replaced by an Anglosphere. A random book! And written in 2005 so the bits about the EU have a bit of historic interest too.

I found the first few chapters about academic rigour really difficult to read but intellectually stimulating, which is what kept me going. It isn’t very often that I need to refer to a dictionary to find out the meaning of a word but I did with this book.

The bits about political ideology I found interesting. The fact that we, as a society, tend to cling onto ideas even when they have outlived their usefulness or proved themselves to be a hindrance. I don’t think it is useful to hark back to a past where “politics was about doing the right thing” but my view is that too much of modern politics is negative, about doing down the opposition and personal slurs. I want to know about what collaboration is happening cross-parties as well as their differences.

It almost goes without saying that I really enjoyed the sections about USSR and Stalinism. I’m interested in the Russian dictatorships and added to my knowledge.

The section on art really made me think. Conquest talked about how, by laying down rules of appreciation, we create an obfuscated view of it and so destroy any true appreciation. His example is of the person who commissioned a painting by one of what we call the “Old Masters”. The person who commissioned the painting did so because they liked the style of the painter and they liked the subject matter. They didn’t look at it hanging in their house and think “the brush stroke used to paint the leaf on that tree is…” they looked at it and though “that’s beautiful” or “I wish I could be at that place”. He also talks about books and poetry in the same way. It made me realise that I’m guilty of a level of book snobbery; I have books that I talk about and the larger number of, mainly, detective novels that I don’t. I would like to think that I mainly talk about the more serious books I read because it helps me to process what I have learned from them but, if I’m honest, there is also part of me who wants to be seen as intelligent and I don’t think detective novels necessarily add to that image!

The final part of the book, the creation of an Anglosphere, I can’t write about. It annoyed me far too much and I think Conquest was deluded and deluding himself!

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you like being annoyed, like a challenge and have nothing better to read. But in some, small way I quite enjoyed it.

Click here to find out more about Robert Conquest

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