Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1346

Sacrifice and Atonement
The main theme of the book is the damage caused in human history by the idea of sacrifice that is embedded in Christian and pagan traditions. West sees this idea working at many levels in history. Her abhorrence of it becomes clear to her in Macedonia, when she witnesses a black lamb being sacrificed on a rock in a fertility rite. She objects to the idea that the infliction of pain and death on one creature can cause another to become fertile.

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West traces the idea of sacrifice to the Christian doctrine of atonement, a concept she finds repugnant. According to this doctrine, which was developed by St. Paul and refined by St. Augustine, God sacrificed His son on the cross so that man could be freed from the punishment that his sins deserved. According to West:

This theory flouts reason at all points, for it is not possible that a just God should forgive people who are wicked because another person who was good endured agony by being nailed to a cross.

The ramifications of this doctrine have permeated Christian culture. People have been inculcated with the idea that pain and suffering is the price of anything valuable. This belief has led to the idea that there is something virtuous in being defeated, that somehow, cosmic law rewards the sacrifice of the good. West sees this idea operating in the pacifism of 1930s-Britain waiting to be the passive victim of Nazi aggression because Britons did not want to soil their hands with violence. She sees it operating also in the Serb defeat at Kossovo in 1389. To substantiate this, she refers to the epic poem commemorating the defeat, which is treasured by all Serbs. The poem relates how, before the battle, the prophet Elijah came to Tsar Lazar, the Serb leader, in the form of a grey falcon. The falcon asked Lazar what kind of kingdom he wanted—an earthly kingdom or a heavenly kingdom. If he chose the former, the falcon implied that he would be victorious, but if he chose the heavenly kingdom, he would he defeated. Lazar chose the heavenly kingdom, because a heavenly kingdom would last forever, whereas earthly kingdoms survive for only a short time. In making this choice, Lazar condemned himself to death and his army to defeat. He chose sacrifice as a means of salvation.

Empires
The theme of the destructiveness of empires runs throughout the book. Most of West’s ire is concentrated on two empires: the Ottoman Empire, which subjugated the Serbs; and the Austrian Empire, chronically mismanaged by the Habsburg dynasty, which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was finally destroyed as a result of World War I.

However, West, who grew up as a citizen of the British Empire at the height of its power, was not an absolute opponent of imperialism. She states that it has often proved ‘‘magnificent’’ in practice. An empire could spread civilization, develop technology, bring the rule of law, and tame nature. But empires are not always enlightened. In the case of the British Empire, in addition to its achievements in granting self-government to its dominions, there was hypocrisy. The Roman Empire in some respects destroyed more human achievements than it fostered. The disadvantages of empire are best illustrated in the Balkans. The Turks, according to West, despoiled Macedonia and old Serbia (which included Kossovo) and robbed its inhabitants for so long that there was almost nothing left. The same was true of Dalmatia by Venice, and Croatia by Hungary. The history of the Balkans shows that when an empire attempts to travel too far beyond its Manichaeism was a Christian heresy, which is an opinion or doctrine contrary to church dogma. According to its cosmology, there had originally been a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness that were quite separate from each other. The present world resulted from the aggression of the kingdom of darkness. It was the task of the virtuous to extract the sparks of light that were imprisoned in the darkness of this world. The heresy was ruthlessly suppressed by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

West discusses Manichaeism in relation to the history of Dalmatia. She regards the heresy as an extremely useful conception of life and uses it as an allegory of history. West tends to think in blackand- white terms, and she sees the Germans and Turks aligned on the dark side, and the Serbs, for the most part, as representing the light. She also sees herself as somewhat like a virtuous Manichaean living in a world full of darkness, charged with using her discriminating intellect to understand life and extract from the darkness whatever fragments of light she can discover.

Relationships between the Sexes
West writes about relations between the sexes at the personal and societal level, and describes the differences between them. She observes that men and women see totally different aspects of reality. Women are often interested only in the personal side of life and ignore the wider context of history. This weakness she calls idiocy, after the Greek root meaning ‘‘private person.’’ Men, on the other hand, are so obsessed by public affairs that they cannot see the details correctly; they see as if by moonlight, and West calls this ‘‘lunacy.’’

During her travels, she sees frequent examples of the oppression of women by men. She regards the costumes of the women in Herzegovina—who wear masculine-looking coats much too large for them that can be pulled up and used as a veil—as a sign of male hostility to women. Such clothes, she says, are imposed by a male society that has neurotic ideas about female bodies and wants to insult them and drive them into hiding. Women cannot be happy in such societies. One of the reasons men oppress women is that they need to be reassured; they like to feel superior to women.

West feels compassion for the oppressed women of Macedonia. She is also angered when in Kossovo she sees a young female peasant walking with a ploughshare tied to her back, while her husband walks alongside her, carrying nothing. West is disgusted by societies where women do all the physical work, not only because of the unfair burden placed on women but because such arrangements also emasculate the men. West observes in one of her typical generalizations that men are easily discouraged. Once women have proved they can do something just as well as men, the men are reluctant to go on doing it. They either become enemies of their wives or relapse into an infantile state of dependence. This bewilders the women, who expect men to be strong.

However, at times, to the consternation of some feminist critics, West seems to accept the traditional gender roles. In a phrase that sounds somewhat oldfashioned today, she writes that in Dalmatia she encountered a world ‘‘where men are men and women are women.’’ She is referring to the virile strength of Slavic men (in contrast to the effete men of the West). And in Bosnia, in contrast to Macedonia, she finds women who seem completely free in spirit, in spite of the fact that they must wait on their husbands, take beatings from them, and walk while the men ride. On this occasion, West offers no censure of such arrangements, even though she knows they are based on a pretense by the women— that the women accept the men’s judgment that they are inferior.

Parallel to West’s observations of and generalizations about relations between men and women is her own relationship with her husband, which seems a civilized and tolerant one. Their disagreements are of the intellectual kind and they discuss them in even, respectful tones. She allows her husband his eccentricities and they seem to regard each other with good humor. Each cares for the welfare of the other. As the chauffeur in Macedonia says, touchingly, ‘‘Yes, they’re fond of each other all right, look how close they are sitting and they aren’t young either.’’

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