Quickshot Book Review of William L. Shirer’s “Gandhi: A Memoir”

On the twelfth of last month I did one of my “quickshot” reviews for William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I mentioned several of the other books the author had written in the introduction, and today I’ll be offering a brief review of one of them—namely, Gandhi: A Memoir.

As the title implies, this book is not a comprehensive history of the Indian independence struggle or a full biography of Gandhi. It is, instead, a memoir covering the time Shirer spent with Gandhi, before the outbreak of World War II. He had originally come to India as a reporter in 1930, though he had first heard of and been quite impressed by Gandhi in 1922. The book primarily follows along from Shirer’s association with him over the course of 1931, filled mostly with background information on Gandhi’s struggles, what he had done before meeting Shirer, a bit on the history of India (with particular emphasis on the differences between the Muslim and Hindu communities), and from chapter 15 on an overview of what Gandhi did from his last parting with Shirer to his death by assassination on January 30, 1948.

I’ll start with the bad first. This book is nowhere near as comprehensive and magisterial as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. For all its flaws (which I described a bit in my previous quickshot review), that book was legitimately a masterwork, a classic of history. Gandhi: A Memoir is not remembered as fondly, and it’s easy to see why. If I could choose a word to describe this book, it would be “fluffy.” Shirer’s overview of India’s history is serviceable, but he adds no interpretation of it as he did in Rise and Fall (even if I and many other historians disagreed with it). Similarly, he provides a clear, readable description of Gandhi’s actions and the progress of his movement, but little analysis or interpretation. Obviously, his main primary sources are his own memories, articles about Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, and other sources which are neither numerous nor hard to find; again contrasting with Rise and Fall, which was notable for the truly immense number of primary sources with which it constructed its narrative. Finally, Shirer doesn’t provide much insight into Gandhi himself. Though he does criticize the “saintly” man, noting several times in the text where Gandhi could be overly stubborn and inflexible and spending some of the later chapters on his strange sexual habits, there’s little original, notable, or even sustained examination of Gandhi’s character or leadership style. There is, in short, little to separate this work as history from any other, more involved text on Gandhi or the Indian independence movement, or even Gandhi’s own autobiography.

Don’t think the book is all bad, though. In fact, I started with criticism because there’s otherwise so much to praise about it! All of the criticisms above might apply more severely to a historical work like Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but remember—this is a memoir. It wasn’t meant to assert an involved historical argument but to convey to the reader a sense of what Shirer experienced and felt in his own life. And in that regard, it succeeds more than adequately. We get a very good grasp of why he felt so attached to Gandhi and why he considered the leader to be, in Shirer’s words, “[a] unique man who was unlike any great individual of our time, or perhaps any time.” (p. 11) Even if we don’t get any original or profound insight into Gandhi’s character or accomplishments, we do receive a compelling portrait of his personality and his humanity; his humility and compassion along with his obstinacy and licentiousness (though more emphasis is placed on the former than the latter). Shirer doesn’t insert too much of himself in the narrative (to his credit), focusing more on Gandhi, but he does relate several exchanges they had with each other, showing us how Gandhi impressed a skeptical reporter with his values and how he changed Shirer’s views on many subjects, including religion.

Religion is what I’d like to focus on for this quickshot review, as Shirer’s perspectives on it often mirror my own, or in other cases, give me much food for thought.

Shirer was raised a Presbyterian, yet as he writes in his autobiography, his exposure to different religions caused him to lose faith in his own. He said that “[i]n college, the first doubts began to rise. And they grew rapidly as I went abroad as a correspondent and came into other cultures, other religions. I found it increasingly difficult to believe in the very foundations of the Christianity I had been born into.” (A Native’s Return, p. 464) If Gandhi: A Memoir is any indication, Gandhi himself was the final blow to Shirer’s faith—“After that experience I could never be a true Christian, believing that salvation was reserved for those of that faith alone. If there were a Heaven, it would be open to Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and others, who far outnumbered Christian. Nor could I any longer believe that the Christian God was the one and only one, as I had been taught in my youth. There were others, for other faiths, just as legitimate.” (p. 240)

Yet, at the same time, Shirer did not lose faith in faith itself, so to speak. While he may perhaps not have affirmed the Nicaean Creed, and in A Native’s Return seems to be more of an agnostic than anything else (he found it hard to believe in a just God given the horrors he had seen in Nazi Germany—pp. 465-466), he rather liked Gandhi’s more esoteric conception of religion. He notes that Gandhi often told him “There is no other God than Truth” and that “religion means self-realization or knowledge of self.” Shirer admits that “[i]f that was what it was—and I had never before heard it put that way—I could readily subscribe to it myself.” (pp. 240-241). Such is, curiously enough, not a particularly uncommon attitude towards spirituality. Though we’ve heard of folks like Thomas Paine who were Deists, Shirer apparently didn’t much believe in even a distant “watchmaker” God. However, not all who are skeptical of God and religion necessarily become rationalists or anti-theists (apply modifiers such as “rigid” or “hard-headed” if you’re so inclined, but I’m not in the mood for that today). Shirer’s spirituality—his religion consisting of a search for the ‘truth,’ and his attitudes towards religious dogma clustering more around ambivalence and agnosticism rather than outright rejection—strikes me as similar to those of other noted intellectuals throughout history. Albert Einstein, for instance, though less faithful even than Shirer, espoused a belief in the pantheism of the Renaissance intellectual Baruch Spinoza: “A superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience.” Spinoza’s (pantheistic) God may hold more appeal to scientists studying the natural world than Shirer’s more vague belief in “truth” and the “discovery of the self,” but both seem to me cut of similar cloth: A desire to find transcendent meaning in the world when one’s knowledge and experience have eroded whatever faith existed in youth. I’ll not discuss whether such a “religion” is any better or worse than either actual religions or a complete absence of any religious feeling at all—again, I’m not in the mood for that today. It strikes me as interesting, though, that there were such commonalities between intellectuals during the first half of the twentieth century…and I have met enough folks in my own life who share Shirer and Einstein’s views to make me think those beliefs remain robust in the twenty-first.

There is one religion, however, of which Shirer was much more leery. That religion was Islam. He never comes right out and says it, his tone is much too diplomatic in this book for that (another one of its strengths, IMO). However, if you read between the lines, it’s apparent that Shirer has a less positive view of Islam compared to Christianity and Hinduism, despite not being strict believer in any of them. As I already mentioned in my last quickshot review, on page 73 he describes finding little inspiration in the Quran, noting that it focuses too much on God’s wrath, just like the Old Testament. However, he also seems to draw connections between Islam and violence. On page 115, he says “[n]ot even the Mohammedan conquerors, who imposed Islam on so much of the world by the sword, could impose it on the Hindus when they invaded India and ruled for several centuries.” He does recount a few anecdotes about decent, honorable Muslims, like one friend of Gandhi’s he liked (p. 27) and the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s former dedication to the cause of independence (which later on disappeared into what Shirer dubbed religious fanaticism, 106-108). Still, overall his view of the religion seems to me at least negative, though not outrightly condemnatory. Throughout the text, there is more than a slight association of the faith with violence.

For those of you who haven’t known me as long as some of my other readers, I’ll explain why I found Shirer’s musings on Islam to be so interesting. I don’t want to go into a long digression about my religious history here, but I was actually raised Muslim. I am, obviously, not a Muslim. I strongly disliked the faith as an early teenager, became emotionally attached to Christianity in my mid-teens, and have since settled down into an affable agnosticism. At this point in my life, I’m not going to spend much time attacking Islam, or any other religion for that matter. Still, you’ve probably gleaned by now that my attitude towards it is not much more positive than Shirer’s. I read the Quran (and, actually, the Hadiths, which are collections of sayings purportedly from the Prophet) and found very little inspiration in either. I have known many, many decent and honorable Muslims in my time, true enough. Yet they’ve never struck me as being more than nominally religious; rarely attending mosque or even reading much of the Quran.

In the end, I suppose, I must come around to sharing what apparently was Shirer’s view of my native faith: Too diplomatic to condemn it outrightly, we nevertheless did not find as much worth in it as we did the other faiths we were exposed to, and it would more often than not be associated with violence and fanaticism more than anything else in our minds. Perhaps this is ironic—as I’ve mentioned before, Shirer and I never met personally, so it might be strange that our attitudes on religion would end up being similar. On the other hand, perhaps it’s expected, given the influence Shirer had on my intellectual development…

But I will let you, my dear reader, be the judge of that.

That ought to do it for today, friends. Next week…I’m not sure. I might write about Shirer’s autobiography, but I’ve also been playing a lot of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen recently and I might do a quickshot review of that. However, a couple of notes. Check out the next chapters of my fanfics:

http://www.fanfiction.net/s/3133712/57/Wayward-Son

http://www.fanfiction.net/s/8922433/11/The-Last-Red-Shoulder

And also, I have a new rules page up! Don’t worry, I haven’t had any trouble yet 😄 Just in case, though, if my blog starts getting more attention and more commentators, I think rules like these will help a little bit.

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