READING July, 2019
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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell October, 2022
This book is a two in one - a personal view of the Spanish Civil War by George Orwell, as well as an expression of his disillusionment with communism. Orwell went to Spain in 1937 to observe and write about the Spanish Civil War. But he stayed on to join the militia of one of the political movements. His disillusionment came both from his experience in the front as well as from the internecine conflict between the political parties.
The most significant party involved in the Spanish Civil War was P.S.U.C. (Partido Socialist Unificado de Cataluña). It was formed at the beginning of the war by various Marxist parties, including the Catalan Communist Party. Being the political organ of the Socialist trade union (U.G.T.), it represented both workers and small bourgeoise. Communists soon overtook control of P.S.U.C. It became affiliated with the Third International and received Russian arms. P.S.U.C. became widely popular in Spain thanks to the magnificent defense of Madrid by troops under their control. It seemed to be the only force capable of winning against Franco.
The second party was P.O.U.M. - the party of dissident communists whose militia Orwell ended up joining. They considered workers' control to be the only real alternative to fascism. For them the war and the revolution were inseparable. P.O.U.M. was affiliated with the trade union C.N.T. - a working-class organization.
The third political movement was that of the Anarchists, which represented multiple groups. The goals of direct control of industry by workers and the control of the government by local committees bound them together. They resisted all forms of centralized authoritarianism and had an uncompromising hostility to bourgeoisie and Church. They too, were for revolution. Their hatred for privilege and injustice were perfectly genuine, but their principles were vaguer. Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism were poles apart – the former’s emphasis was on centralism and efficiency, and that of the later on liberty and equality.
Orwell’s disaffection with the communists was not the result of a difference in opinion but his discovery that the communist party’s real interest was to prevent the revolution from being instituted. Orwell doesn’t clarify the reasons. Maybe it was because a significant number of its members came from the middle class and/or because the communists considered it to be an inappropriate time for a revolution. The communist government discredited P.O.U.M. as “Trotskyists” in cahoots with the fascists.
Orwell’s disillusionment came from the war as well. He spent most of his time at the front waiting in trenches. There was little action, prompting him to comment that “this is not a war, it is a comic opera with an occasional death”. But that didn’t save him from being severely wounded. It was a miracle that he survived.
The soldiers were poorly provisioned and armed. They lived under miserable conditions in wet trenches. Orwell seemed to have a special dislike for the human louse, with which all soldiers in the trenches were infested. He wrote that the louse “resembles a tiny lobster, and lives chiefly in your trousers …. he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed …. glory of war, indeed …. the men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over their testicles”. He caps off by suggesting that the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of the lice!
Orwell found propaganda to be one of the most horrible features of the war, observing that all the screaming, lies and hatred came invariably from people who were not fighting. He had an unvarnished contempt for the “lying journalists”. All these led to a situation, he observed, where few people outside Spain grasped that there was a revolution, while nobody inside Spain doubted it (for a while).
Although Orwell vigorously criticized the poor reporting and the propaganda, he conceded the difficulty of accurately portraying a complex event. He especially pointed out the trap of generalization based solely on one’s own personal experience, which cannot see or experience everything.
PS: Most people know George Orwell through his Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and may not be aware of the complexity and evolving nature of him as a writer. Part of this came from his origin and part from his life’s experience. George Orwell (real name Eric Hugh Blair) was born in a middle class family whose sense of status was disproportionate to its income. His father was a subordinate officer in the Civil service of India. Born in India, he later went to expensive preparatory schools, including Eton, on scholarships. His first professional experience, serving in the Police in Burma, had a profound impact on this life. He had sympathy with the natives and disliked the authority he had to use. So, when he returned to England after five years of service, he could not bring himself to go back to Burma. It was at this time that, half voluntarily, he sank to the lower depths of poverty – partly undertaken to expiate the social guilt which, he felt, he had incurred in Burma.
Towards the end of his life Orwell became critical of the intelligentsia. It was not because he became “anti-intellectual”, rather because he discovered the value of old middle-class virtues. He felt that even though old bourgeois virtues were “stupid”, the concern for one’s private interests (rather than an intellectual, theoretical interest or abstract ideas), has something human about it - something even liberating and meliorative. The essential point of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the danger a society can face when it frees itself from the bondage of things and history and replaces it with abstract ideas and ideals.
The First World War, like most events, did not happen from a single cause. It had many origins. In these two books, Dominic Lieven looks at the First World War from Russian perspective. Here, he explores how events, conditions, and trends, as well as important personalities in the 19th and early 20th century Russia may have contributed to the First World War. In doing so, he also shines light on two additional epochal events – the end of Tsarist Russia and the 1917 Russian Revolution. All three were interconnected.
One major initiator of this war was the shifting balance of power in Europe. The Ottoman, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire - two of the five continental European great powers, were in decline. While the decline of the former was well in progress, that of the latter was widely anticipated. At the same time, the German Empire was on the rise. That in turn, had prompted the French Republic to look for allies, with Russia being a suitable candidate. Geographically Germany being sandwiched between France and Russia may have payed an important role here.
Russian decision to ally with France was neither obvious nor rapid. To start with, a strong bond existed between the ruling families of Germany and Russia, even though that bond was slowly deteriorating with each generational change in both countries. Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany was an uncle of the Russian Tsar Alexander II. For a while Germany, Russia and Austria were even signatories to a (secret) peace treaty Dreikaiserbund (League of the three Emperors).
There were other reasons for Russian reluctance. Defeats in two earlier wars - in Crimea (against the Ottoman Empire, France, and the UK) in the 1850’s, and against Japan in 1905 - had left Russia both militarily and psychologically wounded. Russia was also the least industrially developed among the great powers, with the highest rate of illiteracy. But Russia was catching up quickly and needed a period of peace to recover. It was widely believed, both internally and externally, that Russian entrance in any expansive war would risk widespread domestic upheaval, including revolution - irrespective of Russian success in the war. That perception may well have encouraged other powers to push Russia too far.
From a rational perspective, a war between Germany and Russia was not inevitable. The two empires’ geopolitical positions were entirely different. With the exception of the Bosporus Straits, Russia was a territorially satiated power; Germany was not. There were also strong mutual economic interests. For example, in 1913 Russia sent 44% of her exports to Germany and took 47% of her imports from her. Considering that the true opposition to the rising German power was the British Empire, a modus vivendi between Germany and Russia may well have been possible.
In Imperial Russia, all decisions on foreign policy and declaration of war were the sole prerogatives of the Tsar. The Tsar did get advice from people he trusted. One of them was former Minister of the Interior, P.N. Durnovo. His recommendation was not to enter a war. His justification included the lack of an immediate fundamental geopolitical rivalry between Russia and Germany and their economic interdependence. He also felt that England had a long history of using continental allies to fight its wars against its European rivals. More importantly, based on his experience as the Minister of Interior, he felt that Russia was uniquely vulnerable to extreme social revolution in wartime. That’s because the mass of its people – both workers and peasants – were unconscious socialists. This was a product of Russian history and culture. European values – at whose core stood private property – as yet meant nothing to them.
The Tsar also had to contend with a vocal intellectual class with strong nationalistic and pan Slavic feelings. This group was much more inclined to militarism. Although this group represented only a small minority of all Russians, its influence was significant, both internally and externally.
After having reviewed things from the Russian perspective, let’s not forget that in July 1914, the vital decisions leading to the war were taken by Germany. Although the immediate trigger points were the assassination of the Austrian crown prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia, and Bosnia’s refusal to accept a practically unacceptable ultimatum from Austria, that ultimatum was, beyond question, drawn up with German connivance. Germany’s need for territorial expansion, coupled with the widespread belief in Russian reluctance to engage in a European war at that time, may well have prompted Germany and Austria to push with such an ultimatum.
Here is the immediate progression of events of a war that was first and foremost an eastern European conflict.
June 28: Assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand
July 28: Austria declares war on Serbia and bombards Belgrade
July 29: Nicholas II orders, then revokes, general mobilization
July 30: Russian and Austrian general mobilization for July 31
July 31: German ultimatum to Russia
August 1: Germany declares war on Russia
August 3: Germany declares war on France
August 4: Britain declares war on Germany
PS: World War I was first and foremost an eastern European conflict. It started out as a traditional battle between European empires to secure clients, power, and prestige in the continent. But it ended up changing world order by replacing Great Britain with United States of America as the global superpower. Seen from this perspective, extraneous motives and logics for the war, beyond a purely eastern European conflict, are not unlikely. Sadly, power struggle in the Balkans is not merely a matter of the past. Couple that with a perceptible decline of the American empire, together with an emerging Eurasian Heartland (see Mackinder), and we have a recipe for “interesting times”.
Another school of thought attributes an underlying conflict between industrial capitalism vs. finance capitalism as the primary reason for this world war. Economist Michael Hudson has written several excellent books on this topic.
In his books Lieven uses the interesting concept of the "second world", something that I was not aware of. He uses this term to denote the less developed Eurasian land mass in and around Russia, including the Balkans. Because of Russia's potential access to them (in the future, even if not immediately), Russia was less concerned about its lack of overseas colonies. Russian future access to the vast, and untapped natural resources in the Far East and in Siberia was well understood. This was very different for Germany. Germany was acutely aware of its lack of overseas colonies (vs. all other European great powers). Therefore, Germany's "Drang each Osten" (expansion to the east) in search of natural resources and "Lebensraum" must have been playing an underlying role in German actions long before the Second Reich in the 1930's.
The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order by George F. Kennan July 13, 2022
Prince Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Reich and the “Iron Chancellor”, is one of those historical figures who has always fascinated me. Although I have heard a lot about him, I knew very little specifics. The few anecdotes ascribed to him only made me more curious. Take for example, his quote about laws: "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made", or about politics: "Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied". Even more intriguing was a quote about him, by no other than his boss, Emperor Wilhelm I: "It is hard to be a Kaiser under Bismarck"!
So, I finally got myself one of his biographies. This entry, however, is not about his biography, rather about another book that analyzes “Bismack’s European Order”. This book is written by no other than George F. Kennan, the legendary US historian, diplomat, and political scientist. Besides being an academician (at Princeton), Kennan also served as US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. His "long telegram" (see also PS section) is considered to be the foundation of western approach to cold war.
Getting back to Bismarck, when he was born in 1815, Germany was a patchwork of 39 small and independent states (German Confederation). The confederation was dominated by Austria, but thanks to its Junker (wealthy landowners) soldiers, Bismarck’s Prussia came second. After the German Reich was born in 1871, it found itself in a precarious position squeezed between three great powers in continental Europe - Russia on the east, Austro-Hungarian on the south, and France on the west. Bismarck is credited with crafting a political arrangement in Europe, the new “European Order”, for the benefit of the German Reich.
Bismarck understood that the young, and in some extent still fragile, new German Reich needed stability to grow. Therefore, his goal was to prevent wars either among Germany’s neighbors or by any of those neighbors against Germany. Similarly, he wanted to prevent a French war of revenge (for the 1870-1871 wars) by keeping France devoid of allies. Another of Bismarck’s goals was to assure the existence of Austria in the face of conflicts with Russia. That’s because, if Austria were to break up, he feared a dilution of the protestant Prussia led German Reich with catholic Germans from Austria. Therefore, contrary to popular impression, Bismarck’s European Order was defensive. It certainly was not intent on expanding the borders of the Reich beyond what had emerged from the war of 1870-1871 against France.
A key instrument for this purpose was Dreikaiserbund, a secret three emperor’s contract between German Reich, Russia, and Austria. Its intent was to keep peace between the Austrians and the Russians, but also to make clear that neither could expect German help if one attacked the other. While Bismarck’s European order did serve its purpose for a while, it ultimately ended, and quite devastatingly so, with World War I. Its weakness goes back to its reliance on geopolitical realities that could not be guaranteed over time. For example:
Keeping France in a political and military isolation and in a semi-humiliating condition
The stability the multilingual Austro-Hungarian Empire in the face of nationalism that was sweeping through Europe
An assumption that a succession of Russian Tsars would have the wisdom and the authority to hold on to a secret treaty that visibly restrained Russia’s freedom of action in European affairs (while not being able to explain its benefits, especially to members of pan Slavic and nationalistic movements)
A continued suppression of every trace of Polish independence
Interestingly, the familial relationship between rulers of Germany and Russia played a big role in crafting Bismarck's European order. The Dreikaiserbund was originally signed between German Kaiser Wilhelm I and Russian Tsar Alexander II, the former being a beloved and highly esteemed uncle of the latter. This mutual respect certainly played a role in the relationship between the two countries, at least at the court level. After Alexander II’s death, his son Alexander III became the Tsar. He too, felt attached to Kaiser Wilhelm I, even if not as strongly as his father. But after Kaiser Wilhelm I’s death, when his grandson became German emperor Wilhelm II (after a few months interlude when his ailing father Friedrich III was the emperor), personal relationship between the rulers of the two countries changed dramatically. The final blow came when Bismack was forced to retire under Wilhelm II, who clearly did not see things eye to eye with Bismarck. After that, it didn’t take long for the détente to break down.
During the whole affair, the Russian foreign minister, Mikhail Nikolayevich von Giers played a role that may be under appreciated. Giers was probably one of the most important and impressive figures in the history of Russian diplomacy (although not one to press himself upon the attention either of the public of his day or of the historian). He understood Bismarck’s rationale for seeking European peace, which also benefited Russia that was relatively weak at that time. His challenge was to skillfully keep Tsar Alexander III on track in the face of very strong nationalistic sentiments of the pan Slavic voices in the public.
Kennan wrote this book in a micro-history format. Instead of describing large events, he took smaller happenings, and looked at them in high details, as though through some sort of historic microscope. He did not attempt to describe the totality of the relevant events, rather examined the texture of the process. He did not record all the significant things that happened, rather showed how they were happening; above all, he revealed what motives and concepts led the actors act the way did. Reading his book, one cannot but wonder why pragmatic, reasonable, and enlightened European leaders and politicians failed to see how their actions in the late 19th century were leading to a disaster of unimaginable magnitude and consequences. I am afraid we are facing the same dilemma once more – in slow motion. One big difference is that most actors today are neither reasonable nor enlightened. Hope I am wrong.
PS: In 1946, George Kennan, the American charge d'affaires in Moscow, sent an 8,000-word telegram (the long telegram) to the Department of State, detailing his views on the Soviet Union, as well as what the proper U.S. policy should be. It is said to had subsequently formed the foundation of western approach to cold war. Despite his otherwise insightful observations, Kennan was not beyond stereotyping Russians, for example, he wrote that "The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth--indeed, their disbelief in its existence--leads them to....". To be fair to Kennan, this trait is rather common among US officials. Take for example, what the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had to say about Russians in 2017 “… Russians, who (are) typically, almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever, ….”. Hmm…..
Kennan’s telegram also reveals a severe case of (psychological) projection. He lists a plethora of Soviet intentions and tactics, that with the advantage of hindsight, does not seem much different than what USA has been doing itself!
And finally, some quotable quotes from Bismarck:
- “The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.”
- "The social insecurity of the worker is the real cause of their being a peril to the state."
- "Politics is the art of the possible,”
- "The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood."
- “Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness.”
- "People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election."
This world, however imperfect and chaotic, is the only one I know. And this is the one I like, not any utopia, no matter how alluring it might appear. That’s because I wonder whether the utopia might not turn out to be just a dystopia in disguise.
Take the enticing utopian world of Walden Two, where people live a worry-free and harmonious life. Nobody works for more than four hours a week, and that in a field of one’s own choosing. They have all
the time and means to pursue leisurely activities – be it in fine arts or physical activities. The children are nurtured in a safe community environment. They are taught how to learn rather than being forced to rote learning, and they grow up to become responsible adults. Similarly, the elderly is integrated in the community. They live a fulfilled life and are well cared for. What is not to like about this world of peace, harmony, and plenty? But I have an uneasy feeling that, rightfully or not, starts with the author B.F. Skinner. He (together with John B. Watson, and Ivan Pavlov) is a pioneer of behaviorism. This branch of human psychology claims that humans, just like animals, can be conditioned to behave in a certain way through inducement of rewards (think Pavlov’s dog). Radical behaviorism assumes that human free will is an illusion. It is simply the consequence of his action - and as such controllable. Skinner is regarded by many as the most important and influential psychologist since Freud. So don’t blame me for scratching below the surface when I read a utopian fiction written by him.
Let's start with “free will”. We make decisions based on outcomes. That by itself does not rob us of our free will even if the desired outcome is the “reward” with which our actions could be manipulated. That’s because outcomes depend on the environment in which a decision is taken, and we generally have the ability or the power to change the environment. But that ability is restricted in Walden Two. This deficiency is not obvious as you get to know Walden Two through the narrative of the smug and talkative Frazier, who introduces his world to a small group of visitors. Instead, you have to pay attention to one of the skeptical visitors, Prof. Castle.
There are more things that evoke unease. For example, the pattern of familial relationship in Walden Two is such that it loosens hereditary connections. Frazier sees this as a distinct advantage because it makes the possibility of breeding children according to a genetic plan more real in the future. You might find more such indications, especially of you follow the perceptive Prof. Castle in the story.
It is noteworthy that B.F. Skinner considers Walden Two to be his “political manifesto”. He also proudly claimed it to be “a utopia, and not a dystopia”. I prefer to disagree with him. At the same time, I must admire his vision laid out in this book in 1948. Like it or not, the humanity is already heading in that direction. In the meantime, I will do even more to appreciate the world I live in now.
PS: Additional critical thoughts on this topic are available here.
An unusually gifted wordsmith, whose every page is glittered with scintillating epigrams. That’s how I felt about Oscar Wilde after having read his masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray many years ago. Now, after this collection of his best plays, I am even more impressed. He was a virtuoso in exploring complex relationships between gender, power, and social classes, as well as in exposing the pretensions of the social world in the Victorian time. What adds to the pleasure is the way he managed to criticize his audience while entertaining it. Then the prime audience of his plays came from the “high society” of his time. Oscar Wilde did not belong to this society but was socially accepted because of his charisma and
witticism. So, in a way, his role might well have been that of a talented court jester. And like many of his historical predecessors, Wilde did not ultimately escape whipping for his own pretentions. Recall the picture of that abject homosexual, jeered at by other passengers while waiting on Clapham Station in convict uniform and surrounded by policemen, on his way to a two-year sentence in Reading Gaol. He had dared to pursue an intimate relationship with the son of a peer of the realm when he was a mere Irishman and commoner!
But that’s a different story altogether. The six plays included here are: Lady Windemere’s Fan, Salome, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, A Florentine Tragedy, and The Importance of being Earnest. My personal favorites were the first, the third, the fourth and the last.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov January, 2022
Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece “The Master and Margarita” is a novel that defies being pigeonholed in a single category. It is a satire, a farce, a fantasy tale, a supernatural story, and a modernist novel all in one. And it can be read at multiple levels - as a criticism of the Soviet system, or as a reprobation of atheism, or as a reflection on good and evil.
As to the plot, the reader quickly finds himself alternating between Satan in Moscow, and Pontius Pilates in
Jerusalem. While Satan and his retinue’s escapades puzzle and dazzle Moscow’s literary and arts scene, theall-powerful Roman Procurator of Judaea Pontius Pilates anguishes over his reluctant acquiescence to the execution of Yeshua-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth). As Moscow reels from inexplicable events, the lonely Pilatus suffers terribly from migraine. But in the end, it all comes together but only after the reader is spun through a whirlwind of satanic mischiefs, complete with a quasi-recreation of Walpurgis Night. The influence of Göthe’s Faust on the novel is hard to miss.
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) lived in Stalin’s Russia. None of his books was allowed to be published during his lifetime. This book is his last one, which he is said to have written over a period of 12 years.
If you are interested in German reunification, then this is the book to read. Written by an East Germany born sociologist, who was a twenty-something military conscript when the Berlin wall came down, it looks at the historic event from East German perspective. His analysis might surprise you. I have read the book with great interest because I have had a long, and somewhat atypical, association with Germany (see the PS section for more). This book is unfortunately available in German only. Its title translates to “Lütten Klein – Life in the East German Transformation Society”.
Stefan Mau first describes how East Germany, and its people were. He starts with Lütten Klein, the Rostock suburb where he grew up. It is one of those satellite towns with monotonous multi-story prefab apartments that were built all over East Germany in late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Unsightly, but functional, they had most amenities for daily and social life integrated in them. And unlike in the west, such residential areas did not have any social stigma attached to them. That’s because East German society was relatively homogeneous – a society shaped by the working class. It had little difference vertically, or diversity horizontally. The homogeneity applied broadly to ethnicity, income, wealth, opportunities, cultural norms, social status, etc. People did not have to worry about basic needs of life – they were available and affordable. Everyone had a job. Education, medical care, childcare, etc. were free. Housing was subsidized and allocated - usually not at the desired level and quality.
Life under the Marxist-Leninist party (SED) was not free, but neither was it like under a dictatorship. 30 years after reunification, East Germans still think that way. People found breathing space in the family and in an extended circle of friends. Workplace played a central role in daily life. If one did not cross some redlines (that were well known) and did not challenge the system openly, a discrepancy between what one said and did publicly vs. privately was tolerated.
East Germans had limited contact with the outside world. Travel, even to East European countries, was restricted. Very few foreigners lived in East Germany. For example, the number of foreigners in East Germany, mostly unskilled workers from Vietnam, Cuba, and Mozambique, amounted to less than 1% of the population. They spoke little German and lived segregated from the society. And the number of foreign students, like me, didn’t even make a blip on the statistics. As a result, while international solidarity played a prominent role in state ideology, East Germans had little real-life connection with the people they were supposed to be standing with.
The society’s flat economic and societal profile had a dual impact. On the one hand, it was a matter of pride. Former East Germans still think that way. On the other hand, their resourcefulness and ingenuity were spent in making private life more comfortable (think lack of amenities that go beyond the ordinary) rather than towards economic and professional entrepreneurial activities.
Woman participation in all aspects of life was high. For example, at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall, women represented 30%, 50%, and 38%, respectively, of elected representatives, judges, and Ph.D. candidates in East Germany vs. 15%, 18%, and 26% in West Germany.
In the second part of the book, Stefan Mau addresses reunification, especially East Germans’ response to it. Their reaction was shaped both by the nature of the society they grew up in, and by the process of reunification. I’ll skip the details and statistics that Mau cites. Instead, I'll jump right to some of the conclusions. East Germans widely believe that they were colonized by West Germany! This is of course factually incorrect. Both reunification itself, and politicians who had led the process, had electoral support in both parts of Germany. So why this sentiment? Mau points out four reasons.
First, when changes rolled over their country, disrupting every aspect of their life, East Germans were given no other choice but to fit in a tight western straitjacket.
Second, and as a result, they were forced to abandon their entire sociocultural traditions and institutions - even those that they were proud of. Objectively, some of them would have made unified Germany a better place. Examples include childcare, integrated healthcare (so called Polyklinik), policies that promote participation of women in the workforce, etc.
Third, a rapid privatization of all East German public assets was carried out (by Treuhandgesellschaft) that exclusively benefitted economically dominant western entities. This led to a sense of exploitation by East Germans. It did not help that many accusations of corruption have never been investigated, let alone brought to justice.
Fourth and last, during the entire process of transformation, East Germans, lacking the needed organizations, structures, and resources to represent their views and interests, were relegated to passive spectators.
Just one example of their many grievances was the rapid replacement of leadership in all sectors and institutions with West German expatriates. These expatriates were often perceived to be of second tier talent. They almost always had little understanding of East German culture, including their grievances, fears, and prides. No other eastern European country, that went through a similar transformation, had such a purge. East Germans felt like being treated like conquered people. It is no wonder that many former East Germans feel like having become refugees even without having left their country. The effect of leadership purge is still visible 30 years after reunification. Today, only 23% of top leadership positions in politics, media, economy, science, and technology in the former East German regions are represented by former East Germans! Until recently, three federal states (out of five that make up the former East Germany territory) had prime ministers transplanted from West Germany (Kurt Biedenkopf, Werner Münch, Bernhard Vogel).
An assessment of East Germans’ response to reunification cannot be complete without addressing xenophobic flare-ups immediately after the reunification (in Hoyerswerda, Lichtenhagen, etc.), and subsequent growth of right leaning political ideologies. The first was a reaction of fear and uncertainty. One also has to question the wisdom of authorities to set up refugee camps in those regions under the given circumstances. But there is more to it. By having lived in a “bubble”, East Germans were not prepared for globalization and cultural diversity. To make matters worse, the reunification process was driven primarily by a dynamic of East Germans becoming part of a “German Nation”, rather than part of an open, western society. Today, thirty years after the reunification, former East German regions remain a fertile ground for nationalistic ideology. To be fair, nationalism is not solely a former East German phenomenon. And unlike Italians and Austrians, East Germans haven’t yet elected a right-wing nationalistic party to power.
The bombshell in the book is the revelation that a conscious decision was taken by politicians to conduct reunification under article 23 of Grundgesetz, rather than the more appropriate article 146. This was new to me, and I wonder even how many Germans are aware of this. Grundgesetz (Basic Law) is the temporary constitution of Germany adopted after World War 2. What is the difference between the two articles? Article 23 is meant for accession, whereas article 146 for reunification. In the first case, the acceding party wholly accepts the system of the party it is acceding to, as Saarland (one of Germany’s 16 federal states) did in 1957. In the second case (article 146), Germans of unified Germany would decide the fundamental parameters of the country in which they would live together. The most important part of that would be the replacement of the temporary constitution (Grundgesetz), with a permanent one (Verfassung). Article 146 states: “... after the achievement of unity and freedom of Germany for the entire German people, this Basic Law shall lose its validity on the day on which a constitution will have been freely adopted by the German people.” This never happened. Is it any wonder that by acceding, East Germany had to accept the West German system wholly?
PS: My German experience began in 1975 when I went to East Germany on a scholarship for higher studies. That’s where I first learned German language in Leipzig, followed by studying chemistry and polymer science in Merseburg. Merseburg is located between Leipzig and Halle. I could occasionally visit my cousin and her family in West Germany, or friends in West Berlin. As a result, I had a somewhat unconstrained view of both sides, something that most Germans from either side did not have.
Then in 1981, I moved to the former West Germany to do my Ph.D. in Kaiserslautern. Kaiserslautern borders on France and is close to US airbase Ramstein. After finishing my Ph.D., I moved to Neuss to work for a multinational corporation. Neuss is just north of Cologne. During this period, I could not visit East Germany.
That changed in 1989, after Germany was unified, and I visited different parts of former East Germany, both for personal and business reasons. My 17 years stay in Germany ended in 1992 when my employer relocated me to the USA. It was a unique experience for me to have lived in both parts of Germany – both before and after reunification.
My move to the United States did not sever my connection with Germany altogether. That’s because my wife is from former East Germany, and we have friends and family in both parts of the country. In addition to family visits, I also had to occasionally travel to Germany on business.
Reading Stefan Mau’s narrative of former East Germany felt like reliving the past. The only exception was his reference to the rebellious younger generation. That’s because I had lived there from 1975-1981, arguably during East Germany’s “golden years”. People were relatively content, notwithstanding the many limitations, including scarcity of imported goods. I remember oranges and bananas being rarities, among many other things. But more frustrating was the seasonal shortage of (locally grown) onions. That’s because the lack of foreign influence also meant that East German kitchen remained faithful to traditional, mostly bland, German fare. Therefore, in spite of my total lack of cooking skills, I was compelled to try making Bangladeshi food occasionally. But cooking any Bangladeshi dish without onion is like making popcorn without butter.
Apropos traditional German dish, there are many delicious ones. I savored the occasional Königsbergerklops, Rouladen, Hühnerfrikasse, Bratwurst with potato salad, etc. But my memory is also laden with many lunches at the university cafeteria, where the standard fare was boiled potatoes - overcooked and mealy - served with Mischgemüse (mixed vegetable) and sparsely spiced meat or Wurst. I preferred infrequent treats like hard-boiled egg in mustard sauce, or poached egg on spinach puree. Sadly, they too, were served with the indispensable boiled potatoes – overcooked and mealy. By that time, pizza, hamburger, french-fries, doner kebab, etc. had long conquered West German cafeteria.
Food may have been bland, but life was not. I found life rather carefree, especially when I compare with some classmates who had emigrated to western countries as students. I was, of course, not planning my future in East Germany.
There are many misconceptions in the west about life in the former East Germany. People assume that East Germans lived an unhappy life because of their modest income and material possession. But happiness is more than just material things. Besides, material things matter only relatively – meaning in comparison to what others have in the society.
Then there is the Stasi thing. How oppressive it must have been to live under Stasi surveillance. I am usually reluctant to point out that Stasi couldn’t have dreamed of the kind of surveillance NSA/CIA/FBI use on Americans today! BTW, my wife recently obtained a copy of her Stasi file. Considering that Stasi was not unaware of her potentially leaving the country at some point, her file was lean and boring. But it did include an unspecific reference to my existence. There must be a Stasi file on me as well, but I haven’t bothered to get a copy.
Unsurprisingly, there was widespread propaganda in the media - all media being state owned. But the propaganda had zero impact on people’s opinion and behavior because nobody trusted the media. The situation in America is completely different, right? All media are privately owned here. I wish it was that simple. Ever since I came to the States almost 30 years ago, the decline in public trust in the media has been remarkable. Just this year, the United States ranked last in a Reuter survey in 46 countries! Only 29% of Americans “trust most news most of the time”. What conclusions one can draw from this is an interesting, but a whole different discussion.
Fast forward to reunification. When the tsunami of changes came, people of my generation were hit the hardest. I have seen this among people I knew, including my wife’s family and friends, and my classmates. Many were in their early career but already too set, also in their personal life, to successfully reinvent themselves in a completely new world. Women were especially hurt.
The loss of employment is always much more than monetary loss. In the former East Germany however, it was devastating. It wiped out a significant part of one’s social life. That’s because it was at the workplace where many social contacts, even lifelong friendship and comradery were formed. People also cherished the many employer-organized events (Betriebsfest) throughout the year. One of my surprises in West Germany was the relative lack of enthusiasm and energy in such events there. I also found it interesting to compare work life balance in the three countries. In the former East Germany, private and work lives were intertwined in many ways. In West Germany, a separation of the two is sacred. And in the United States, they encroach on each other simply by an expectation of having to be available even in free time.
Referring back to the rapid replacement of leadership in East Germany, there was an event that touched me tangentially. When the wall came down, I was in Neuss (West Germany), working for a multinational corporation. To help my alma mater in Merseburg (East Germany), I tried to establish a research collaboration with my former professor and M.S. advisor. He was a highly reputable researcher in a field that was also of interest for my employer. I traveled to Merseburg and met with the professor, who understandably was excited about the opportunity. We prepared a research proposal, and I followed up with a second visit to discuss the specifics. But before we could formalize an agreement, he called to inform me that his position is being taken over by someone from West Germany. It was so sad because besides his technical excellence, he was one of the nicest persons I have interacted with at my alma mater. He was, of course, a member of the SED party – but who at his position wasn’t? Unlike some other professors, I have never seen him act “political”.
BTW, the expression East Germans use for the know-it-all western transplants is Besserwessie, translated “smart aleck from the west”. It is a wordplay on Besserwisser (smart aleck).
Another misconception about East Germans is that they simply couldn’t wait to join West Germany. In reality, most of them wanted to take advantage of Gorbachov’s perestroika and glasnost to create a better East Germany. Unfortunately, along the way, the originators of the protest movement were outmaneuvered by other groups, and the public sentiment changed to reunification. I still remember the protest chant of the initial movement as “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the People). But by the time of reunification, it had morphed into "Wir sind ein Volk” (We are one People) – “one” meaning German. I am not partial to the wisdom or practicability of having stuck with the original intent. Rather I am pointing out something that many people may not be aware of, but something many former East Germans still have a mixed feeling about.
The most astonishing information for me in this book is the use of article 23 for reunification. That means, strictly speaking, German reunification was not a reunification at all, but an accession. It also means that eight decades after World War 2, Germany still operates under a temporary constitution (Grundgesetz) that was handed over to West German politicians by the three western victorious powers. It was neither written nor ratified by Germans. I am no constitutional expert, but I find this stunning. When a new state is created after its defeat in a war, one of the most important steps is the adoption of a new constitution. This is done by having a draft written by a team of legal experts and civil society leaders representing the population, followed by its ratification by its citizens in an open and public voting process. You may remember this process for Iraq and Afghanistan. This never happened in Germany!
That immediately begs the question, is Germany a sovereign state, even on paper? Former German chancellor Willey Brandt seems to have raised the question. More recently, German historian Prof. Joseph Foschepoth has answered the question with a definitive no. He supports his conclusion with historical documents he has unearthed from archives.
Today, former East German regions are transformed; their infrastructure and industry have been improved significantly. People’s income and supply of goods are much better. Many former East Germans, who at the time of the fall of the wall were young adults or even younger, like Stefan Mau, have and continue to take full advantage of new opportunities. I have met several such success stories even in the United States.
At the same time, a large segment of the population, especially those who were adults at the time of the transition, carry a deep sense of grievance. In many cases, that has carried over to their children, even to those who were born after the fall of the wall. It is my estimation that it will take three generations before the people of East Germany will have overcome their grievances and sense of injustice. By that time, East Germany will have disappeared and become just a chapter in history – mostly forgotten, and nothing learned – as usual.
Here one must not forget that German reunification had to be pulled through in a very fragile global political environment and within an unknown and narrow window of opportunity.
Finally, if you are curious about how I had ended up in East Germany, and about my early travails in a country that I knew nothing about, then check out “Bad Water Along The Scenic Route” on this blog under the section Random Musing.
Suite Française by I. Némirovsky November, 2021
I had never heard of Némirovsky, an author who primarily wrote in French. I would have remained oblivious to her works had we not become friends with the translator of several of her books. The friendship with the translator and her husband came about, of all things, through tennis!
Suite Française, Némirovsky’s best known work, is remarkable on multiple counts. For one, it was published
62 years posthumously because the manuscript remained stuffed in a suitcase in possession of her daughter until, as an adult, she decided to donate the contents to a foundation in memory of her mother. Equally notable is the author’s ability to write contemporaneously, i.e. without the benefits of reflections that comes from the passage of time, a fiction based on her harrowing experience of the second world war in France. A lesser author would have written a journal. And finally, in spite of the precarious situation she was living in, Némirovsky was consciously writing a piece of literature meant to endure, and not a historic record. On June 2, 1942, she wrote in her diary: “Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away. Try to create as much as possible: things, debates … that will interest people in 1952 or 2025 …”. It is 2021 and I am reading the book now. Wow!
Suite Française is such a successful book because Némirovsky masters all three essential skills of a good novelist – says this retired scientist with no liberal arts training, formal or otherwise. OK, OK.... to put it more modestly, actually there are three traits in an author I appreciate when I am reading a novel. First comes a deep understanding of the human nature, complete with its vagaries and unpredictability, as well as the unwritten rules of how members from different strata of the society interact with each other. Then there is the ability to develop a plot that continues to surprise the reader while remaining credible. And finally, comes composition. Every sentence, every paragraph, and every chapter hooks the reader to go on and explore the next sentence, the next paragraph, and the next chapter! Némirovsky displays profound mastery in all three. And then there is the bonus of having weaved a story in the backdrop of an historic event, while keeping human relations and emotions in focus.
I am waiting for Christine to finish the book so that we can watch the movie Suite Française together!
PS: On a personal note, the first of the two stories resonated strongly with me. The backdrop of the story is the panicked flight of Parisians in the face of impending German occupation of the city. I too, as a teenager, had to flee the capital city Dhaka in East Pakistan, to escape brutal atrocities of the Pakistani military at the onset of a civil war that led to the liberation of the country in 1971. East Pakistan became Bangladesh. While my father stayed back to “protect” our home, my mother, with her four small children, and together with her sister’s family, fled for our grandparent’s country residence.
Along the way the two sisters’ families got separated, and we proceeded first on car, then by a dangerously overfilled small launch boat, and finally on foot along countryside and far from any thoroughfare. As we neared my grandparents’ village late afternoon, Pakistani air force started bombing that locality. Fortunately, and along the way, we found shelter with distant relatives for the evening. But they too were about to flee further inland. Early next morning, they took us along on a long boat journey in the distant countryside, where we lived for several months in a village school building. The same panic and uncertainty I had experienced back then were palpable in Némirovsky’s skillful depiction.
Besides Némirovsky’s private notes, the book also contains some of her correspondence before she was deported by the Nazis. The content and the tone are heart-wrenching. One cannot but wonder how members of any society can allow such inhumane treatment to be meted out to some subgroups of the society. Since I had lived in Germany for almost two decades, I have often been asked how the majority of a “highly civilized and refined society” could have allowed atrocities committed by the Nazis. My answer is and has never been pretty – there is and was nothing special about the Germans. But that is a whole different discussion altogether ….
Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis October, 2021
C. S. Lewis, best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, is an author I had not read until now. That’s because by the time I became aware of his hugely popular series of fantasy novels for children, “everyone” I knew was already reading them. But for better or for worse instinctively I tend to avoid reading books that everyone else is reading! Now, after many decades, I did get to know this author through Mere Christianity. It is a book about Christian theology, and a book that not too many people might be interested in.It is based on a series of radio
talks the author gave during the second world war to boost the morale of Londoners during the incessant Nazi bombings of the city. The adjective “mere” in the title reflects Lewis’s wish to focus on the core beliefs of the Christian faith while avoiding the many contested theological doctrines of various denominations. He wanted to welcome his readers into “a hall out of which many doors open into several rooms”. Rooms, where “there are fires and chairs and meals...”, and where the visitors can choose to go and feel comfortable. This approach makes the book interesting for non-Christians as well. I suppose C. S. Lewis’s analogy could apply to all great religions representing different rooms connected to a larger, common hall.
Lewis starts out by rationalizing God’s existence. It is an unusual approach because, in my opinion, matters of faith and religion emanate from a conscious or unconscious decision to believe rather than be the outcome of any rationalization. His arguments are nevertheless interesting because they relate to matters of human nature, human psychology, and human society. He points out that human beings all over the world have a curious commonality. They think that they ought to behave in a certain way according to a set of Laws of Nature. But in reality, they do not. As a result, they suffer from a sense of inadequacy and guilt. This observation is similar to that of Freud’s. But that’s where the similarity ends. Freud suggests seeing a psychoanalyst, whereas Lewis sees the need for the existence of a God. According to Lewis, this problem can only be solved by creating “good men”, which is the purpose of Christianity. Strictly speaking, this is not a proof of God’s existence, but a justification for why God is needed (to solve a human problem).
Lewis’s primary focus is on tenets of Christian behavior. Behaving according to them is so important because both goodness and evil increase at compounded rate. Even the little decisions we make every day, are of infinite importance. They are also self-catalyzing. The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them; whereas the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on.
Along the way, Lewis explains that loving thy neighbor doesn’t necessitate liking him. We may even kill, if necessary in a war, but we must not enjoy killing. It was also interesting to learn that according to Christian teaching, pride is the greatest sin. That’s because pride is not merely about being richer/more powerful, beautiful, etc. but about being so compared to someone specific. Therefore, it is a spiritual cancer. It eats up the very possibility of love or contentment, or even common sense.
Overall, Lewis tries not to preach because he believes that most people already have a hunch about the right behaviors. What they need is reminders rather than instructions. He concedes that following a Christian life is hard work, but it leads to truth that may ultimately lead to comfort. A lot of things to think about!
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid July, 2021
Overachiever Lahori boy goes to Princeton and conquers hearts and minds of Wall Street and Erica. But then 911 happens, and predictively everything falls apart. This highly acclaimed book has been made into a major motion picture, but it failed to impress me much. I should have paid attention that it is/was on New York Times bestseller list ;-)
I do have to commend the writer for his courage to broach this topic even if the passage of two decades has
made it easier. He also has a smooth and interesting writing style, and the reading goes down smoothly. Not a bad one if you like that sort of books.
Notes from Underground by Feodor Dostoevsky April, 2021
“Dostoevsky’s most revolutionary novel”, “one of the first existential novels”, “marks the dividing line between nineteenth and twentieth-century fiction”, “a prelude to the great books of his later period”. These are some of the praises you’ll hear about this book, and they are all justified.
In this book an unnamed narrator - a retired civil servant, who has defiantly retreated from the society - in an obsessive, passionate, and self-contradictory monologue delivers a devastating attack on social utopianism
based on his assertion that human beings are essentially irrational in nature. This is quintessential Dostoevsky.
Man cannot be expected to live by reason only because it satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, which is just a small part of his whole life. It ignores his wants, which are very often completely and stubbornly at odds with reason. Man cannot but crave to satisfy his various itches and have his freedom to say that sometimes two plus two equals five, even if it goes against his well-being. Maybe man doesn’t love well-being only? May be he sometimes loves suffering just as much? Which is better – cheap happiness, or lofty suffering? Well, which is better? You decide.….
Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky April, 2021
A key feature of the American Dream is class mobility. But this is as good as nonexistent today. According to Chomsky’s diagnosis there are ten root causes for this. The first one is a reduction in democracy, something that goes back all the way to the framing of the Constitution.
For example, James Madison, a main framer of the Constitution, felt that the United States system should be designed such that power rests in the hands of the wealth. The major concern of the society must be to
“protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. That’s because the wealthy are the more responsible set of men - they have the public interest at heart, not just parochial interests. Therefore, he advocated a “reduction in democracy”. In contrast, Aristotle, in Politics, the first major book on political system, had argued for a “reduction in inequality” to stave off the danger in a democracy of the poor getting together and taking away the property of the rich.
In Madison’s defense however, it must be said that Aristotle was thinking of the city-state of Athens, and his democracy was for free men only (not for the slaves). Besides, by 1790s, Madison was bitterly condemning the deterioration of the system he’d created, with stockjobbers and other speculators taking over, destroying the system in the name of their own interests.
The other nine root cause are as follows.
Shaping an ideology (that asserts that the capitalist class is the most persecuted class - see the famous Powell Memorandum by Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in 1971)
Redesign the economy (financial capitalism vs. industrial capitalism)
Shift the (tax) burden away from the rich
Attack solidarity (public education, privatization, identity politics vs. class politics)
Deregulate (Glass-Steagall, revolving door, lobbying, too big to jail/fail)
Election engineering (big money in elections)
Destruction of labor unions
Manufacture consent (PR industry, corporate and government propaganda)
Marginalize the population (unfocussed anger)
Along the way Chomsky points out the two “original sins” of American society that haunt us ever since: decimation of the indigenous population, and massive slavery of another segment of the society.
A very interesting and informative book, chock full of references and arguments to support his diagnosis.
How I Found Livingstone by Henry M. Stanley April, 2021
This book is interesting in multiple ways. It is a travelogue of an expedition halfway across Africa in 1871 from Zanzibar to Ujiji. The journey was led by the author Henry Stanley, a travel reporter of the New York Herald. It is a captivating story of traversing the vast expanse of a mostly unknown, and frequently uncharted, wild terrains of Central Africa. As if overcoming natural and climatic obstacles along the way were not enough, Stanley had to negotiate safe passage of his 100+ men caravan through many tribal areas by paying tributes to the chieftains. This required a touch of diplomacy as well as awareness of local cultures and alliances. The
task was further complicated by occasional conflicts among native tribes and Arabs. Quote a daunting task for a travel reporter! I was surprised to realize the extent of Arab presence in the heart of Africa. The presence was trade based but had unavoidable social and political consequences.
Another way of reading the book is as a story of how Stanley was sent by New York Herald in search of Dr. Livingstone, a British missionary and geographer. Livingstone had been missing while exploring the head waters of the Nile. The now-famous line: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" was the greeting Stanley used when he had encountered Dr. Livingstone. After rescuing Livingstone, Stanley participated in some of Livingstone’s geographic surveys, and assisted him in other ways as well. The historic implications of Livingstone’s explorations were immense. The knowledge gathered by him helped subsequent European colonization of the continent.
PS: I was surprised to see some unusual capabilities of the author, capabilities that seem unusual for a mere travel reporter. He had to plan and organize a large group and then keep it provisioned, motivated and safe throughout this arduous journey. After some digging I found out that Stanley was an abandoned child born out of wedlock in Wales but ended up being Sir Henry Morton Stanley. After rescuing Dr. Livingstone, he made his own explorations in various parts of the world. In his youth he had gone to America to fight in the American Civil War, first in the Confederate Army, then in the Union Army, and finally in the Union Navy!
I had the distinct pleasure of reading a book copy that was published in 1889, complete with engraved drawings and gilded book edges. The pages were yellowish and brittle, so I had to handle them carefully. The book includes a large African atlas, secured in a back pocket. But I didn’t dare to take it out and open it lest I destroy the fragile paper. Too bad. I’d have loved to have followed Stanley’s journey on the map.
This is one of my rare forays in recently published books; this time with a book that I had picked up from the display shelf in the local library - The best American essays from 2020. What better way to find out what occupy our collective psyche?
Out of the 27 essays, the one I liked best was 77 Sunset Me by Peter Schjeldahl. In it a 77-year-old cancer patient, with a limited life expectancy, reminisces about his life. It is a powerful piece that evokes a sense of
foreboding, sadness, but also admiration. We forget all too easily that we are all on the same boat.
But what caught my attention most was a group of essays – representing about a fourth of all essays – that deal with identity issues like race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. They poignantly express the depth of emotional experiences that can come from one’s identity. Our identity is based on who we think we are, and ultimately controls our behavior. And yet, I felt a sense of unease in seeing such focus on identity. Why? For three reasons.
First, too much focus on identity can go at the expense of other perspectives. Class is just one example. As a result, certain important factors can remain unappreciated.
Second, an excessive focus on identity may create a sense of victimhood. And since victimhood can breed powerlessness, that’s the last thing one needs when faced with adversity.
And finally, and most importantly, our identify is neither singular, nor static. For example, I was born in Bangladesh and later became a naturalized American citizen. Therefore, I am a Bangladeshi American. But I am also a husband, a Minnesotan, an Asian, a father, a retired scientist, a book lover, a hobby photographer, a line dancer, and a hiker who has a Ph.D. in science from Germany, speaks German, and is politically independent. Moreover, I have lived in Europe for two decades, including six years behind the iron curtain. My identity has many facets. Which ones come to the fore depend on the context and the situation. Reducing my identity to a Bangladeshi American is like looking at a kaleidoscope and describing me with a single color and shape. This state of affairs is true for every one of us. If this has piqued your interest, check out Identity and Violence – The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate of Indian origin. He explains all these much more eloquently than I ever could (see here).
The trouble with focusing on singular identities is not only that of a distorted reality, but it can also cause division and polarization within the society. The human history is full of examples where a singular identity has been misused with horrific results, be it along religious, ethnic, language, or other lines. I understand the importance of creating a movement based on common issues. But a coalition that is based on a broader base (rather than singular identities) leads to solutions that are less divisive, less polarizing, and therefore more harmonious and stable.
Here I must emphasize that this critique is not targeted at the essayists. An essay has every right to focus on singular issues. My critique is diffusively at the society at large that, in my opinion, is overly focused on singular identities. The selection of essays on this book is just a representation of this trend.
With that, and rather unintentionally, I have fallen under the spell of writing an essay myself – on identity.
I would be remiss if I didn’t quote editor Andre Aciman’s excellent comments on what is and what isn’t an essay. Enjoy and be enlightened!
“If it knew where it was headed, it would be a report, not an essay; if it had already concluded its argument, it would be an article, not an essay; if it had something to teach or censure, it might be a critique, or an opinion, but not an essay. If it narrated the struggles to recover, say from a terrible childhood, or from poverty, or abuse, loss, grief, addiction, sickness, accidents, and so many other traumatic experiences, it might be an expose, not an essay. And finally, if, like a clever little ditty, it started somewhere, then meandered elsewhere, and finally, after all manner of agile acrobatics, pirouetted its way back exactly where it started, it would be a piece, but it would not be an essay.
An essay is like a story, only with the difference that the author may have no idea where he is headed. He might know what he feels and wants to say, but he may not know how to get there yet and, frequently, changes his mind midessay or even midsentence. But more importantly, an essay doesn’t seek to conclude anything – at least at first – because it is more rudderless than anyone suspects; it doesn’t even want to arrive at knowledge, because its main purpose is to speculate, to explore, to propose, do delay, to reconsider, and always, always to find a pretext to think some more. The last thing an essay seeks is closure; it prefers dilation, errancy, and the need to get lost, as one does when visiting a foreign city only to discover, by sheer happenstance, exactly what one didn’t even know one was looking to find. The author of an essay dislikes certitudes and retains the right to change his mind, to cradle not just skepticism but indecision and contradiction as he is writing, even if in the polishing up of an essay he decides to erase all the leads he followed, and all the messy footprints left behind in a road he realizes he should not have taken and which he doesn’t want his readers ever to suspect he’d once considered. And yet it is the very foray, which he decided to discard and of which no sign exists any longer, that spurred his very best thinking.”
Notes from a Dead House by Fyodor Dostoevsky February, 2021
Notes from a Dead House (also translated as The House of the Dead) was one of two books that Dostoevsky had published shortly after his 4-years of military service, preceded by another 4-years in a hard labor prison, in Siberia. He was sentenced for his involvement with a utopian socialist society. Both books are about his prison experience but were written in a pseudo-autobiographical form. He did that to avoid censorship by the tsarist Russian authorities. The other book was Notes from Underground. Both became an instant success, and had initiated the genre of prison memoir, which unfortunately, went on to acquire major
importance in Russian literature.
These four harsh years in the prison had a profound influence on Dostoevsky’s life and his future literary work - something already anticipated by Dostoevsky. Even on the same evening he was convicted, more than 8 years ago, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky had written to his elder brother Mikhail, saying “Brother! I swear to you I will not lose hope and will preserve my spirit and my heart in purity. I’ll be reborn to the better”. And reborn was he - which went on even after his immediate release from the prison.
As he started his military service in Siberia, which was the second part of his punishment, he requested his brother in St. Petersburg to send him the Quran, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel, and many other books. He was clearly intent on rethinking his former utopian socialism both historically and philosophically. He wrote: “I won’t even try to tell you what transformations went on in my soul, my faith, my mind, and my heart in those four years…”
The crucible of the hard labor prison gave him a unique perspective on human nature. Dostoevsky, as a nobleman, had to live with violent, common criminals, and without any special rights. He was an outcast. Any newcomer common criminal, within a few two hours of his arrival, became the same as all others - at home and one of them. But not a nobleman. Even after years, and even after they stopped insulting him, he remained an outcast.
Instead of becoming bitter, Dostoevsky opened up his mind to fathom the difference not only between him and the common people, but also between his former assumptions about the abstract figure of a “Russian peasant”, as idealized by the radical intelligentsia, and the reality. What he saw in these “simple people” were deep, strong, beautiful natures. “And it often gave me joy to find gold under a rough exterior”. He wrote. “You need only peel off the external, superficial husk and look at the kernel more closely, attentively, without prejudice, and you will see such things in the people as you never anticipated. There are not much our wise men can teach the people. I will even say positively – in the contrary, they themselves ought to learn from them”. This maturity and complexity of character of the "Russian peasants", with a capacity for extremes of both evil and good, destroyed his basic assumptions of their need for a utopian socialism for their own good that he had embraced as a young man.
He also observed that “Man survives it all! Man is a creature who gets used to everything, and that, I think, is the best definition of him.” On the other hand, there is a level below which even the basest criminal will not descend to. “The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being.”
This is a book from the most creative imaginative of all Russian authors. And yet, it has less creative imagination than any of his other works. That's because at this stage, Dostoevsky was still an asker of questions, and not yet the purveyor of answers. Here the convicts are the raw material of human nature, which he is determined to probe in a spirit of inquiry. What he learned here, gave rise to his masterpieces like Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, a Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov, to name the five most celebrated ones.
Dostoyevsky His Life and Work by Roland Hingley January, 2021
“Brother! I swear to you I will not lose hope and will preserve my spirit and my heart in purity. I’ll be reborn to the better”, promised Dostoevsky to his brother Mikhail, on the same evening that he was condemned to 4 years of hard labor, followed by additional 4 years of military service in Siberia. Earlier on the same day, the Emperor Nicholas I had staged a mock execution of all 21 convicts at the Semyonovsky square, St. Petersburg, before changing their sentence at the very last minute.
The next day, on Christmas Eve 1849 at midnight, Dostoevsky began his arduous two-thousand-mile journey to the military prison in western Siberia. The 28 years old Dostoevsky was a political prisoner for his participation in a secret utopian socialist society.
And reborn was Dostoevsky in ways no one could have imagined, and more slowly than even Dostoevsky might have thought. From a left-leaning anti-monarchist, he evolved into a Christian monarchist and a staunch Russian patriot. During his time in the prison, the convicts served as the raw material for studying human nature. Human beings, he came to believe, are perfectly capable of simultaneously holding on to contradictory emotions and values, even in their extreme forms, and behaving accordingly. He believed this to be universal - true for all social strata. Because of their capricious, irrational, inconsistent and unpredictable nature, he rejected humanity’s ability to construct an ideal society based on reason. Such views permeate his entire literary work.
Unlike his contemporaries Turgenev and Tolstoy, who were rich aristocrats, Dostoevsky lived almost his entire life under extreme pressure of poverty - often forced to deliver promised manuscripts under intense time pressure. To escape the crushing debt, he even lived in exile in Europe for a few years. Paradoxically, his sufferings, rather than having hampered his genius, might have been the exact stimulus he needed to spark his brilliance as a novelist. “At least I’ve lived; I may have suffered, but I have lived” – once he wrote to his friend about the hardship he had to face in life.
Dostoevsky's short exile in Europe didn't work out very well. He was too much of a Russian to feel comfortable in Europe. He found Germany depressingly full of Germans and Switzerland depressingly full of Swiss! This should not be interpreted as xenophobia. He readily acknowledged that "practically all existing Russian progress, learning, art and civic virtues" stemmed from Europe. But he was also very aware of Russia's special situation: "Russians are as much Asiatic as European. The mistake of our policy for the past two centuries has been to make the people of Europe believe that we are true Europeans..... We have bowed ourselves like slaves before the Europeans and have only gained their hatred and contempt. It is time to turn away from ungrateful Europe. Our future is in Asia." [A pretty blunt statement, but after a hindsight of one and a half century, this sounds pretty prescient]
Dostoevsky’s first true breakthrough was Poor Folk, written before his political imprisonment. His rehabilitation, under the strict censorship in the imperial Russia, had to be crafted carefully by what and where he published. Examples are Notes from a Dead House, and Notes from Underground. They were about his prison time in Siberia but were framed as pseudo autobiographical books. Both are especially interesting because at this stage of his literary career he was still an asker of questions about human nature, and not yet a purveyor of answers.
Crime and Punishment was the first of his five long novels on which his literary reputation rests. Starting with this novel, and all the way to his last, and the most accomplished, novel The Brothers Karamazov, is a clear thread of his love of his fellow men, and the incredible mountain of misfortunes, calamities and insults he piles on them. It is the tension between these two that makes Dostoevsky such a successful novelist. The other three of his reputed novels are The Idiot, Devils, and A Raw Youth. In Dostoevsky's own words, The Idiot was his favorite. But it has to be remembered that he had made that comment before he had written The Brothers Karamazov.
Tolstoy was Dostoevsky's contemporary. But despite having much mutual esteem for each other, they never met face to face. With Turgenev, on the other hand, he had an intense love-hate relationship.
Minneapolis, aka Mill City - my neighboring city across the Mississippi River. A metropolitan jewel in the upper Midwest, renowned for its culture, livability, and healthy living. But it has a checkered past. At the turn of the 20th century, Minneapolis had descended into abysmal corruption and lawlessness, especially during the fourth mayoral term of “Dirty Doc Ames”. The episode had so shocked the city that a series of reforms were undertaken with significant success – albeit with one significant interlude with violent crimes, when after 1917, Prohibition created a new brand of gangster, flush with cash. Men like Isadore Blumenfeld, aka "Kid
Cann” would then run vast networks of rackets and murder. But that’s a different story.
This story is that of the rise and fall of “Doc Ames”, more accurately Alberto Alonzo Ames. He was a popular and charismatic physician with a knack and ambition for politics. Besides getting to know a lot about the past history of my neighboring big city, the book also reminds me how certain things don't change.
What haven’t changed? For one, the character profile of politicians. They are still the few who know how to appeal to the common people – both with genuine public service and demagogy. Neither has their propensity changed to succumb to corruption and exploitation of power. It was also amusing to read that “newspapers at the turn of the 20th century were notoriously biased, operated by editors and backed by advertisers with their own political agenda”. The only difference today is that instead of many, just 5 mega corporations control the narrative in the entire country (Disney, AT&T, Comcast, Viacom, and News Corp/Murdoch). And then there are the matters of back-room dealings, rigged primaries and elections, etc.
Although this book is about Doc Ames, it includes a few short paragraphs about his father, Alfred Elisha Ames. Reading them makes me want to read a book about him too. His father came from a poor farmer family in Vermont. He was a learned brick maker, but also cut rails in winter for additional income. Later he moved to Illinois and (somehow) managed to become deputy to Illinois’s secretary of state, as well as the private secretary to the Governor. Yearning for more, he began attending medical lectures in Chicago. As he continued his studies, he got elected to the state house of representatives, and also picked up an appointment as a local postmaster. Later he moved to Minnesota where he became the first civilian doctor in the area. He became a highly regarded and well-to-do member of the community. Among other things, he was one of the eight original founding members of the University of Minnesota! Alfred Elisha Ames was certainly an exceptional example of a self-taught, self-made person. Is this still possible in this country?
It's a strange Freudian world. A world inhabited by the strangest of all animals – the (wo)man. This strangest of animals is the only one that has the capacity for neurosis. The neurosis comes from the suppression of its desires. But that is a hard thing to do because man's essence consists, not as Descartes maintained, in thinking, but in desiring and in seeking pleasure. Man is stuck between his desires and the reality and is compelled to suppress his desires.
For Freud, this neurosis is the key to explaining human behavior. But here, Brown casts Freud’s psychoanalysis net wider to explain developments of human language, arts, history, religion, and even civilization. He brings in Darwin, Hegel, Nietzsche, and others to observe that the human ego is not even master in its own house; and that man is a restless and discontent animal. Is it any wonder that Our history is shaped, beyond our conscious wills, not by the cunning of Reasons but by the cunning of Desires? Therefore, world history is an ever-increasing neurosis" (Nietzsche). I can sign up to this conclusion as well.
I didn't find it an easy read - it's way out of my league. Brown's hypothesis is incomplete and contested; interestingly even by his own later writings. Nevertheless, the book did widen my mental horizon, which is the most important thing. I was also reminded that it is a fallacy to expect most people to act rationally.
PS: Freud's hypothesis is the most successful of the three main theories on human psychology. The other two are from Albert Adler and Viktor Frankl. Interestingly, all three were from Vienna, Austria! Could it be that the richly chocolate filled Wiener Sachertorte does something to your brains? But joke aside, unlike Freud, for whom human behavior is driven by the pursuit of pleasure (and the accompanying guilt), Alfred Adler's theory is based on human quest for power. And for Frankl, it is about our search for the meaning of life. Here are my comments on Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning that I had read last year.
Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic December, 2020
This is an inspiring tale of personal growth - the journey of the 4th of July born, all American Yankee Doodle Boy Ron Kovic, from an unquestioning patriot to an activist patriot. Life is not about what cards you get handed, but about how you deal with them.
Movie: The 1989 movie starring Tom Cruise and directed by Oliver Stone, was a great box office hit. I liked the movie better than the book, which is a rarity.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque December, 2020
The end came undramatically - “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the western front.” The cryptic sentence suggests that he took his own life, which paradoxically is dramatic because 70% of German soldiers in World War I died from enemy fire in the trenches.
He was Paul Bäumer, who had volunteered for the Western Front at the age of 18, together with his entire
class. It did not take long for the reality to hit home though, as he reflects: “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow…..”. And when all his friends fell, he realized that even if he survived, his generation was already lost, broken, and burnt. The war will be over and forgotten; the earlier generation will return to its old ways, and the next generation will be strangers who’ll not understand his cohorts.
Paul Bäumer is a stand-in for his entire generation – a lost generation, condemned not for their crimes but for the failings of their fathers. Even worse, Paul Bäumer’s generation is just a stand-in for countless other generations all over the world, and throughout the human history – who too were not condemned for their own crimes but for the failings of their fathers, and increasingly their grandfathers (if I consider the age of our country’s political leaders).
PS: This greatest antiwar novel of all times is well known in this country, but strangely, the war is a forgotten one. There is no memorial for WW I in Washington DC! (There is, however, one good WWI Museum in Kansas City, MO that we have visited recently). It is a war without a myth. That’s because, unlike WW II, this war had failed to establish America’s dominance over rest of the world. No triumph of League of Nations, no triumph of Wilsonianism.
But in Europe, World War I was a pivotal moment. It was the first mechanized war that had led to the demise of horse-mounted cavalry. Recognizing the changed nature of future warfare, and to prepare for the next war, the German military leadership had started a “Im Felde unbesiegt” campaign (unconquered in the front), even before the war was over. During the next decades, a massive number of publications were printed in Germany to support the idea that it was the vast mechanized superiority of the enemy, rather than the lack of valor of the German soldiers, that had caused the defeat. That’s why so much was published on the highly mechanized western front, and so little on the eastern front. Remarque’s antiwar novel was a distinct outlier. He had to flee to Switzerland to avoid Nazi prosecution.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene November, 2020
The adjective “quiet” is probably not what one expects to see before, or associate with, “American” – thanks probably also to Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s famous political novel “The Ugly American”. That’s what I thought when I had picked up Graham Greene’s famous novel. Both are fictions and both deal with America’s involvement in Indochina. But Graham Greene wrote his novel before, and Burdick and Lederer after, America’s misadventures there. Besides being more measured, Greene was also more prescient.
Graham Greene’s American, Alden Pyle, is willfully naïve; to some extent may be even self-servingly innocent, who has little understanding of neither the subject of his attention – be it the world he is out to save, or the people around him - nor the damage he is capable of doing. In one instance, his good acquaintance Fowler, was forced to concede that he “never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused”. This was after Pyle was genuinely trying to convince Fowler that Fowler’s mistress Phuong’s interests would be best served if Pyle were to marry her! His approach to helping the Vietnamese people is fundamentally not much different.
PS: A probable solution to the seemingly unlikely title of the book was suggested by a literature critic. After declaring Alden Pyle a prattling fool, he added that “Pyle (Greene was good with names and associations) goes on to illustrate the joke’s unspoken punchline: the only quiet American is a dead American”. Not surprisingly, after its publication in the United States in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. That didn’t stop it from being adapted into successful films by Hollywood in 1958 and most recently in 2002.
Movie: Watched the 2002 movie starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, after reading the book. As usual, the book was better. The movie is less subtle because the book had the "advantage" of being written before the magnitude of the American tragedy indo-China became obvious. The movie is still worth watching.
Dreaming Up America by Russell Banks November, 2020
America! The greatest marketing success story in human history - with the American Dream as the Killer App. It is the magnet that has attracted millions of people from all over the world – people who are adventurous, entrepreneurial, risk takers, etc. They have made this country what it is. And yet, there is little consensus on what this American Dream is. On one end, it is the beckoning of unimaginable material success – going from rags to riches; striking the motherlode of gold; a career path that is destined to make a dishwasher a millionaire, etc. On the other end, “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it”! That was the irrepressible George Carlin quipping. That’s fair enough. If we don’t have
influence even over our own dreams, what business do we have in judging those of others?
Therefore, a more fruitful endeavor would be to explore the genesis of this chimera called American dream. This book does just that. It starts with some historic contexts and explores how they have shaped the American Dream. It reminds us that North America was colonized in the 17th century by different European groups, in segregated regions, and with very different identities and goals. The English came (to New England) in search of religious freedom. The Dutch came (to the Hudson Valley) strictly for commercial reasons – to fish and to trade for beaver and lumber. And the Spanish sailed to southern coast for gold; with no particular ambition to make a community.
Not only did they have different goals, they also had very different identities. They felt more English, French, or Spanish than a common European. They certainly did not have an American identity. How and when they started to feel American were also different. The English led the way. That’s because England viewed its colonies as franchises – giving them a lot of autonomy. The colonists set up administrative structures that operated rather independently from the mother country. As a result, they stopped feeling English much earlier than the French, the Dutch or the Spanish. It took much longer for others because they were ruled from home, as if the colonies were branch offices.
So, the genesis of the American Dream is a complex story of disparate goals of multiple groups of people, coalescing together over time to give us the final product. Looking at the history, a case can be made that there were at least three distinct dreams to start with. There was El dorado, the City of Gold that Cortez dreamed of finding. There was Ponce de Leon’s dream of the Fountain of Youth, where you could start life all over again. And there was the New England Puritan dream of God’s Protestant utopian City on a Hill. One is of a place where a poor man can become wealthy; one is of a place where a person can start all over again, and one is of a place where a sinner can become virtuous. All three dreams were there, side by side at first, but gradually merging. As they did, they became the three braided strands that mutually reinforced each other – becoming much more powerful together than any one of them alone could.
By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, as the northern New England colonies began to attach themselves to the middle colonies of New York, Maryland, and Virginia – and as the southern colonies (South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgina) began to draw together, and as the English established a kind of cultural hegemony across the eastern seaboard, the three dreams merged. We had the American Dream!
There are much more in this book, including how the vast number of African slaves, who were present from the beginning, have influenced American psyche (and continue to). The author points out that the two most powerful American novels from the nineteenth century are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The one is a story of an obsessed, monomaniacal white man in charge of a racially mixed crew, following the possibly mad captain into the Western sea in search of a white whale. The other is a search by a white boy and a black man for racial clarity on a raft floating down the Mississippi River.
The author then delves into the present, diagnosing the many manipulations and exploitations of the American Dream. He asserts that it were not the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and the Fords who believed in the American Dream, but those who worked for them. The latter believed and lived the American Dream and built this country.
PS: Comedians, especially the best of them, have an uncanny ability to peer deep into a society's psyche and expose its hidden sores and expose them. They do so in a way that make people laugh. And people lough because they need, they want, a balsam to be put on those sores. Sores, they are acutely aware of - sometimes subconsciously - but do not have the courage or the ability to expose for fear of being ridiculed or being branded failures. This has been so in every society, and every country throughout human history. I have personally experienced this in the former East Germany, and I have read about it in the former Soviet Union during its dying years. George Carlin was doing just that about the American Dream.
Russel Banks is doing so in a different way, likely for a somewhat different audience. He is highly acclaimed for exploring in his fictions the common man's brush with the American Dream. In today's vocabulary they may well be the "deplorables". I haven't read any of his books, but several are on my reading list. This book is his only nonfiction.
Sun Yat Sen Liberator of China by Henry Bond Restarick October, 2020
The mighty Mississippi begins as a mere trickle from Lake Itasca and the Chinese Revolution started out as a minor act of vandalism in a village temple in the southern province of Guangdong in China. A beginning cannot predict the end - neither in geography nor in history. Dynamics that are unknown, unknowable, and even nonexistent in the beginning decide the outcome. It is only after the fact that we see the connections because “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”, as Steve Jobs had said.
It all started in 1885 when a village youth Tai Cheong, and his friend Luke Ho Tung, gathered a small group and vandalized the gods in the village temple. Among the idols was Buck Dai, the god to whose service Tai Cheong’s mother had dedicated him. It was an act of defiance against the backwardness of the then Chinese society, including their superstitious beliefs. That minor act ultimately developed into a struggle that overturned the rule of the backward and despotic Manchu dynasty. It prepared China’s path to independence and modernization. Tai Cheong later became known as Dr. Sun Yat Sen and the Father of the Nation. His friend Ho Tung became the first martyr of the revolution, when in 1895, in the first of many attempts at revolution, he was captured and beheaded by the Manchu government. Ho Tung had stayed behind to allow Sun Yat Sen to escape. Revolution is not for the timid.
It took many aborted attempts, much organizing inside and outside of China, and repeated exiles for Sun Yat Sen before there was any semblance of success. The only thing consistent was his indefatigable belief in his cause. A milestone came finally in 1912 when Sun Yat Sen was elected as the first President of Chinese Republic in 1912 in Shanghai. But it was only the beginning of further upheavals that ultimately led first to the unification of the country under Chiang Kai-shek and later the partition of the country into People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (ROC). Unfortunately, Sun Yat Sen died in 1925, long before these events. To some extent, his was an unfinished revolution. But still, he is revered in both parts of China as the Father of the Revolution.
I was rather surprised by western education’s and Christianity’s influence on Sun Yat Sen; influences that should have been very unlikely for the son of a poor rice farmer in China. But it just happened that his elder brother Ah Mi had been living in Hawaii as a rice planter. He brought his younger brother over and enrolled him in an Anglican church boarding school (Iolani), that was admitting a limited number of Chinese students. His six years of school in Hawaii undoubtedly made him aware of the backwardness of the then China. Even after returning to China, he continued to take advantage of educational opportunities offered by Christian missions and ultimately studied medicine at the College of Medicine in Hong Kong, which was established by the British. Later, also converted to Christianity.
Equally surprisingly, Sun Yat Sen was an American citizen! He acquired his citizenship by falsely claiming to be born in Hawaii. The loophole was a clause in the US Congressional Act that had enabled the annexation of Hawaii by treaty in 1898, that automatically gave American citizenship to anyone who had been born in Hawaii prior to that date. What is it with Hawaii and birth certificates? :-)
Sun Yat Sen traveled frequently and widely in USA to organize the Chinese living there. He even organized camps in the USA for them to be trained militarily under Homer Lea. While those military training served to keep alive the men's interest in the revolution, it is doubtful whether many went to China to fight the revolution.
Japan played an important role too. It was both a role model as a country that had adopted western education and systems, and a safe haven for organizing his revolution. The revolution also seems to have tapped into Chinese resentment, especially in the south, of the ruling Manchus (the Qing Dynasty), who they did not consider to be proper Chinese.
Along the way, I learned some interesting tidbits about Hawaii. Hawaii was “discovered” in 1778 by Captain Cook and named the Sandwich Islands. Later, the islands were used by merchant ships engaged in the flourishing trade between Canton and the northwest coast of America for acquiring provisions in between. After 1876, Hawaii started to have a significant number of Chinese who were brought from Canton as laborers for the sugar industry. The Hawaiian Republic was inaugurated on July 4, 1894, and was later annexed by the USA in 1898.
This book was written in 1931 by the first American bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii. I should probably read additional books that cover the Chinese Revolution from other perspectives and with a longer hindsight.
The Abundance by Amit Majmudar October, 2020
I bumped into this book in the library just as I was feeling an urge to read something lighter. At that time, I was right in the middle of a Sun Yet Sen’s biography. I thought that a bittersweet tale about deshihood in America would suit fine. When I came home, I habitually peeked into the book, just to check it out. Wow! Amit Majmudar writes so beautifully and with such a perceptive mind that I immediately got hooked. I didn’t touch Sun Yat Sen’s biography until I was finished with this book.
I won’t spoil your pleasure by revealing too much about the story. I’ll only mention that there is a lot of depth
in it about intergenerational relations, especially within families that have chosen to be uprooted. It is simply amazing how Majmudar, as a relatively young male, writes in the first person as an elderly mother who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I think Amit Majmudar will go far as a writer. I’ll probably also read his debut historical fiction Partition, which has been highly acclaimed.
She came to Britain from India in 1889 and described herself as an “Indian”, a “Parsee”, a modern woman, and a Christian. She was a sari-clad woman, a barrister-at-law, a fighter for women’s education, a teacher at an exclusively men’s college, and the first woman ever of any background to get the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford. She was Cornelia Sorabji.
He is a Bengali born in Dhaka, an Indian, an economist, an Asian, a Hindu by birth, an atheist by choice, an alumnus of Trinity College, Cambridge, a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard, a cancer
survivor, and a Nobel laureate. His name is Amartya Sen. Which “singular” identity defines her or him?
We do not have such colorful pedigrees, but still have many identities. These are our ethnicity, gender, religion by birth, class, citizenship(s), language(s), profession(s), expertise and accomplishments, political affiliations, hobbies, philosophical and moral leanings, etc. We naturally prioritize the various aspects of our identity depending on the context and “wear” them as necessary.
On the other hand, there are theories that presume the unique relevance of a certain singular identity while ignoring all other aspects. Examples include singular identities baed on civilization, religion, culture, ethnicity, etc. This is unfortunate, wrong, and dangerous. Wrong because it ignores the richness of our being, thereby dehumanizing us. It is also wrong because any group of people, defined by a singular identity, will be heterogeneous in most other aspects.
Even worse, it is dangerous. Dangerous because such concepts divide people in groups to emphasize a certain aspect of their diverse identity, while suppressing their many commonalities. This can and has been (mis)used throughout history for political purposes, causing social unrests at best and genocides at worst. As Sen says, intentionally or unintentionally “it lays the foundation for misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world, even before going on to the drumbeats of a civilizational clash”.
Sen sees no rationale for a clash of civilizations or of religions. Throughout history, civilizations have developed through an interplay with other civilizations, for which Sen gives ample examples. The western civilization is not a pure western product; neither is it supreme. The lack of understanding of the complex nature of how civilizations develop creates much hubris on one side, and inferiority complex on the other - leading to unnecessary conflicts.
Amartya Sen also notes that categorizing people according to their religion is wrong. All religions, including Islam, are diverse in practice and interpretation. This has been true historically and is true contemporarily - as he proves convincingly with many examples. Such a separation of people along their religion sets up a trap for misuse. Even well-intentioned attempts to promote a “moderate version” of a religion is counterproductive. That’s because they too, possibly unwittingly, support the notion of the blanket predominance of a religious identity for people of that religion at the expense of their all other identities. As Sen says, “Religion is not, and cannot, be a person’s all-encompassing identity”.
Along the way, Amartya Sen shares his thoughts on conflicts created by multiculturalism and globalization. In both cases, the concept of identity plays a pivotal role. He also points out confusions about multiculturalism. Is a "plurality of monocultures" same as "multicultural"? How about balancing the rights of an emigrated community to conserve its traditional culture vs. the rights of its members, usually younger ones, to choose something different from the host country? As for globalization, he notes that global protests against globalization paradoxically reveal our embrace of a global identity! What these protests are really about is not globalization but inequality that it is being allowed to foster.
Sen concludes by strongly advocating the use of reason to skillfully navigate the traps of identity - be that of singular identity, multiculturalism or problems of globalization. This is where I have my doubts because human beings, sadly, are emotional animals. I hope I am wrong.
PS: My five-stars rating indicates what I think of this book. My assessment may have something to do with my own experience of living in multiple countries and cultures. The book has given me clarity about things, some of which I was not consciously aware of. I had picked up the book from the library just as my ever inquisitive, childhood friend Emran was quizzing me about my multiple identities! The two incidents were completely unrelated.
I have known of Amartya Sen for a long time, but this is my first book by him. This will not be the last one.
The Inkblots by Damion Searls September, 2020
Why do human beings have an emotional reaction when faced with some inanimate shape or image? And does that reaction tell something about our mind? Those were the questions that had set Hermann Rorschach, a contemporary of the two legendary psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, on his path to develop this test. He came from an artistically talented family and spent many years experimenting with images that hover between meaninglessness and meaning - right on the borderline between all too obvious and not obvious enough. The images sometimes imply movement. But they are unique in more than
shape. The colors elicit emotion; even override shapes, sometimes but not always. They are supposed to draw out the subconscious mind of the observer, and thereby reveal its inner workings. They are like “a fluoroscope into the psyche”..
He created ten images, each horizontally symmetric, with a white border around it, and painted on individual 9.5” x 6.5” cards that you can hold and turn in your hands. That’s Rorschach test, devised by a Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, which he published as Psychodiagnostik in 1921. It has the aura of being the “queen of psychological tests”.
The copyright to the ten images has long expired. But the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Society requires their psychologists to keep them “secure". Therefore, the Rorschach images we see in everyday life are imitations – blurred or modified to reveal something about the image but not everything. By the way, inkblot test is a misnomer, because Rorschach used neither ink nor blotting to create the images.
The book is chock-full of details about the test’s rise to fame, further developments as well as controversies from its beginning to now. The two primary controversies are the lack of a theoretical underpinning, and the scoring criteria. Rorschach was well aware of them; but before he could finish his work, he died prematurely at 37 of appendicitis.
Other interesting tit bits include the third, today forgotten, “giant of psychology” - the one beside Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. He is credited with naming the disease schizophrenia and inventing the term autism. He was Eugene Bleuler, the boss and early mentor of Carl Jung (as well as Rorschach). There was an interesting relationship between Bleuler, Freud and Jung. It was a triangle of attraction, repulsion, and self-interest - sometimes productive, sometimes not. Bleuler was the one with the most willingness to learn from others, but also had the least ego. The latter trait probably explains why Bleuler is forgotten today – so is life!
In the early 1940s, the Rorschach test became immensely popular in the US, aided by two trends. The first one was its use in the US military during the World War 2. The other one was a general shift in American attitude from valuing character to valuing personality. It became more important to project being attractive, creative, forceful, etc. rather than to demonstrate serving a higher moral, duty, honor, etc. And the Rorschach test was viewed as the X-ray that could expose the hidden, all important, personality. Andy Warhol’s 1984 painting Rorschach is a testimony to its influence on the American pop culture.
At the height of Rorschach test’s popularity came the Nuremberg trial. There was an enormous public interest to understand how anyone could commit such crimes, and to peer into the abyss of evil in the minds of the Nazi monsters. One of the tools prominently used by the psychologists was the Rorschach test. To the dismay of all, the Nazi leadership was found to have an above average intelligence (IQ), but their psychic profile revealed no stamp of evil!
The disappointment stems from our flawed inclination to overemphasize intelligence when evaluating a person. A much better job can be done, rather surprisingly, if we assess people as we do computers. According to this approach, the intelligence of a person is no more than the hardware and operating system of a computer. Obviously, that is not enough. To perform well, a person, just like a computer, also needs good software and data. But that is a whole different discussion…
Finally, one enduring criticism of Rorschach test relates to its objectivity. How much does the test reveal about the subject’s psyche vs. that of the investigator himself as he interprets the results? But I’d argue that this applies to all psychological tests. The mind of another person is probably one of the most impenetrable realms in the universe. As Nikolai Kublin, the Russian Futurist artist, musician and theorist said: “The self does not know anything except its own feelings, and while projecting these feelings it creates its own world.” We ALL live in our own individual realities that others can, at best, guess about. But judge? Hardly.
PS: The failure to identify an innate evil psyche among the Nazi leadership at Nuremberg does not surprise me. Ever since I had emigrated from Germany to the USA, I have been asked how Hitler and Nazi rule could take hold there, and if there is something special with Germans that made this possible. My answer, with increasing bluntness over time, has been the same - there is nothing special with the German people, society or culture that predisposes them to such evil. Rather, given a set of suitable conditions, this can happen anywhere. That’s because all people, everywhere, are driven by similar fundamental behavior patterns.
I have also come to the conclusion that traits that allow evil to get a creeping foothold include a willingness to overlook the violation of certain universal moral standards for the sake of some supposed pragmatism. And the second trait is the unwillingness to take Edmund Burke’s wisdom seriously - “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Evil - sadly even great evil - is rather banal, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad August, 2020
"The horror! The horror!" - was the last whisper captain Marlow heard Kurtz utter in his deathbed. It was a cry no more than a breath. But when Conrad published Heart of Darkness in 1899, that whisper reverberated throughout the English literature louder than any scream could have. What Kurtz exactly meant remains elusive. It is never explained in the story except in hints and indications.
That may sound surprising - then the novella plays out in Belgian Congo during the reign of King Leopold II, where there is plenty to be horrified about. But then, captain Marlow is no ordinary narrator - as we learn
from the anonymous first narrator at the very beginning of the story. As captain Marlow and three other acquaintances, hosted by the Company Director, await turn of the tide on Thames on broad the cruising yawl Nellie, and even before Marlow starts to "spin his yarn", the anonymous first narrator lets the reader know that “the yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical, and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”
If that is so, then all the visible, representational elements in the story are not for their own sake (e.g., giving the reader information about imperialism in the Belgian Congo), but to make something else visible – something “unseen” or even “unseeable”, like the dark matter of the universe. The heart of darkness!
But Heart of Darkness is among the most interpreted books in English literature and can be read in many ways. If read as the first kind of seaman’s yarn, then it is a clear indictment of hypocrisy and imperial ethics. One also cannot ignore the dehumanized way Conrad treats Africa and Africans in the story. No wonder that Chinua Achebe, in a scathing critique, brands Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist”. I think that Achebe's critique is justified; I have noticed this unfortunate trait in another of Conrad's classics Lord Jim.
Then there are others who read Heart of Darkness differently, e.g., as a challenge to the then prevailing British readers’ view of nature having two primary roles only - the passive object of imperial commerce and evolution’s meritocracy of fitness. It is interesting the in Marlow’s Congo, the word “ivory” rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. But the word “elephant” doesn’t appear a single time – as if the word has been hunted to extinction! And Kurtz’s fate certainly doesn’t project the supposed superiority of the European race over the natives in Africa.
Movie: There have been a handful of attempts at producing a film version of Heart of Darkness. The best known is Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Coppola, and featuring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Martin Sheen. The screenplay is very loosely based on the book - the setting was changed from late19th-century Belgian Congo to the Vietnam War. Besides, the river journey from South Vietnam to Cambodia is undertaken not to get Kurtz back but to assassinate him. The screen credits do not mention the novella, while interestingly not distancing the film from the novel. I watched the movie immediately after having read the novella. Truth be told, I was immensely disappointed!
PS: This is my third book by Joseph Conrad - after The Secret Agent and Lord Jim. This time, I read Heart of Darkness in a Norton Critical Edition version. In it, the novella comprises just 73 pages. The remaining 470 pages contain excellent contextual texts and critiques.
The Future is Asian by Parag Khanna July, 2020
The book flashes an unambiguously clairvoyant title in bold red on a black background, ignoring Yogi Berra’s advice that “it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. But the book does provide a fair amount of supporting content for the statement. Besides, Parag Khanna's prescience may not seem like much of a risk in this post COVID pandemic world, now that curtains have been raised, allowing everyone to have a clearer view of certain aspects of geopolitics. But remember, this book was written before the pandemic.
Here though, I am with Parag Khanna. That’s because I was already swayed by Halford Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History, written in 1904. In that short book, Mackinder had convincingly laid out why geography favors a future that is led by Eurasia. Now after more than a century, Khanna comes to the same conclusion, but grounded by recent global demographic, economic, and political trends. And even though the title refers to Asia (rather than Eurasia), the European continent is a peninsula of Asia. Therefore, the massive changes coming from Asia are destined to merge with the dynamics of Europe to create a new world of Eurasian prominence.
Khanna’s conclusion is not new for me, but he does put a lot of things in proper perspective. For example, Asia is much more than just China or even China-plus. China has only 1/3 of Asia’s population, less than 50% of Asia’s GDP, 50% of its outward investment and less than 50% of its inbound investment. Couple that with Asia’s long history of mostly stable subregions based on multi-polarity, rather than hierarchy, as well as its vast religious and ethnic diversity, and it seems logical to expect the future to be Asian rather than Chinese. It’s worth pointing out that it is Singapore, not Peking, that many consider to be Asia’s unofficial capital!
Demographically, Asia represents the center of gravity of the world. It has 60% of the world population, which is 10 times as many as in Europe, and 12 times as many as in North America. It is no surprise that the global economy is increasingly becoming Asia centric. Khanna provides ample data to support this trend.
Besides geography, demography, and economy, the fourth factor responsible for the global tectonic shift is the failure of the western democracy to deliver what it espouses – for most western countries, but more importantly, for the emerging and Asian countries. The supposed democratic governance in the west, especially in the USA, has lost the consent of the populace it claims to govern because it has degenerated and has become subservient to big money and special interests. In contrast, several Asian countries (China, Singapore, Vietnam, etc.) now have a track record of tending to the needs of its citizens and the long-term growth of their country with a non-western, technocratic, and utilitarian government system. As more Asian countries adopt such a system, Asian will become more important in world economy.
Aside from the many quantifiable trends listed in this book, the qualitative nature of the global seismic change is aptly described by Khanna with one sentence: “Americans and Europeans see walls going up, but across Asia they are coming down – rather than being navel-gazing and pessimistic, billions of Asians are forward-looking, outward-oriented, and optimistic.”
I think many of the predicted changes are inevitable. This may surprise people with a Eurocentric view of the world history. But they should remember that for most of history prior to the Industrial Revolution, Asia far outstripped Europe on indicators of development.
The future doesn’t have to be gloomy for the West. That’s because rather than one superpower simply fading away to be replaced by a successor, if managed properly, a true multipolar and multicivilizational order will develop, in which N. America, Europe and Asia each will represent a major share of power. I can imagine America still being a leading global military power, Europe leading with the quality of its democratic institutions and overall living standards, and Asia recapturing its justified share of economic power in the world.
This is a good book, packed with a wealth of information on a topic of great importance. But the overabundance of details and data can have the contradictory effect of diluting the bigger massage. It’s not that you can’t see the forest for the trees – Khanna does point out the forest. But all too often the reader can find himself lost in a thicket. This book could have been a better one if Parag Khanna were familiar with Mark Twain’s quote: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” I gave it a 3-star rating.
PS: I am no China expert, but I suspect that there is a lot of false and incomplete information in the western press about China, CPC (Communist Party of China) and its governance system. For example, the attached, 7-year-old, TED video raised a lot questions in my mind about Western (corporate) press's objectivity when reporting on China. Similarly, the attached graph is quite an eye opener.
The videos start in the middle of the talk. Please rewind to the beginning to watch.
“I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way….”. With this bold first sentence, Augie March starts retelling his adventures, which is loosely patterned after Bellow’s own experience, starting with the Great depression in 1920s in Chicago.
In his belief that a man’s character is his fate, Augie keeps chasing the “better fate” that he has convinced
himself that he deserves. And, after 500+ pages, the brilliant closing line wraps it up: “Which ….. doesn’t prove there was no America”. Does it also mean that America and its promises are unquestionable? Does it mean that if you fail to realize your American Dream then don't blame anyone but yourself? Interesting.
It's a bildungsroman that strongly reminds me of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Common to both is the experience of growing up as a poor, Jewish immigrant in a big American city. I found Portnoy's Complaint better. Is it because I read it first? Or is it because Augie’s countless “adventures” seem disjointed and often unconvincing, especially the propensity of his past acquaintances to pop up in the most unlikely places. I gave Portnoy's Complaint five stars but this book only three stars. Ooops. Did I just comment a faux pas? So glad that I don't have to earn my living as a literature critic!
Saul Bellow was a big influence on Philip Roth. In fact, Saul Bellow is the towering figure that arose from the great American postwar fiction boom. Especially this book put Saul Bellow head-and-shoulders above a rising generation of young contenders, from Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to Kurt Vonnegut, and James Salter. And when he was awarded literature prize in 1976, the Nobel committee especially noted this book. It is also listed among the 100 best novels in the English language.
The Age of Gold by W. H. Brands April, 2020
When on January 24, 1848, two “Johns” accidentally struck gold while constructing a sawmill in Coloma, near Sacramento, the California gold rush was born. They were John Marshall, a carpenter with a questionable business acumen, and John Sutter, his Swiss emigrant partner with a questionable reputation at home. The events that followed fundamentally changed the history and the nature of America.
The world of the gold find spread like a bush fire, attracting "argonauts" and fortune seekers from all over
the world. Within a year, California’s population surpassed those of most existing states. Things got so out of hand that local public figures were forced to improvise a government for a large body of strangers. They framed the constitution themselves, instead of waiting for the union to take the initiative, and pushed for statehood. Both were unusual. Until then, a new region first went through a “territorial phase”, during which the population grew slowly through settlement by farmers. Only then was statehood considered. But the rapid pace of developments in California made an exception necessary. But it also deprived everybody the luxury of cool-headed deliberation, especially on an issue that three previous compromises had already failed to bring a consensus – that of slavery (see NOTE 1).
The situation was especially tricky because the 30 states in the union were evenly split between pro and anti-slavery states. The process leading to California’s statehood was tumultuous. One senator Foote even drew a pistol on Senator Benton on the Senate floor for speaking in favor of California’s proposed constitution and calling him a “calumniator”.
The 1850 California Compromise (see NOTE 2) did allow California to join the union as a free state, but it left the slavery issue unresolved – both in California and elsewhere. That festering disagreement ultimately led to the American Civil War (1861-1865). If given enough time, would the pro and anti-slavery states have been able to device a peaceful solution? We can ponder what could have been. History only tells what has been. But for sure, the gold rush is considered to be the beginning of the end of Antebellum.
A book I have read recently is Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. It portrays Abraham Lincoln’s presidency - starting with his election, through the difficult times prosecuting the Civil War and ending with his assassination. The Age of Gold provides an excellent backdrop to the events leading up to Vidal’s book.