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Vision of Islam

The Vision of Islam by Sachiki Murata and William C. Chittik                                                                         June 2024 

This book too, was written for two audiences: for Muslims brought up in a western society, and for Westerners.  The former, as a rule, know nothing about their own religion but are defensive, and the latter also know nothing but are instinctively hostile. That’s the impression these two authors had gained while teaching an introductory course on Islam for several decades at the State University of New York. But even if you do not fall in either group you still might find this book interesting, especially if, like most of us, you as a five-year-old, had asked questions like why are we here, where we came

from, where we go after we die, where the world come from…

The book starts with basic revealed truths of the faith, and then expands in widening circles to address the whole vison of Islam.  This is a challenging book covering many topics - some in great depth.  My notes relate only to topics that interest me most – and even then, somewhat superficially.  Perhaps my notes will prompt you to read the book and find out more.

 

Islam has neither churches nor priests.  Unlike churches, mosques have no central authority and are just places of worship.  And instead of priests or ministers, Islam has Ulama (the learned).  They are “resource people” who have gained specialized knowledge but require no ordination. Also, in Islam (unlike in Christianity where certain functions can only be performed by a priest) there are no religious functions that cannot be performed by an adult member of the community. 

 

A helpful way to start the book is to read a Hadith (Hadith: the sayings of the Prophet himself or of his companions concerning his activities) cited in the preface of the book.  The authors used to instruct their students to learn it by heart if they wanted to understand the principles of the course.  You can find the Hadith in the PS section at the bottom.

 

The Three Levels of Islam

It is helpful to understand the religion of Islam at three inter-dependent levels: islam (meaning submission) which pertains to acts, iman (meaning faith) which pertains to thoughts and understanding, and ihsan which pertains to “doing what is beautiful”.

 

  • Islam covers the obligatory practice of its five pillars: (1) bear witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger (also called Shahada), (2) perform the ritual prayers, (3) pay the alms tax (Zakat, literally meaning “purity”), (4) fast during Ramadan, and (5) make pilgrimage to Kaaba if one is able to do so (Hajj). 

 

       But (Islam) submission is not enough.  This point is made in a Koranic verse about a Bedouin tribe: "The            Bedouins say, "we have believed".  Say, "You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], 'We have submitted',        for faith has not yet entered your hearts." [49:14].  That’s because someone may well submit out of fear, or          to make friends and allies.  What would be missing is the next level.

 

  • That next level is Iman.  Iman is translated as faith but has a deeper meaning.  It includes knowledge and the understanding of why it is necessary to do what a Muslim does. It involves knowing, speaking, and doing. To quote the Prophet, “Iman is a knowledge in the heart, a voicing with the tongue and an activity with the limbs”.  (The word heart as used in the Koran is the specific faculty or spiritual organ that separates human beings from nonhuman beings).  Iman is a state of mind and heart that (a) recognizes the truth (of God), then (b) commits to what has been recognized,. and ultimately (c) demonstrates that commitment with activity.

 

      Three interesting concepts in Iman are Tawhid, Tanzih, and Tashbih.  Tawhid means “asserting unity”.           It finds its most succinct expression in the first part of Shahada (that there is no god but God).  Tanzih                 means that no God’s creature can be compared with God. “Nothing is like Him” [41:11].  It is associated with       the believer’s distance from and fear of God.  And finally, Tashbih affirms God’s nearness to his creatures         and his mercy towards them.  “We are nearer [to the human being] than his jugular vein” [50:16], “He is with       you wherever you are“[57:4], and “Wherever you turn. There is the face of God” [2:115].  

 

      The two seemingly contradicting concepts of distance and nearness suggest that a Muslim must have both         fear and hope.  Perfect Tawhid involves simultaneous affirmation of both. This juxtaposition between                   distance and nearness, and between wrath and mercy, is one of the most important principles of Islamic            thought and has repercussions both in theory and practice.  It is at the core of Islamic teaching that people         must make the effort to move from their distance (wrath) to nearness (mercy) to God.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

      The balance between God’s mercy and God’s wrath is by all accounts on mercy’s side.  God has mercy over       all but wrath only for some, “I strike with my chastisement whom I will, but My mercy embraces all things”           [7:156].  And even when his wrath strikes, “Do not despair of God’s mercy.  Verily God forgives all sins”               [39:53].  But for that to happen you have to ask for forgiveness, “Call upon Me, and I will answer you”                   [40:60]. According to a Hadith, the inscription on God’s Throne says, “My mercy takes precedence over my         wrath”.

      It must be noted that Iman is a matter only between God and a believer.  "Did you open the heart and                  look?", the Prophet had said in a Hadith criticizing a companion for judging someone's profession of faith.

     Another important aspect of iman is Dhikr (remembrance).  Dhikr entails everything that reminds people of        God, as well as every effort they make to bring God to mind. What is to remember?  Certainly Tawhid and          God’s omnipotence, the transitional nature of this world, that the only Real is God, etc

 

     Islam considers that all human beings are born with Tawhid, but it is obscured by upbringing and                        circumstances.  “O you who have faith!  Let not your possessions, neither your children, divert you from              God’s remembrance.  Whoso does that – they are the losers [63:9].  Dhikr is the remedy, “O you who have          faith!  Remember God often and glorify Him at dawn and in the evening” [33:41]. And remembering God              leads to the joy of being remembered by him: “Remember Me, and I will remember you” [2:152]

 

  • After islam (submission and obligatory acts, which explain what should be done) and after Iman (understanding and commitment, which explain why it is necessary to do what should be done), comes the third and deepest dimension of Ihsan.  It focuses on bringing Islam and Iman in harmony with one’s motivation. The word Ihsan means "to do or establish what is good and beautiful”.  

 

      To be told by a religion to do what is good is expected.  But to be told to do what is beautiful?  The authors         point out that God has created the cosmos as something beautiful and loves what is beautiful.  “He is the           Knower of the unseen and the visible, the Mighty, the Compassionate, who made beautiful everything that         He created” [32:6-8].  “It is God who made the earth a fixed place for you, and heaven a building, and He           formed you, made your forms beautiful, and provided you with the pleasant things” [40:64].  “He created the       heaven and the earth with Real, formed you, and made your forms beautiful, and to Him is the                             homecoming” [64:3].

      Therefore, God wants humans to emulate his love for beauty.  A Hadith says, “God has prescribed doing             what is beautiful for everything”.  He preferentially rewards those who do beautiful things, “He who brings           something beautiful shall have better than it, but he who brings something ugly – those who worked ugly             things shall be recompensed only with what they were working“ [28:84].  You find the same message in               this Hadith, “When the servant submits, and his submission is beautiful, God will acquit him of every ugly           thing he approached.  After that, the requital for the beautiful will be the like of it ten to seven hundred times       over, and for the ugly its like, unless God should disregard it”.  Here again, we see God’s partiality towards         mercy over wrath.  

      God’s love for those who do what is beautiful appears in Koran over and over, “Do what is beautiful! Surely         God loves those who do what is beautiful” [2:195].  See also [4:125], [5:13], [5:85], [7:56], [11:115], [16:128],       [29:69], [39:34].

      Multiple Koranic verses emphasize the importance of doing what is beautiful towards parents.  “Worship             none but God, and do what is beautiful towards parents” [2:83].  See also [6:151], [17:22-24], [46:15].

 

      Other important aspects of Ihsan are God weariness, love, sincerity and wholesomeness.  The last two               aspects emphasize that not only should the deeds be the correct ones, the intentions must be correct too.  

 

     A practical guideline for Ihsan was given in a Hadith: “To do what is beautiful is to worship God as if you              see Him, because if you do not see Him, He sees you”.  To live and worship like this can be both out of fear        and out of love.  But it is said that when one has reached the perfection of Ihsan, there would be no thought        of oneself whatsoever – but only of God. 

The Koran

In contrast to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which are collections of many books that were written down by multiple persons, the Koran issued from the mouth of a single person, who recited what he heard from angle Gabriel.  Even if we say that the books of the Bible were all revealed, they were revealed to different people who did not live at the same time or the same place.   

 

The Koran is “God’s speech” directed at human beings, spoken in Arabic. A translation of the Koran is not the Koran, but an interpretation of its meaning.  That distinction in language is important.  That’s because Arabic is a poetic language, and the Koran is written in an imagistic text.  Its meaning is deep. According to the Prophet, every verse of the Koran has seven meanings, beginning with the literal sense.  As for the seventh and deepest meaning, God alone knows what it is.  Nevertheless, the Koran’s language has been very successful in addressing both the simple and the sophisticated, the shepherd and the philosopher, the scientist and the artist. And by and large, there is much less diversity of opinion on the fundamentals of faith and practice in Islam than, for example, in Christianity. 

 

Much more than the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Koran talks specifically about God.  The content of the Koran is reminiscent of parts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament with stories about many of the same persons and draws conclusions for its listeners.  It tells about the past prophets and mentions Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as the most important of them. It issues instructions on how to live a life pleasing to God and warns those who defy. The Koran is full of “signs” that point to God’s existence.  The short passages into which the Koran is divided are called “aya” which literally means sign.

 

The word Koran derives from a root that means “to recite”.  Not only was it recited to the Prophet, the Koran is also meant to be recited by Muslims - not merely read.  It is said that recitation of the Koran has the effect of opening up the pores to the luminosity of God’s own speech.  The Koran became a written book only as a matter of convenience, accomplished several years after the death of the Prophet.

The Koran is the message of God (to human beings) and the message is Islam. Said differently, Islam is to embody the Koran - and the Prophet is the perfect human embodiment.  He is God’s perfect servant and God’s perfect viceregent even though he, unlike Jesus in Christianity, is a mortal like everyone else. 

 

 

Theology (Kalam) and Jurisprudence (Sharia)  

Theology plays a minor role in Islam.  That’s because Muslims from the very beginning had the Koran and the Hadith to go by whereas Christians had centuries of sophisticated theological debates behind them.  Muslims did develop dogmatic theology (Kalam) - primarily to have discussions with non-Muslims, especially Christians.  

 

But it is not Kalam but Sharia, (the product of jurisprudence - Fiqh) that is of greater importance in Islam.  The Koran and the Hadith are the two basic sources of the Sharia.  One must keep in mind however, that Jurisprudence is a science that revels in nit-picking, and that Sharia is concerned with activity, not faith.  Too much focus on Sharia can blind people to the other dimensions of the religion, which are also essential to Islam, for example, Islam’s second and third dimensions (Iman and Ihsan).  Many Islamic scholars have a similar attitude towards Kalam.  Instead, they suggest that it is a Muslim's duty to continue asking people of greater knowledge about a specific issue until you are satisfied.  Even then that may not be the last word.  

Other  topics in the book

For the sake of brevity, as well to focus on my areas of interest, I have left out some topics in my summary. They include: Body, Sprit, and Soul; Prophecy; Stages of Life and Death; The Unfolding of the Soul; The Intellectual Schools; Marks of the End; Islam in History; etc. 

                            A free copy of the book is available on the Internet

PS 

 

And finally, here are a few things that I found especially interesting….

  • The most surprising thing was to find out that “God has prescribed doing what is beautiful for everything”.  It is both a simple and a broad command. Although the book doesn’t make the connection directly, I can imagine this having a bearing, among other things, also on two of Islam’s “beautiful” things – a strong repudiation of racism, and an emphasis on alms tax (Zakat). 

 

  • Every Koranic verse is said to have seven (levels of) meaning.  Yet, instead of being a hindrance this seems to have helped spread the religion broadly.  That’s because while Islam encourages everyone to comprehend the higher meanings, it is understood that not everyone is endowed with the same level of intelligence, abilities, and opportunities.  If a believer strives to do his best with his best intentions, then a simple person’s belief can be as good as (or better than) that of someone who is endowed generously.  It is notable that whenever Islam has spread in a new region, the demography that has accepted the religion most eagerly and in greater numbers are those who were simple, poor, outcasts, slaves, etc.  BTW, many Hindus in the Indian subcontinent tend to have a disparaging attitude towards Indian Muslims because they supposedly came from lower casts and social strata.  Of course, one can view this also as a praiseworthy aspect of Islam. 

 

  • The authors suggest that for the common Muslim it is better to focus on faith (Islam, Iman, and Ihsan) rather than to overindulge in Kalam (dogmatic theology), and even Sharia (jurisprudence).  It is not about ignoring the latter two, but also not to get distracted by "nit-picking". 

 

  • Islam emphasizes a believer’s direct connection to God.  While the Prophet is a perfect example to emulate, he is not an interceder.  Islam also doesn’t have priests and other ordained personnel through which a Muslim must build his relationship with God.

 

The Hadith of Gabriel (Muslim, Iman 1; Bukhari, Iman 37; MM5-6)   

 

Umar ibn al-Khattab said: One day when we were with God's messenger, a man with very white clothing and very black hair came up to us. No mark of travel was visible on him, and none of us recognized him. Sitting down before the Prophet, leaning his knees against his, and placing his hands on his thighs, he said, "Tell me, Muhammad, about submission."

 

He replied, "Submission means that you should bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is God's messenger, that you should perform the ritual prayer, pay the alms tax, fast during Ramadan, and make the pilgrimage to the House if you are able to go there."

 

The man said, "You have spoken the truth." We were surprised at his questioning him and then declaring that he had spoken the truth. He said, "Now tell me about faith."

 

He replied, "Faith means that you have faith in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you have faith in the measuring out, both its good and its evil."

Remarking that he had spoken the truth, he then said, "Now tell me about doing what is beautiful."

 

He replied, "Doing what is beautiful means that you should worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you."

 

Then the man said, "Tell me about the Hour."

 

The Prophet replied, "About that he who is questioned knows no more than the questioner."

The man said, "Then tell me about its marks."

 

He said, "The slave girl will give birth to her mistress, and you will see the barefoot, the naked, the destitute, and the shepherds vying with each other in building."

 

Then the man went away. After I had waited for a long time, the Prophet said to me, "Do you know who the questioner was, Umar?”  “God and His messenger know best.”  He said, “He was Gabriel.  He came to teach you your religion.”

 

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Islam & Destiny

Islam and the Destiny of Man by Charles Le Gai Eaton                                                         April 2024

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Although written for non-Muslim westerners and Muslims educated in the west wanting a basic understanding of Islam, this book is also interesting for anyone curious about the topic.  The author is a European, who was born in Switzerland and educated in Cambridge, UK.  Later he worked in India, Africa, and the Caribbean.  Along the way, he “became” a Muslim.  He deliberately avoids saying “converted” because, as he explains in the introductory chapter, “the word convert implies the rejection of one religion in favor of another, but mine was an act of acceptance…”, and it came   

"through intellectual conviction within the framework of a belief in the transcendent unity of all revealed religions”.

 

By having straddled both the occident and the orient, and both Christianity and Islam, he has a unique vantage point.  He understands the essential differences in the mindset and culture of these two societies and can act as a helpful interpreter for both.

The book starts impactfully with a one-sentence paragraph: “Religion is a different matter”.  That’s how I have always felt, and here I understood the reason. One aspect of it is that the study of all other subjects demands objectivity in observation and avoidance of distortion by  subjective personal view.  But in religion, the author says, “objectivity only skims the surface, missing the essential”.  Instead, “the keys to understanding (religion) lie within the observer’s own being and experience, and without these keys no door will open”.  He believes it is particularly true for Islam.  He also cautions about an over emphasis on reason.  “Reason is not a source of knowledge but an instrument for dealing with knowledge”, he says.

 

Later in the book he points out that “rationality”, like anything else, can be misused.  During the reign of caliph Ma’mun (813 AD to 833 AD) of the Abbasid dynasty, Islam had its first and the last “inquisition” (mihnah).  It was sparked by an Islamic movement (Mu’tazilah) that, under the influence of “Greek knowledge”, wanted to see the Quran as a rational, “created object” rather than a divine, “uncreated” book.  Fortunately, the inquisition lasted only 20 years and the orthodox view of the Quran prevailed.

 

By the way, “Greek knowledge” was a gift of oriental Islam to Christian Europe that - by becoming the seed of European Renaissance - had a transforming influence on Europe’s development.  Without the prolific translation of foreign books in Arabic during caliph Ma’mun’s reign  – including from Greek, Sanskrit and Syriac - the classic Greek texts would have been lost.

 

Muslims view Islam as a continuation of the other two semitic monotheistic religions Judaism and Christianity. There are many commonalities among them.  For example, all prophets of Judaism and Christianity, including Moses and Jesus, are also prophets in Islam.  Islam claims to be the final version of the three.  

 

The author provides examples of similarities and dissimilarities especially between Christianity and Islam.  Some analogies might surprise you.

  • Jesus in Christianity corresponds (not to Muhammad (puh) but) to the Quran in Islam.  That’s because God’s divine guidance in Christianity came in the form of Jesus, his son.  In Islam it came in the form of the divine book of Quran. The Quran is literally God's word, and was not authored by the prophet.

  • Mary in Christianity corresponds to Muhammad (pbu) in Islam.  Just as Catholic Church insists upon the primordial purity of the Virgin Mary, so insists Islam that Muhammad (pbu) was “unlettered” (with basic language proficiency only) .  Mary gave birth to Jesus without tainting him with any earthly sin, and Muhammad (pbu) was the medium for the divine book that precluded any human interpretation

  • The New Testament corresponds (not to the Quran, which is authored by God but) to Hadith, the prophet’s acts and sayings, compiled by his followers.  The same holds true for the Old Testament, which is attributable to multiple authors extending over a long period of time.

 

There are differences too, for example:

  • Jesus is God-man in Christianity, but a human prophet in Islam.  Jesus is the Savior, and Muhammad is a human model.  Those closest to Jesus are “disciples”, and those closest to Muhammad are “companions.”

  • Christians access God through their priests, saints, and monastery.  A Muslim is inwardly alone with God, face to face and without mediation. Islam has no priesthood and no monasticism.

  • In Christianity Satan lured Eve to transgress against God’s command.  In Islam Satan lured both Adam and Eve. 

  • For Christians, nothing less than the sacrificial death of the God-man Jesus can redeem Adam’s and Eve's sin. In Islam, Adam was forgiven (although its consequences not). 

  • Christianity deals with man’s original sin; Islam acknowledges man’s weakness and the need for guidance.

  • Christians hold moral heroism in high esteem and expects man to excel by exercising control over natural instincts.  Islam accepts human fallibility as a given and draws social lines (to protect the weak, including children, women, and family)

  • Jurisprudence rather than theology is the principal religious science in Islam.  That’s because there is no problem for a Muslim in knowing what to believe; his concern is with what to do under all circumstances to conform to the Word of God. 

 

Christianity views people in terms of races, whereas Islam in terms of their religion.  This difference may well be a western cultural issue.  It’s worth remembering that Christianity was originally a religion of the “Near East” - exemplified today by the Coptic and Maronite Churches, who speak Syriac, Armenian or Coptic. Jesus spoke Aramaic.  However, as Eastern Christianity became politically subject to Islam, “barbarians” of the West carried the torch, giving the religion its Greek and Latin (and later Germanic) coloring.  Subsequent arguments about doctrines of Trinity and Reincarnation led to a compromise between the Greek-speaking and the Latin-speaking Christians. But it proved impossible to satisfy the Orientals as well, and therefore, were excluded from the Church as heretics. Today's Christianity is very much colored by western culture.

 

As for the three monotheistic religions, the author adds:

  • “Judaism “nationalized” monotheism, claiming it for one people only ….. Christianity universalized the truth, … Islam closed the circle and restored the purity of the faith of Abraham, giving to Moses and to Jesus positions of pre-eminence….”.  

  • “Islam combined the Mosaic law of justice with the Christian law of grace, taking a middle way between the severity of Judaism and the mercy of Jesus”.

  • “Jesus revealed what Moses had kept hidden, the secrets of the divine Mercy and the richness of divine Love, and Islam finally brought everything into perspective in the light of total Truth”.

 

The expansion of the Islamic empire was fast and fascinating.  Starting from a mere city state of Medina (622 AD), it expanded quickly all the way from Spain through North Africa, Middle East, Arabia, Persia, Central Asia to the periphery of India and China.  Apparently, they did not venture much into Europe which was in its “Dark Ages” from the 5th to the 10th century AD.  The Islamic empire brought forth two magnificent dynasties: the Umayyad (661 AD to 750 AD) and the Abbasid (750 AD to 1258 AD). Both of them became known for economic prosperity, cultural richness, and peaceful religious coexistence.  Thousand and One Nights gives a glimpse of that era.

Concurrent with increase in power and opulence, the caliphs strayed from rigid adherence to religious regulations. This is not unique to Muslims or to the past.  But this corruption did not taint the religion itself or the everyday practice by ordinary Muslims.  That’s because Islam is “theocentric” (not to be confused with theocratic).  In an Islamic society the community owes it cohesion primarily to the faith, and neither to the government nor to its religious leaders.

 

One misconception about Islam is that it was spread by the sword.  This is unsupported by the evidence.  There is no example of Muslim conquest leading to the subjugation and forced conversion of the conquered.  The Quran is clear on this: “There is no compulsion in religion [2:256]”. In contrast, there are plenty of examples of forced conversion in Christianity – for example, in the Americas.

 

When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in AD 637, the Caliph came in a patched cloak, seated on a donkey, and gave a solemn guarantee of security to the Christian commanders and bishops.  He then visited the Basilica of Constantine and prayed on the steps at the entrance lest the Christians think that he intended to take the church over as a mosque. The Quran explicitly commands Muslims to recognize Jews and Christians. Islamic reign in the Andalusia is an example of a peaceful coexistence of the three religions.  By way of contrast, when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in1099 they slaughtered every man, woman, and child they could catch. 

 

Conversion to Islam came mostly through Sufi preachers, traders, and travelers, as it happened to the Turks, the people of the Indonesian archipelago, and in many parts of India.  That may be the reason why Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, is more prevalent in these regions than in Arabia.  Equally interesting was the spread of Islam in central Asia and the Caucasus.  Here, paradoxically, Islam spread to the conquerors long after the Mongols had defeated and conquered the Abbasid dynasty and had razed Baghdad (1258 AD).

The author then touches upon the essence of Islam and its practice.  Unlike in Christianity there is no official act by an institution to become a Muslim.  Instead, one becomes a Muslim by pronouncing “la ilaha illa ‘Lhah” (there is no divinity but God) – Islam’s first  Shahada (confession of faith).  It is a declaration of unconditional submission. Submission (to God) is so essential to Islam that a follower is called Muslim (one who submits), and not Mu’min (one who believes).  The second Shahada is “Muhammadun rasulu ‘Llah” (Muhammad is the messenger of God). It brings the first Shahada down to earth.  Muhammad (puh) is a man, and nothing more than a man. But he is a model to emulate as required.

The mere pronouncement of Shahada (confession of faith) doesn't make one a believer or a Mu'min.  To achieve that one has to practice the religion, which includes four more deeds:  praying five times a day, Zakat (giving alms), fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca.  In this context, referring to a Beduin tribe, who had pronounced Shahada, the Quran says, "The Bedouins say, "we have believed".  Say, "You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], 'We have submitted,' for faith has not yet entered your hearts." [49:14]..

 

And beyond the practice comes Ihsan, something that some call knowledge, and some call beauty.  Murata et al.'s book The Vision of Islam explains these three topics much more comprehensively, and which I intend to read soon. Check out this website in a few weeks if you are interested in my notes on that book.

To sum it up, Islam teaches a believer to avoid his flight from the reality in every aspect of life by being aware of God’s perpetual presence and our utter dependence on God.  The Quran says, “God is closer to man than his jugular vein [50:16]”.  Being a Muslim is a long, and sometimes arduous journey and can only be achieved by making Islam a way of life.

Writer, Sailor, Soldier

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds                                                               March 2024 

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The American Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway shot himself at his home in Ketchum, Idaho at the age of 61.  By all means he was very successful, not only in the literary domain.  He was charismatic, adventurous, and energetic - and a natural leader with an imposing physique. Why would he kill himself? Because he was afraid that his government was coming after him?
 
By that time his physical ailments had started to creep in. But more importantly, he was suffering from depression.  He had understood that he would never be able to go home to his Finca (a ranch) in Cuba or steer his boat Pilar out of the harbor past the old Spanish castle or spend afternoon

drinking Papa Dobles at the Floridita with his friends.  But towering everything was his growing concern (paranoia?) that his government was coming after him.  He thought that the FBI might be investigating him ….  for having written “suspicious books”, for what he believed in (in his own words, he was a "premature anti-fascist”), for who his friends were, and for where he lived “among Cuban communists”. 

 

In his early life he had participated in the Spanish civil war.  Officially he was a war correspondent.  But his heart was with the partisans.  And it was not in his nature to make a distinction between the two.  He got involved with the anti-Franco partisans of the Spanish Republic. That experience bore the fruit of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  (Read it – if you haven’t yet, and especially if you are still young.  I had read it as an adolescent and was blown away.  And now, after picking it up again, I haven’t been able to finish it yet!)

 

During WW2, he ran clandestine navy activities around Cuba searching for German submarines.  Later he fought with French partisans against German occupation.  Here again, officially he was a war correspondent, but ended up leading a small group of French partisans and risked his life to “liberate Paris”.  You’ll have to read the book for the juicy details.  Later, for his wartime services, he was decorated with the Bronze Star Medal by the U.S. Army.  (It is said that he felt disappointed.  He wanted a more senior award, one that reflected his accomplishments on the battlefield, like the Distinguished Service Cross).  Obviously, his patriotism and service to his country was not in question.  

 

Supposedly, the Soviets had tried to recruit Hemingway as a spy.  Recently revealed documents show that his code name was “Argo”.  But there is no evidence that Hemingway ever did any spying for anyone, including the Soviets.  And sometime in the early 40’s, before the communist party had taken over the power in the mainland, Hemingway had met both with Chiang Kai-shek and Chou Enlai.  It was clear who he admired more.  Chou Enlai to him was “a man of enormous charm and great intelligence who does a fine job of selling the Communist standpoint”.

 

And after the second World War the increasing belligerent politics of the US troubled him.  He desired the US and the Soviet Union to cooperate in a peaceful manner.  Prefacing a book of essays by prominent left of center authors he wrote:  “The US is now the “strongest power”…., so strong that it would be easy for us, if we do not learn to understand the world and appreciate the rights, privileges and duties of all other countries and people, to represent the same danger to the world that Fascism did”. 

 

Then there was his relationship with Cuba. It was not just that he had intimate friends in Cuba, or that he had lived at the Finca longer than anywhere else in his life.  There was something more.  He had transferred his unrealized hopes for the Spanish Republic to the Cuban Revolution. 

 

Hemingway admired Fidel Castro , who was a leftist, an anti-imperialist, and someone who fought the right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista - but no communist.  The admiration was mutual, although they had met just once, in 1960.  In that meeting Castro told Hemingway how much he had revered and learned from For Whom the Bell Tolls.  He would later say that “we took [the book] to the hills with us, and it taught us about guerilla warfare.”  Castro also kept a 1960 photo of the two on the wall of his office for years, next to a picture of his father.  It was autographed by Hemingway.

 

As the US government’s anti-left activities started in 50’s, Hemingway’s correspondence with his friends shows his sensitivity to any talk of “treason, cowardice, and conniving”.  He asked his publisher not to print new editions of  “The Fifth Column”, an antifascist work he had created in Madrid in 1937”.  Although the book was not “subversive” when he had written it, he had no interest in explaining himself before a “committee”.  He’d rather write books.

 

After reading this biography, I read Hemingway’s antiwar World War I classic A Farewell to Arms.  It’s a nice read.

 

The author Nicholas Reynolds is a CIA officer and was the historian for the CIA museum.

Slaughterhous

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut                                                                                                                               Jan 2024

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The very first Vonnegut book I had read was Cat’s Cradle. I didn’t like it at all. Nevertheless, I went on to read the other Vonnegut book that I had borrowed at the same time.  I guessed that all the high praises about Vonnegut cannot be for nothing.  This time, I immediately got hooked.  Slaughterhouse Five ought to be one of world’s best anti-war stories.  

Slaughterhouse Five takes us to the slaughter of 135,000 civilians in Dresden, Germany.  In the spring of 1945, as the second World War was approaching its end, the British and the Americans 

indiscriminately bombed and leveled the city – a city that had no war industries, no troop concentration of any importance, and was undefended.
 

We are led to the Dresden tragedy through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim – an “unhero”, if there ever was one.  Billy was a chaplain’s assistant, meaning a valet to the preacher.  He bore no arms.  Instead, he carried a portable alter in an attaché case with telescopic legs.  He was powerless to harm the enemy, expected no promotion or medals and couldn’t help his friends, which he didn’t have anyway. 

 

When he joined the war, his regiment was in the process of being destroyed by the Germans in the Battle of Bulge.  Right away, he was on the run with three other American soldiers to escape Germans.  They went on foot at night in the countryside without food and without maps.  It was deep winter, and Billy followed them with no helmet, no overcoat, no weapons, and no boots because these hadn’t been issued to him yet.  In fact, he was wearing cheap, low-cut civilian shoes which he had bought for his father’s funeral. One of them had lost a heel.  So the six feet and three inches tall Billy, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches, went involuntarily dancing up-and-down, up-and-down.  And so it goes.

 

Throughout the story we don’t read anything about Billy’s emotions.  That’s probably because he had seen it all.  Billy was a time traveler.  Some say that he had become a time traveler after becoming the lone survivor of a plane crash on a mountain top.  Actually, he had become a time traveler after he was kidnapped  by a flying saucer and taken to the planet Tralfamadore.  He learned there that Tralfamadorians see things in four dimensions – time being the additional dimension.  BTW, on Tralfamadore he was put on display in a zoo.  Good for him that Tralfamadorians had lso abducted an Earthling movie star to be his mate.  And so it goes.

I don't want to divulge too much here.  Read the book and enjoy the ride...

Travels of Marc Polo

The Travels of Marco Polo by Manuel Komroff                                              December 2023

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Marco Polo to China by land and Vasco de Gama to India by sea.  That’s mostly what I remember about European exploration of Asia from my middle school history lesson.  The blame goes partly to the curriculum and partly to my lack of interest back then.  It was time to read up and catch up.  I read a copy edited by Komroff which was chosen as one of the ten best adventure books of all time by National Geographic Adventure.

Marco Polo’s famous journey from Venice, Italy to the far reaches of Asia had begun in year 1272.  Actually, it was the second such journey for the venetian merchant family – the first one having taken place in 1255 by the father Nicolo and uncle Mafeo (without Marco).  The two brothers had returned as ambassadors of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, with a request for the Pope to send a hundred educated missionaries to China.  For reasons beyond their control, all that the brothers could get were two friars.  Even worse, the two friars were less than enthusiastic about the task and bailed out at the very first opportunity feigning illness. In this second journey, however, the 17-year-old Marco had accompanied his father and uncle.

 

They traveled by foot, horse, and boat through present day Turkey, Persia, the lands of the Tatars, Tibet, and most importantly China. There they stayed at the court of Kublai Khan in the capital city Beijing and in Xanadu.  Kublai Khan was fond of the Polo family, especially of the younger Polo, who he appointed a high administrator of his court.  This allowed Marco Polo to travel widely.  He was the first European traveler to travel through the perilous deserts of Persia, the jade-bearing streams of Khotan, and gave the very first hints of the existence of Siberia.  He took careful notes and described the life of people in China, Tibet, Burma, Siam, Ceylon, India, etc.  He described small details of domestic life, medical practices, how marriages are arranged, etc.  He writes about the use of paper money (and of course the use of paper).  Sadly, I still do not know if noddles went from Italy to China or vice versa!

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They remained in China for twenty years.  By this time the Khan was quite an old man.  Fearing that his death might place them in the hands of one of Kublai’s enemies, the Polos tried to gain permission to return to their native land. But the Khan had become attached to the Venetians and wouldn’t not consent.

 

The opportunity came when the Khan of Persia, grandson of Kublai’s brother, lost his favorite wife and desired that another be sent to him of the same Mongol tribe from which she had come.  As the journey overland was considered too perilous, the Polos, who were expert navigators, proposed that they be allowed to pilot the ships that would carry the bride, together with the envoys to Persia. This time the Khan relented.  The return journey took another three years going by way of India, Sumatra, Java, Ceylon, along the coast of India, Zanzibar, Aden, and Abyssinia.   BTW, by the time they had reached Persia, its ruler had passed away.  So the new bride was entrusted to his son.

 

Just three years after his return to Venice, a festering rivalry between the merchants of Venice, Genoa and Pisa, led to an armed conflict in 1298.  The entire Venetian fleet, including the galley under Marco Polo's command, was captured by the Genoa side and Marco Polo was taken prisoner of war as a “Gentleman-Commander”. During his one-year long prison time he sent for the notebooks that he had kept for the entertainment of Kublai Khan.  He dictated his travels to a scribe named Rusticien, a fellow prisoner from Pisa, who wrote them down on parchment.

 

Twelve years after his return from Asia, in 1307, he presented a copy of travels to a French nobleman, which is now in the Paris Library.  During his lifetime the vastness of the distances traveled, and the great numbers mentioned by Marco Polo, seemed so incredible to his listeners that he was often referred to as “Marco Polo of the Millions”.  As he lay in his deathbed at 70, his friends pleaded with him, for the peace of his soul, to retract the seemingly incredible statements in his book.  His reply was, “I have not told half of what I saw”.

 

Marco Polo was the first European traveler to cross the entire continent of Asia and name the countries and provinces in their proper order.  Yet, owing to the early rejection of his book of travels, his work had little or no influence on the geographical conception of the world! 

 

Marco Polo had dictated the travels many years before the development of printing. About 85 handwritten manuscripts of his book are preserved in various museums – some in Italian, some in Latin, and some in French. Being fashioned by hand, variations in wordings and content made no two of them exactly alike.  One of the earliest printed editions is in Italian, edited and published by Ramusio in 1559.  The first English edition was in 1818, edited by Marsden.  I read a 1926 edition of Marsden’s translation, edited, and introduced by Komroff, and which includes 32 wonderful woodcut illustrations from Witold Gordon.

Homge to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell                                                                             October, 2022 

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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.

End of Tsarist
Russia and the Origins
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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.

Declie of Bsmrck's Europen Order

The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order by George F. Kennan                                    July 13, 2022

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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:

  1. Keeping France in a political and military isolation and in a semi-humiliating condition 

  2. The stability the multilingual Austro-Hungarian Empire in the face of nationalism that was sweeping through Europe

  3. 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) 

  4. 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."

Walden Two
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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.

Impotance of Being Earnest
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The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays by Oskar Wilde                                       February, 2022

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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.

Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov                                                                                   January, 2022

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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.

Lütten Klein
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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 Francaise

Suite Française by I. Némirovsky                                                                                     November, 2021

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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 ….

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Mere Christanity

Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis                                                                                                              October, 2021

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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!

Reluctant Fundamenalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid                                                                                      July, 2021

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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
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Notes from Underground by Feodor Dostoevsky                                                                                     April, 2021

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“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
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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

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“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
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How I Found Livingstone by Henry M. Stanley                                                                                         April, 2021

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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.

Best American Essays 2020
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The Best American Essays 2020 Edited by Andre Aciman                                                                March  2021

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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

Notes from a Dead House by Fyodor Dostoevsky                                                                             February, 2021

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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. 

Dostoevsky His Life

Dostoyevsky His Life and Work by Roland Hingley                                                                             January, 2021

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“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.

Dirty Doc Ames

Dirty Doc Ames and the Scandal That Shook Minneapolis by Erik Rivenes                                January, 2021

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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?

Life Against
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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.

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Born on 4th July

Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic                                                                                             December, 2020

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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

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque                                                             December, 2020

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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.

Got interested in the book after having listened to two podcasts on the First WW and the book itself on Deutschlandfunk, which is what I usually do on my daily long walks.

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Quiet American
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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.

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Dreaming Up America

Dreaming Up America by Russell Banks                                                                                            November, 2020

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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.

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Sun Yat Sen

Sun Yat Sen Liberator of China by Henry Bond Restarick                                                                 October, 2020

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