This was the last play that Bertolt Brecht wrote before Hitler came to power in Germany. It is what Brecht called a lehrstück, a play for learning. WhThis was the last play that Bertolt Brecht wrote before Hitler came to power in Germany. It is what Brecht called a lehrstück, a play for learning. Which is another way of saying that The Mother is almost pure propaganda in dramatic form.
Based on Maxim Gorky's Mother, the Brecht play is about the political wakening of a middle-aged widow whose son is arrested and later shot for sedition. It is nowhere near as good as The Good Woman of Szechuan,Mother Courage, or The Caucasian Chalk Circle...more
One wouldn't think it, but for 1,400 years, Islam coexisted quite nicely with both Judaism and Christianity. This is the subject of Zachary Karabell'sOne wouldn't think it, but for 1,400 years, Islam coexisted quite nicely with both Judaism and Christianity. This is the subject of Zachary Karabell's excellent history, Peace Be upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence. We are all too used to projecting the anxieties of the present back into history, just as we like to straight-line our future projections based on present-day conflicts.
Karabell goes all the way back to Muhammad and his early successors and shows that Christians usually suffered less under the Muslim yoke than from their fellow co-religionists. In fact, the reason for Islam's rapid spread is that Christians and Jews suffered less under Muslim rule than under, say, the Byzantines. When Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Jews from Spain, the Ottomans welcomed them in their empire in such cities as Salonika (Thessaloniki), which became a center of commerce and learning.
What really surprised me about Peace Be Upon You is its author's superb summary of the last 150 years , bringing together such diverse subjects as the founding of the Baath Party (by a Christian!), Lawrence of Arabia, the Hashemite monarchies, the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the founding of Israel, and the rise of Aramco.
The book ends with a look at Dubai as portending (Karabell hopes) the future of Islam -- less concerned with Jihad than with something different:
What are we to make of a Muslim ruling family doing business with a gambling and leisure company run by Jews? Or a company owned by the royal family concluding real estate deals with an American Jewish real estate mogul who makes no secret of his ardent support for Israel? Or a city-state that borders a puritanical Saudi Arabia and acts as an escape valve for the same Saudis who accept the stricture of Wahhabi dogma at home? Or of a burgeoning state that annually draws half a million British tourists who are lured by the prospect of cheap shopping and beaches? What are we to make of Dubai, a city-state that epitomizes the excesses and successes of capitalism in a globalized age?
The book came out in 2007 and is not altogether up to the minute, but it is a valuable contribution in an era when there are all too many treatises that ignore the rich history of the Middle East and North Africa....more
Albert Camus is one of the great consciences of the 20th century, along with Adam Michnik of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, and Aleksander SoAlbert Camus is one of the great consciences of the 20th century, along with Adam Michnik of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn of Russia. The essays in Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays come from the 1940s and 1950s. The subjects dealt with include Nazism, Hungary (1956), capital punishment, Algeria, and the moral responsibility of the writer.
The more I read of Camus, the more I admire him -- as a writer, as a philosopher, and as a political thinker. When he died in that 1960 car crash, we lost someone we badly needed in this era of moral ambiguity....more
Sometimes nothing can kill a book deader than a too rigid adherence to a concept. I can imagine Slavenka Drakulić first reading George Orwell's AnimalSometimes nothing can kill a book deader than a too rigid adherence to a concept. I can imagine Slavenka Drakulić first reading George Orwell's Animal Farm, and saying to herself: "How cute! I can adapt this to my experience of Communism through the different Eastern European countries!"
Except it just wasn't a dynamic enough idea to carry the whole book. A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism started out well with a mouse guiding us through Czech Communism. But then, toward the end, there was a pig introducing you to Kadar's Hungary, a dog to Ceausescu's Rumania, and a raven to Hoxha's Albania. As a Hungarian, I do not care to be represented by a pig, however much I like to eat them.
This is one of those books which it is best to sample, preferably with one or more of the opening chapters, rather than to read straight through. It's a pity because Drakulic in Cafe Europa showed herself to be an excellent essayist....more
G.K. Chesterton is generally at his weakest in political polemic: His most difficult books to wade through are such titles as The Appetite of Tyranny,G.K. Chesterton is generally at his weakest in political polemic: His most difficult books to wade through are such titles as The Appetite of Tyranny, The Utopia of usurers, and The Barbarism of Berlin. Fortunately, The Crimes of England is among his better polemical works.
What Chesterton does is examine the history of England going back several centuries and finds that it was too favorably impressed by the Germans, as opposed to the French, Irish, and other European peoples. This was published after the First World War had already begun, and its author is trying to see what errors led to this conflagration. Instead of seeing the typical historical causes -- the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the desire of Austria to punish the Serbs, the huge military and naval buildup by the Germans -- he sees a weakness in his country of essentially having the wrong friends. For instance, on the subject of Ireland, he writes:
The truth about Ireland is simply this: that the relations between England and Ireland are the relations between two men who have to travel together, one of whom tried to stab the other at the last stopping-place or to poison the other at the last inn. Conversation may be courteous, but it will be occasionally forced.
At times, GKC startles with insights that are as germane today as when they were written a century ago:
By some of the dark ingenuities of that age of priestcraft a curious thing was discovered—that if you kill every usurer, every forestaller, every adulterater, every user of false weights, every fixer of false boundaries, every land-thief, every water-thief, you afterwards discover by a strange indirect miracle, or disconnected truth from heaven, that you have no millionaires.
I doubt that The Crimes of England will ever become more popular than the author's Father Brown stories, Orthodoxy or Heretics, or The Man Who Was Thursday, but it is a thoughtful self-examination of what led to the awful mess that England found itself in during 1914 and the following few years....more
This collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and thThis collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and the pedestrian (some of his political pieces). In general, the period covered is the Clinton Presidency, though there are echoes going all the way back to Herbert Hoover and FDR.
Gore Vidal is a unique figure in our recent history: Because of his family connections, he has met with (and even befriended) many of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. He has no great love for FDR, whom he accuses of orchestrating the whole Pearl Harbor attack, and John F. Kennedy, who -- well we all pretty much know what he did. He has even fewer good things to say about Truman, Nixon, the two Bushes, Carter, and William Jefferson Clinton.
Reading The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 made me feel that I needed to read more of Mr. Vidal, even though his Mephistophelean knowingness is in itself suspicious. But then, I can't really believe what anyone who ever been part of the political scene says. At least, not without a nearby grain of salt....more
We are typically loath to read any work from four or five hundred years ago that is heavily immersed in theological argument, firstly because there arWe are typically loath to read any work from four or five hundred years ago that is heavily immersed in theological argument, firstly because there are few who could follow a close argument, and secondly, because there are few who would care.
The Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, was founded in 1540 as a result of the efforts of St Ignatius of Loyola. Its history has been checkered, with frequent accusations of "casuistry" (i.e., bending the laws of God to make things easier for the powerful). Many of these arguments are summarized by Blaise Pascal in his The Provincial Letters.
Pascal's sister was a nun at Port-Royal, which was under fire by the Jesuits were acceding to the "heresies" of Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres. Pascal felt, and rightly so, that the Jesuits had no case: Rather, they felt threatened by the puritanical strain of the Jansenists, because it confused men and women of power and wealth who had been following the softer road to Salvation delineated by such Spanish Jesuits as Antonio Escobar y Mendoza and his numerous followers.
The first half of The Provincial Letters is brilliant journalism, consisting of interviews with unnamed Jesuits on various subjects relating to faith and morals. At times it verges on satire, to such an extent that even Voltaire felt it was brilliant. If you read only the first half, it would probably be sufficient. (There I go, sounding like one of Pascal's Jesuits.) The second half, on the other hand, is a bit of a trudge and adds nothing more to what contemporary readers can get out of the book.
There is a brilliant scene in Luis Bunuel's film The Milky Way, in which a Jesuit literally crosses swords with a Jansenist. I don't think Pascal would have approved, because one of his arguments against the Jesuits was that they condoned dueling and even murder for certain reasons.
During the 1980s, Czech-born writer Milan Kundera defined Central Europe as "that ... part of Europe situated geographically in the center, culturallyDuring the 1980s, Czech-born writer Milan Kundera defined Central Europe as "that ... part of Europe situated geographically in the center, culturally in the West, and politically in the East." As far as most Americans are concerned, it is "flyover country" -- somewhere between Germany and Russia.
Consequently it is refreshing to read a history of the part of the world from which my family comes without being overwhelmed either by Germany or Russia. It is a separate place, which unfortunately is positioned between two behemoths that, especially in the last hundred years, have treated it as silly putty.
Lonnie R. Johnson in CENTRAL EUROPE: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends has performed a useful function in describing how a dozen small countries have managed to perform a dance at the edge of the abyss without plummeting. Also, it is useful to view both Germany and Russia from the point of view of the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Balkans rather than vice versa.
Johnson starts pretty much at the beginning, during the Dark Ages, and deals with changes in the formation and de-formation of countries over the years. Although we Americans do not, by and large, purchase goods from this part of the world, I have always believed that its time has not yet come. It would be nice to think that all those small Slavic and Finno-Ugrian (in the case of Estonia and Hungary) nations have in their possession the seed that will eventually grow into works of genius and perhaps even prosperity. ...more
This is an ideal book to read in preparation for a trip to Peru. As it says in its subtitle, The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics covers the whThis is an ideal book to read in preparation for a trip to Peru. As it says in its subtitle, The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics covers the whole spectrum of the country in its 512 pages, with a particular emphasis on culture and politics, particularly in the Twentieth Century. Orin Starn and his co-editors have done a sterling job of bringing together so much material that is fascinating. I can see myself as mining the books bibliography for years to come.
In addition to the usual Inca and Pre-Inca history, there are essays and poems about socialism and communism, the Shining Path guerrillas, the "War on Drugs" attempt to shut down coca production, a cholera epidemic, the Alberto Fujimori presidency, and a mythical piece about the Aguaruna of the Amazon. There is even a hefty excerpt from Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral, perhaps the greatest of Peruvian novels.
There is a threatening speech from Abimael Guzman, founder of the Shining Path movement:
The flesh of the reactionaries will rot away, converted into raggedy threads, and this black filth will sink into the mud, and that which remains will be burned and the ashes scattered by the winds of the earth so that only the sinister memory will remain of that which will never return, because it neither can nor should.
In reality, that is pretty much what happened to the Shining Path movement: They became a "sinister memory." As for Guzman, he is rotting in prison until the Second Coming.
In his book Conquest of the Incas, John Hemming gives one possible reason why it was so easy for the Spanish to conquer the Incas:
It was during these campaigns that Huayna-Capac was first informed of the appearance of tall strangers from the sea. He was destined never to see any Europeans. His army and court were struck by a violent epidemic that killed Huayna-Capac in a delirious fever, at some time between 1525 and 1527. The disease may have been malaria, but it could have been smallpox. The Spaniards brought smallpox with them from Europe, and it spread fiercely around the Caribbean among peoples who had no immunity. It could easily have swept from tribe to tribe across Colombia and struck the Inca armies long before the Spaniards themselves sailed down the coast. The epidemic "consumed the greater part" of the Inca court including Huayna-Capac's probable heir, Ninan Cuyuchi. "Countless thousands of common people also died."
I could go on like this for pages. This book is absorbing in its multiplicity of viewpoints, all pointing like signposts to more complete material one has not previously considered.
This is a curiously effective and affecting book, perhaps because of its very informality. The "Castle" in the title is Prague Castle, which has beenThis is a curiously effective and affecting book, perhaps because of its very informality. The "Castle" in the title is Prague Castle, which has been a seat of government for the Czechs for hundreds of years. Václav Havel was the last President of Czechoslovakia (the first after the fall of Communism) and the first President of the Czech Republic (after Slovakia opted for its own independence).
To the Castle and Back: Reflections on My Strange Life as a Fairy-Tale Hero consists of a series of notes made to his staff between 1993 and 2003 which were discovered on his computer. Then there were sections written in 2005 from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington during a long stay there, and finally a running interview with Karel Hvizd'ala which threads its way through the book. It shows some of the big issues that confronted Havel during his tenure at the Castle, such as the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Czech Republic's entry into NATO. It also shows some of the small issues that endlessly plagued him, such as the following:
In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.
At other times, Havel had to complain about the ugliest telephones being in the most prominent places, about the length of the watering hose used in the gardens, and why the good silverware was not being used for state dinners.
I was curious to discover that Havel, despite being an internationally known playwright, was petrified whenever he had to begin writing anything. And he appears to have written all his own speeches!
Particularly impressive was Havel's answer as to what his credo was as the President of the Republic:
I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political, and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe this moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal.
Would any of our politicians be so cogent and candid? ...more
In this book written on the verge of Y2K, Walter Mosley turns momentarily from the mystery genre that made his reputation and to the problem of racismIn this book written on the verge of Y2K, Walter Mosley turns momentarily from the mystery genre that made his reputation and to the problem of racism and market capitalism. Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History is not just about the African-American, but everyone else who is under the same thumb. Mosley sees us all in thrall to the bread and circuses of the entertainment media. he urges all of us to make an experiment by giving up sports and the media for a period of ninety days:
Of course, to do that one would have to concede that most of popular entertainment and so-called news is really an attempt (conscious or not) to distract us from thinking too much about the truth, about the reality of our lives.
Admittedly, Mosley is looking at our situation as Americans before the awful events of September 11, 2001: The odd thing is that nothing has really changed. If anything, we are a far more oppressed people than we were in 2000.
The fact that a Donald Sterling or a Cliven Bundy can feel more free to speak out their own nefarious views now than at any other time in recent history. With the Tea Party and the rise of Libertarianism, we have taken retrograde steps in an attempt to erase everything good that has happened since Lincoln's presidency. We elected a black President, true, but have done everything to revile and hobble him. This is not just slavery, but self-willed slavery.
Mosley's polemic is not only substantially true, but helpful to all of us as Americans, irrespective of our race.
I loved it when Mosley wrote that he would begin to feel comfortable if, a white man being told a black man had just entered his house, would ask, "Oh, what was he like?"...more
Montesquieu may not be known to you, but he is largely responsible for the system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution between the ExecutivMontesquieu may not be known to you, but he is largely responsible for the system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government. The Founding Fathers of our country were deeply influenced by Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, which he wrote later in life.
The Persian Letters, however, was written a quarter century earlier and was one of the most popular books of its time. Montesquieu has, in effect, created an epistolary novel about two Persians who spend some ten years in Europe from 1711-1720, closely observing the strangeness of French institutions and customs from the point of view of Persians of the time.
It was a rough time in France, roughly comparable to our own recession due to the Mississippi Bubble and the "system" of John Law, who had been appointed Controller General of Finances of France under King Louis XV. Law was brilliant but exceedingly unorthodox, with the result that many fortunes were lost. In Letter 146, the narrator Usbek writes:
I saw contractual honour dismissed, the most sacred conventions annihilated, every law of the family overthrown. I saw debtors full of avarice, proud and insolent in their poverty, worthless instruments of the ferocity of the law and the harshness of the time, pretending to pay their debts, not doing so, but stabbing their benefactors instead.
More shamefully still, I saw others buying notes for almost nothing, or rather picking up oak-leaves from the ground and putting them in the place of the subsistence of widows and orphans.
I saw an insatiable lust for money suddenly springing up in every heart. I saw the instantaneous development of a hateful conspiracy to get rich, not by honourable work and unstinting behaviour, but by ruining the king, the state and other citizens.
At the same time that Usbek is observing France, we are observing his seraglio back in Persia falling to pieces, as his prolonged absence from his wives results in the disorder of his married life.
This is an interesting book to dip into from time to time, not only to see what was troubling France in the early 1700s, but to see a highly original mind at work with a penetrating intellect in matters relating to culture and governance. ...more
What surprised me about Frederick Brown's For the Soul of France was its relevance to the culture wars at the beginning of the 21st century in the UniWhat surprised me about Frederick Brown's For the Soul of France was its relevance to the culture wars at the beginning of the 21st century in the United States. Both fin-de-siècle France and post-9/11 America shared a static view of their respective nations. In France's case, it was Judaism that was seen as the interloper, as symbolized in the Dreyfus affair. In the United States, large segments of the population look back to an Anglo-Saxon golden age in which Evangelical religion and conservative politics presumably held sway.
Brown quotes one typical instance of Antisemitism:
When in the spring of 1898, Joseph Valabrègue, a Provençal Jew tarred by the brush used against his brother-in-law Alfred Dreyfus, indignantly sent professions of patriotism to La Croix, the paper's official mouthpiece replied: "I am French, the son of a Frenchman; I shall live and die as such. But you, you are a Jew, the son of a Jew and you will die a Jew.... You know full well that all through history -- from Judas, who sold his God, to Dreyfus, who sold France -- your race has bred so much treason, iniquity, and rapacity that you must at all costs hide your name, as the escaped convict hides his red bonnet." In this ontological court, rules of evidence did not apply. Charles Maurras praised Roman Catholicism as a "temple of definitions" offering people blessed asylum from that bane of human consciousness -- "uncertainty."[Italics mine]
One could imagine the same type of illogic being applied in political arguments at Tea Party gatherings.
This is an excellent book about a period of European history that is largely unknown to most Americans. We may have heard of the Dreyfus affair, the Eiffel Tower, and the failed French attempt to build the Panama Canal; but we don't have a real grasp about the decades-long war between Catholicism and liberalism, symbolized by scientists and Jews.
Today, as the French are facing a much more substantive invasion of Muslims from Algeria and other parts of North Africa, much of the conflicts of that period have become moot. ...more
Victor Serge is virtually unknown in the West, and that is a shame. Born in Brussels, Serge was a Communist Revolutionary who saw action during the ReVictor Serge is virtually unknown in the West, and that is a shame. Born in Brussels, Serge was a Communist Revolutionary who saw action during the Revolution. Conquered City is about the years 1919-1920, when the Bolsheviks have largely prevailed but are being assailed from within by Mensheviks and Left SR's and from without by the White Russian armies financed by the Western powers.
Conquered City skips around from one set of revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries to another. Although some sections are first person narratives, it is not always easy to know who is speaking. The book is, however, a powerful study of cynicism tempered by starvation. The hero is Petrograd itself, which was at the time threatened from the West by a White army.
Several years ago, I read Serge's The Case of Comrade Tularev, which I found to be one of the best, if not the best, fiction relating to Stalin's purges. (Anatoli Rybakov's Arbat trilogy is another candidate.)
Both books showed Serge to be a superb, if unsung, novelist. He wrote in French. In Russia, he quickly came into conflict with Stalin and was imprisoned by him. It was the pleading of Western writers which led the Chekhists to release him. Like Trotsky, he died in exile in Mexico, though, unlike Trotsky, of a natural death.
It is never fun to find fault with one's favorite writers. G K Chesterton, however, is such a prolific author that one can, without too much difficultIt is never fun to find fault with one's favorite writers. G K Chesterton, however, is such a prolific author that one can, without too much difficulty, find some pretty dicey volumes in the lot. The Appetite of Tyranny: Including Letters to an Old Garibaldian is one of several books that its author wrote around the beginning of World War I that represent a low point in his opus.
Granted that England was in a particularly bloody war with Germany at the time, but a book consisting of nothing but platitudes about national characteristics partakes of a particularly low form of political discourse. Sentences like the following abound: "But a German's rudeness is rooted in his never being embarrassed. He eats and makes love noisily. He never feels a speech or a song or a sermon to be what the English call 'out of place' in particular circumstances." No one is spared the broad brush strokes: GKC uses the N-word against Blacks, and "Heathen Chinee" against, you guessed it, the heathen Chinese. Germans he mostly refers to as Prussians, and treats them all as if there were no variation between individuals.
The one thing a person can count on, however, is that there is a wide spectrum of behavior even in a place such as Chesterton's "Prussia." Even the French realized that in Jean Renoir's great WWI film epic, The Grand Illusion, with his German characters, especially the camp commandant played by Erich von Stroheim.
Fortunately, Chesterton got better than such observations as:
Rome, at her very weakest, has always been a river that wanders and widens and that waters many fields. Berlin, at its strongest, will never be anything but a whirlpool, which seeks its own center, and is sucked down.
**spoiler alert** This short collection of essays date from shortly after the events of 9/11/01. While so much of what has been written since has seem**spoiler alert** This short collection of essays date from shortly after the events of 9/11/01. While so much of what has been written since has seemed somewhat off the mark, Jean Baudrillard's The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays introduces some interesting ideas that are still worth debating. In essence, the French philosopher thinks that globalization itself led to a suicidal situation -- one that has frequently been imagined in Hollywood films about terrorism:
Today that order, which has virtually reached its culmination, finds itself grappling with the antagonistic forces scattered throughout the very heartlands of the global, in all the current convulsions. A fractal war of all cells, all singularities, revolting in the form of antibodies. A confrontation so impossible to pin down that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular set-pieces, such as the Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan. But the Fourth World War [the Third was the self-inflicted defeat of Communism] is elsewhere. It is what haunts every world order, all hegemonic domination -- if Islam dominated the world, terrorism would rise against Islam, for it is the world, the globe itself, which resists globalization.
Baudrillard distinguishes between the Universal and the Global. In our identification of the United States as "The City on the Hill," we would like to think of ourselves as a Universal culture with Universal values, such as freedom and democracy. Instead, we have a more negative simulacrum of Universality, in a Global network of markets, entertainment, and, in a word, order. Hence, terrorism arises to attack the weaknesses of this New World Order.
Osama bin Laden dreamed of an Islamic universality, perhaps a new Caliphate to be headed by -- why not? -- himself and his followers. But just as our "Universal" values have decayed, those of Al-Qaeda likewise have decayed. Did not the suicide bomber of 9/11 visit strippers, even at one point leaving a copy of the Qu'ran at a titty bar.
The French have an interesting perspective on terrorism, having themselves invented it during the French Revolution. Baudrillard's perspective deserves to be discussed today....more
Chris Hedges is one of those people most Americans didn't know we had: a real moralist, a la Seneca or Cicero. A triple threat, Hedges was a theologicChris Hedges is one of those people most Americans didn't know we had: a real moralist, a la Seneca or Cicero. A triple threat, Hedges was a theological student, a foreign correspondent, and now a prolific writer of where we Americans stand today. The Empire of Illusion doesn't exactly make for fun reading as such: It is, however, bracing and sobering....more
Here Christopher Hitchens takes on Osama Bin Laden and other Islamic jihadists. While the depth of analysis is on the superficial side, Hitchens makesHere Christopher Hitchens takes on Osama Bin Laden and other Islamic jihadists. While the depth of analysis is on the superficial side, Hitchens makes some good points and, as always, writes very well. I may not agree with everything he says, but I like the way he says it....more
We are so involved in the particular chowder in which we are dog-paddling that we are unable to provide an accurate critique of what is happening to uWe are so involved in the particular chowder in which we are dog-paddling that we are unable to provide an accurate critique of what is happening to us. I have tried in my blogs to do so, but I must confess that I have my fingers on the scale and cannot always give good weight. That is when I turn to writers from Argentina, Europe, Russia, Asia, and Mexico who are able to see more clearly for the distance that separates us.
Octavio Paz's Itinerary is an intellectual odyssey of sorts, in which the author travels around the world testing the waters, looking for a political philosophy in which to believe, and seeing us, Europe, and the former Soviet Union with great perspicacity:
There's a flaw, a secret fissure in the modern intellectual's awareness. Ripped out of the totality and ancient religious absolutes, we feel a nostalguia for totalities and absolutes. This perhaps explains the impulse that led them to convert to communism and defend it. It was a perverse parody of religious communion.
In his early years, especially in Europe, Paz was drawn to communism, but the Stalinist version of it that he encountered during the Spanish Civil War chilled him. When he learned of the Soviet Gulags some years later, it chilled him to the bone:
Our century -- and with ours all the centuries: our entire history -- has faced us with a question that modern reason, from the eighteenth century on, has futilely tried to evade. That question is central and essential: the presence of evil among human beings. An ubiquitous presence that continues from the beginnings of the beginning and that does not depend on external circumstances but on human intimacy. Apart from the religions, who has said anything worthwhile about evil? For Plato and his disciples -- as well as for Saint Augustine -- evil is Nothingness, the opposite of Being. But our planet is full to the brim with the works and acts of Nothingness!Q In the blinking of an eye Milton's devils built the wonderful edifices of Pandemonium. Can Nothingness create? Can negation make something?
It is not just communism that draws brickbats from Paz: He also lambastes the democracies for depending on "the often whimsical swings of public opinion" and being unable to formulate and execute a successful foreign policy.
There is a wisdom in Paz's political thinking from having made the journey. Unlike Odysseus's ten-year voyage across the Mediterranean, it was a long lifetime looking for a political Ithaka, but always, like all of us, being thrown back on his own resources.
Itinerary is admirably translated, though the introduction and rather fusty footnotes can be skipped without penalty....more
There are relative few works of politics and history that can be regarded as great literature. Offhand, I can think of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, TThere are relative few works of politics and history that can be regarded as great literature. Offhand, I can think of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Tacitus, Gibbon, Brazil's Euclides da Cunha -- and now I must add to this list Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, scholar, educator, and one-time President of Argentina. Written in 1845, Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism tells of the civil war that erupted soon after Argentina declared (and won) its independence from Spain. On one side were the gaucho caudillos such as Juan Manuel Rosas and Facundo Quiroga, who fought on the side of the Federales. On the other side were Rivadavia, Paz, and the Unitarios, who wanted a unified Argentina ruled from Buenos Aires and subjected to European influences with regard to commerce, education, and culture.
Sarmiento describes this early culture war eloquently:
These men [Federales], Spaniards only in their language and in the confused religious notions preserved among them, must be seen, before a right estimate can be made of the indomitable and haughty character which grows out of this struggle of isolated man with untamed nature, of the rational being with the brute. It is necessary to see thyeir visages bristling with beards, their countenances as grave and serious as the Arabs of Asia, to appreciate the pitying scorn with which they look upon the sedentary denizen of the city, who may have read many books, but who cannot overthrow and slay a fuierce bull, who could not provide himself with a horse from the pampas, who has never met a tiger alone, and received him with a dagger in one hand and a poncho rolled up in the other, to be thrust into the animal's mouth, while he transfixes his heart with his dagger
If this sounds anything like the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia or the Sendero Luminoso of Peru, it is because both were anti-urban movements.
At one time, Facundo Quiroga, a bloody cutthroat who had his military prisoners executed and who robbed the citizens of the cities he conquered, controlled almost all of Northwest Argentina, while his cohots Rosas, Lopez, and Ferre controlled Buenos Aires and the Pampas. It was a bleak time in Argentinean history -- a time virtually unknown outside of South America. You will see glimpses of the war in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, but only Sarmiento gives all the details:
The Argentine Revolutionary War was twofold: 1st, a civilized warfare of the cities against Spain; 2s, a war against the cities on the part of the country chieftains with the view of shaking off all political subjection and satisfying their hatred of civilization. The cities overcame the Spaniards, and were in their turn overcome by the country districts. This is the explanation of the Argentine Revolution, the first shot of which was fired in 1810, and the last is still [as of 1845] to be heard.
Fortunately for Argentine history, Quiroga was assassinated and somewhat later Rosas was defeated and hustled into exile. It was only then that Argentina could begin to have the history of a civilized nation -- though it lapsed once again rather badly in the 1970s with the rule of the junta under Videla, Viola, and Galtieri and the "Dirty War" against the montonero guerrillas and their many thousands of sympathizers. But that is another story....more
Although this at times is an incredibly dry book, the history it describes is exciting. At one time, by the accidActual Rating: Three and a half stars
Although this at times is an incredibly dry book, the history it describes is exciting. At one time, by the accident of war, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world. While America and Europe had millions fighting in World War I, Argentina took advantage of the recent invention of tinned beef to supply both sides with meat during the duration of the conflict.
Once peace was declared, the nation's balance of trade suffered and never has recovered. Government has followed government, each beginning with sweeping promises and banners waving, most ending in disgrace or dishonor. One recent president, De La Rua, had to be evacuated from the presidential palace in Olivos by helicopter when pot-banging protestors invaded the grounds.
Over the last hundred years, there has been endless tinkering with the economy by a series of dirigiste presidents and ministers of finance, but the net result has always been to increase the numbers of the unemployed (standing around 20% when Romero's book was written) and the population below the poverty line (40%). The Argentine peso, which was once pegged to the dollar, now floats free. When I last visited Argentina in 2006, it stood at 3 pesos to the dollar; now it stands at 4.08 pesos to the dollar. This does not prevent inflation from rampaging at 25-30% per year.
The Argentinean people are feeling squeezed. Social services are alternately being cut and restored. Vast gangs of cartoneros come into the city by night and rummage through all the trash cans looking for salvageable or recyclable materials.
In the meantime, the endless tweaks to the economy continue. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (doubtlessly the most beautiful head of state in the world) is up for election in October while discontented vultures gather around the sidelines to either pick apart her presidency or, with a reluctant sigh, endorse it. It will be interesting to see what the situation is like in November 2011, when I will spend three weeks in the country.
I love the Argentinian people: They are kind and bright, but also torn between long-suffering and impatience. ...more
For over thirty years, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite authors, but this month has made me question my evaluation to some extent. First IFor over thirty years, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite authors, but this month has made me question my evaluation to some extent. First I read Lord Kitchener, which had the virtue of being short and crisp; but The Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays displayed the author as a fish out of water. He begins by describing a nebulous plot by rich capitalists to sap the rights of the common man. He tries to follow a closely reasoned approach -- which is exactly what this author should not do. Chesterton is a man of wit, wit that is coruscating and penetrating. But as a paragon of logic, he is seriously lacking.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that GKC was at this time (the early stages of World War I) trying to arrive at his later passion for distributism. Unfortunately, the War kept interfering, much like the head of King Charles I kept finding its way into Mr. Dick's head in David Copperfield. Curiously, I find he is better when discussing religion, perhaps because he could not write about religion without passion. But where politics and economics are concerned, the earnestness is there; but the wit is off to Brighton on holiday.
This is the first Chesterton book I have read that lacked any memorable quotes. Fortunately, I think that G.K. realized he had produced a clinker, because he was to return soon to much better efforts. There does, however, seem to be a five year period beginning with 1916 that saw Chesterton being too serious for his special talents....more