An event “may flash before our eyes, or brush our skin, or make our ear drums vibrate, but we give it no importance until or unless we see its relevanAn event “may flash before our eyes, or brush our skin, or make our ear drums vibrate, but we give it no importance until or unless we see its relevance to other things we believe or remember, that is, to the story we have formed in our head about how the world works and our place in it.”
This is a very good and clear introduction to the science of consciousness: how we become aware of events and how we interpret them. Everything that happens before or around us is meaningless—until or unless we connect it to other events, to give it meaning. And that is to create a story!
Will Storr has devoted much research and written other books on the neuroscience behind narrative, how the brain makes these connections and why it cannot not make them. Here he focuses on how understanding this process can help us not only to understand ourselves but also, as conscious, intentional storytellers, how to create memorable and believable characters.
From our first waking moments as infants, we try to make sense of the world, to control it. “Ultimately,” Storr writes, “we could say the mission of the brain is this: control. Brains have to perceive the physical environment and the people that surround it in order to control them. It’s by learning how to control the world that they get what they want.”
By trial and error, from infancy and especially through adolescence, the brain develops a model of how the world works and how to get what it wants. And that model is just that, a model, greatly simplified from the reality, and is never perfect. The problem is that we tend to believe it explains everything, that its premises are unquestionable. When the brain comes up against contrary evidence — as, say, the Russian soldiers who had been convinced that they would be welcomed as liberators in Ukraine and find that they are not, or King Lear convinced that his power and glory would always be respected, or Donald Trump persuaded that he could never lose an election — it has a dilemma. We may first refuse to believe what we see, or downplay the evidence as a fluke, or invent some new more complicated story to interpret it without abandoning the fundamentals of our model.
“What we want, and the ups and downs or our struggle to get it, is the story of us all.” More concisely, “We’re all fictional characters… We’re the partial, biased, stubborn creations of our own minds.” ...more
As a companion piece to Will Storr's The Science of Storytelling, here is another book about the neuroscience of literary creation, novelist and journAs a companion piece to Will Storr's The Science of Storytelling, here is another book about the neuroscience of literary creation, novelist and journalist Rosa Montero's account of her own childhood and later experiences of panic and why and how writing, and especially publishing, worked to overcome such episodes for her, and how and why it was not enough for Sylvia Plath (she's very very good on the complicated relationship of Plath and Ted Hughes) or other famous writer suicides: Virginia Wolf, Stefan Zweig et al. A fascinating thread through her book is her Doppleganger, a woman so taken by Rosa Montero's figure — featured columnist for El País, praised novelist, frequent TV appearances — that she spends years impersonating her. It took Rosa years to discover who that imposter was, but meanwhile she had caused several embarrassing incidents for the real Rosa Montero. Very skillfully written....more
This novel is a vivid and thrilling experience of the dizzying exuberance, violence and artistic creativity in Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s,This novel is a vivid and thrilling experience of the dizzying exuberance, violence and artistic creativity in Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s, and the ugly forces that would turn that proud, once powerful and culturally advanced country into the killing machine of Adolf Hitler. The portrait of how an idealistic young German becomes such a furious anti-Semite that he is prepared to murder his own family for the cause impressed me deeply, as did the glimpses of left-wing figures such as Bertolt Brecht playing guitar and singing in Bohemian parties, and a character clearly representing the famous caricaturist and artist Georg Grosz, and future Nazi hierarchs
Our witness and narrator is Peter Ellis, a young German-speaking American, aspiring artist and former ambulance driver for the allied forces in the last days of the first World War, who becomes closely involved in a once prosperous, well-integrated and highly cultured German Jewish banking family, now suddenly having to deal not only with the post-war economic disaster and soaring inflation, but also rising waves of furious antisemitism, as Jews are made the scapegoat for the German defeat, the chaos and inflation....more
The news of the stabbing of Salman Rushdie (2022.08.12) has made me want to celebrate once again this wonderful, hilarious satyrical novel. Which I noThe news of the stabbing of Salman Rushdie (2022.08.12) has made me want to celebrate once again this wonderful, hilarious satyrical novel. Which I now want to reread. I just found my handwritten review from my journal, written shortly after its publication. Here I've typed it out, as a place-holder for what should be a more thorough, thoughtful essay, taking account of the extreme violence for which this very clever comedy has been a pretext:
(From my journal, 2 April 1989:) Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses. NY: Viking, 1988. 547 pp.
Gibreel Farishta, star of countless Indian “theologicals,” and Saladin Chamchala, an Anglicized Indian actor who specializes in voices for commercials, are blown out of an Air India plan, the “Bostan,” over London and tumble, unhurt but transformed, to earth. Gibreel, whose movie name (not his real one, which I forget) means Gabriel Angel, becomes — at least in his dreams and his later madness, and possibly in fact — the Archangel Gabriel. Saladin Chamchala — shortened from the Urdu, Salahuddin Chamchawalla — becomes goat-like, with horns, hooves and an enormous prick; is he satyr or Satan? Farishta is the perfectly eclectic Indian, absorbing all the religions and accepting all the customs of his homeland and thinking the English are a bit weird. At one point, believing himself to be the archangel, he decides to tropicalize England — giving it a tropical climate will improve everybody’s behavior, he believes. Saladin is the hyper assimilated Indian, loving England more than the English do. Much of the book is taken up with Gibreel’s dreams, first of the founding of Islam (“Submission”) by Mohammad (“Mahound”), and later of another, modern Ayeesha, a young girl who leads a whole Indian village on a pilgrimage to Mecca, in which those whose faith is strong walk through the Arabian sea. Ending is disappointing… [but I won’t give it away here: read the book and have some good laughs, at the contradictions and improvisations of immigration and transcultural confusion]. ...more
Este libro me encantó, en dos niveles: 1º, Manuela Carmena es un encanto de persona, cuya generosidad de espíritu es evidente en lo que dice y la maneEste libro me encantó, en dos niveles: 1º, Manuela Carmena es un encanto de persona, cuya generosidad de espíritu es evidente en lo que dice y la manera de decirlo; y 2º, su experiencia como alcaldesa y cara y símbolo de una coalición de partidos dados a la disputa entre ellos,hace especialmente valiosas sus reflexiones y propuestas respecto a los obstáculos estructurales para que la democracia realmente responda a las necesidades y los deseos del pueblo. Su larga experiencia como abogada laboralista — empezada en los años de Franco y su represión — y luego como juez no la había preparado por las contiendas feroces entre facciones políticas, con sus insultos y descalificaciones, exageraciones y hasta mentiras que ya son costumbre conocida por los políticos más veteranos. Pero aguantó, y hasta hizo gestos importantes para fomentar un ambiente más cordial y productivo, por ejemplo, el invitar a los de los otros partidos a desayunar con ella en su oficina con sus famosas magdalenas (Carmena incluye la receta en el libro). Pero lo que encontró más inaceptable y seguramente el origen de gran parte de las ineficiencias de nuestro sistema electoral era la férrea lealtad y disciplina que exigen los partidos, con el único objetivo de alcanzar el poder. Lo que se podría hacer para la ciudad con ese poder es de menor importancia; lo realmente importante es preservar el partido como organización y asegurar puestos pagados para sus miembros más activos y leales. Eso explica la tendencia de los voceros de la oposición de oponerse a toda propuesta del consistorio, sin contemplar una colaboración para mejorar la propuesta. A pesar de todo, su consistorio logró iniciar algunos importantes cambios en la ciudad, incluyendo el proyecto "Madrid Central", limitando el tráfico y reduciendo notablemente la contaminación. En 2018, se postuló para repetir como alcaldesa, como candidata de las mismas fuerzas coaligadas pero con el nuevo nombre, "Más Madrid"; su plataforma fue la más votada, pero el Partido Popular, Ciudadanos y Vox pactaron para investir como alcalde a José Luis Martínez-Almeida, del PP. Y uno de los primeros actos del nuevo consistorio del PP y sus nuevos aliados fue de derogar Madrid Central, no porque funcionaba mal, sino simplemente porque había sido proyecto de otros partidos, que consideraban sus enemigos....more
[My delight in this book came from the beauty of Flaubert’s descriptions and phrasing and also his acute observations of the turmoil preceding, during[My delight in this book came from the beauty of Flaubert’s descriptions and phrasing and also his acute observations of the turmoil preceding, during and following the great social revolution of 1848 in France, especially Paris. This despite the ridiculous, comical passivity of his protagonist and, of course, my serious reservations regarding Flaubert’s haughty and distanced view of that social struggle. Understanding the revolution of 1848 is essential for understanding the even bloodier conflict over the Commune of 1871, the setting of my most recent novel.]
J’ai beaucoup aimé ce livre, malgré ou peut-être à cause du destin ridicule de son protagoniste, Frédéric Moreaux, un jeune homme dont la seule ambition est de vivre comme les gens les plus riches et de se vanter d’avoir une maîtresse belle et riche . Cet “homme de toutes les faiblesses” est un très bon témoin des coutumes, le préjugés et les grands conflits de classe en France, et surtout à Paris, avant, pendant et après la revolution de 1848. J’ai recopié dans mon cahier beaucoup de passages, pour la beauté de leur expression et le rhythme de la langue, et aussi pour l’ironie aigüe des observations sociales. Voici un exemple : Frédéric, passivement, s’est présenté comme candidat du nouveau gouvernement depuis la déchéance du roi Louis Philippe, et pour ça il doit …
« …se soumettre aux idées régnantes. « Les uns désiraient l’Empire, d’autres les Orléans [l’ancienne ligne royale], d’autres le comte de Chambord : mais tous s’accordaient sur l’urgence de la décentralisation, et plusieurs moyens étaient proposés, tels que ceux-ci : couper Paris en une foule de grandes rues afin d’y rétablir des villages, transférer à Versailles le siège du gouvernement, mettre à Bourges les écoles [ville connue pour sa vocation militaire], supprimer les bibliothèques, confier tout aux généraux de division ; — et on exaltait les campagnes, l’homme illettré ayant naturellement plus de sens que les autres ! … »
Tout ça a été publié en 1869, juste avant la guerre contre la Prusse, le transfert du gouvernement défait à Versailles et la guerre contre la Commune de Paris qui visait, entre autres fins, à éradiquer l’éducation libre et laïque que la Commune venait de commencer réaliser....more
Aftermath (original title: Wolfszeit, “Wolf Time,” 2019) is about the Germans in 1945-1955, recovering from the war, their huge and humiliating defeatAftermath (original title: Wolfszeit, “Wolf Time,” 2019) is about the Germans in 1945-1955, recovering from the war, their huge and humiliating defeat, the destruction of most of their cities and production facilities, and their own conflicted consciences. Not surprisingly, most popular was the interpretation of themselves as “victims” rather than perpetrators of the terrible violence that not only killed millions of people but displaced even more millions of survivors. The sequels of the Ukraine war are going to be of similar scale, as we can already see with the millions of refugees, destruction of agrarian and industrial productivity, and the terrible losses of life. How the Russians are going to deal with it, and their own consciences if at least some of them acknowledge the evidence, …? The war and the rapid collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 altered the structure of all Europe — as will Russia’s current war on Ukraine. What had been the greatest economic and military power on the continent was now divided into four zones governed respectively by the French, the British, the U.S., and the Soviets. National boundaries were redrawn, so that much of what had been German became Polish, leading to expulsion or (more-or-less voluntary) mass migration of German speakers westward, to lands they had never seen before and whose dialects and accents were unfamiliar — and where they had no prospects for making a living. “In the summer of 1945 about 75 million people lived in the four occupied zones of Germany. Some 40 million, far more than half of them, were not where they belonged or wanted to be.” (p. 39) The hardship and misery in the destroyed cities induced the German self-pity mentioned above, their view of themselves as “victims”, and an utter lack of concern about the missing millions of Jews, even among those Germans (a minority) who accepted German responsibilty for the destructive war. Finding ways to survive — often by theft, frequently accompanied by violence over a precarious shelter or a fragment of bread in a bombed out city — and the abuses by the occupying forces, including house-breaking and rapes by barely-controlled Soviet soldiers — earned this period the label “Wolfszeit”, or “time of the wolf”, the ferocious monster of German folklore. But it also inspired creativity and ingenuity of many Germans, sometimes in ways that contributed to the rebuilding of economy, production and even culture. Among the exceptional personalities that Jähner highlights are the now-famous writer and poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a creative capitalist as a child in the black market of Bavaria; the beautiful and daring actress Hildegard Knef, portraying women taking sometimes brutal control of their sex-lives — a scandalous departure from pre-war German mores; Rudolf Hernnstadt, a Jewish Communist journalist who established new newspapers in the Soviet zone; Hans Habe, “[t]he most glittering among” the German Jews (though he was actually of Hungarian origin) serving the U.S. occupiers — handsome, clever, pretentious and “highly efficient” at establishing newspapers to counter the lingering ideology of the Nazis; the famous author Alfred Döblin; pilot and sex-education popularizer Beate Uhse; and Heinrich Nordhoff, the “general” who got Volkswagen back in production. Very clearly written and bristling with dramatic incidents, this book is necessary for understanding the Germany that emerged from its “wolf’s time” to become, this time in very different form, the great economic power it is today....more
Brilliant analysis, the most famous essays having been written while the Commune was in progress. I've read these essays many times; for a full understBrilliant analysis, the most famous essays having been written while the Commune was in progress. I've read these essays many times; for a full understanding of the Commune, how it occurred and how it developed and, ultimately, how it was crushed, one must also read Lissagaray (he was there, as a journalist and in the last days as a combattant at the barricades), Jules Vallès' semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account in L'Insurgé (Vallès, though a journalist with no military experience, was ellected batallion commander and he also fought to the end). And of course, my novel, "Rabble!"...more
Abdulrazak Gurnah has given us a vivid reimagining of the Africans’ experience during and following the German administration and wars in Deutsch-OstaAbdulrazak Gurnah has given us a vivid reimagining of the Africans’ experience during and following the German administration and wars in Deutsch-Ostafrika, from the 1880s until the defeat of Germany in November 1918, when the victors then divided up the formerly German African territory to add to their own colonies. This brutal and consequential episode has been rarely touched in literature, in contrast to the other, longer-lasting African colonies of the British, French, Belgians and Portuguese. Thomas Pynchon’s portrayal in Gravity’s Rainbow of the genocide of the Hereros in German Southwest Africa, now Namibia, is the only other fictional treatment I know. Gurnah tells this story from the points of view of several African men and two women of different generations and ethnic backgrounds, beginning with Khalil, a merchant born in the 1880s to an African mother and a Gujarati father—an exceptional union, since the Indian merchants who dominated commerce in the port cities near Zanzibar did not always mix easily with the indigenous Africans. Khalil befriends and tries to protect the younger Ilyas, who has been so impressed by his good treatment by a German missionary and a plantation owner that he eagerly joins the “Schutztruppe” (literally, “protection force”), German euphemism for the brutal army of indigenous troops and German officers designed to destroy any resistance by local tribes to German occupation. When Ilyas disappears with the army, Khalil also becomes the protector of his younger sister Afiya. Another young African, Hamza, also joins the Schutztruppe, in his case to escape the debt bondage inherited from his now deceased father, and there learns to speak and write good German with the encouragement of the Oberleutnant in command of his company. Through these characters and others, African and German, we get a very clear picture of what this colonization meant and its cultural and economic consequences even after the end of German rule and the recolonization attempt by Germany under Nazi rule. Of the young men like Ilyas and Hamza who joined the Schutztruppe — whether for the pay, the excitement or the prestige of the Germans —, «they did not know that they were to spend years… slaughtering and being slaughtered by armies of people they knew nothing about: Punjabis and Sikhs, Fantis and Akans and Hausas and Yorubas, Kongo and Luba, all mercenaries who fought the Europeans’ wars for them, …and a crowd of other European volunteers who thought killing was an adventure and were happy to be at the service of the great machinery of conquest and empire.» The characterizations are believable and the descriptions of settings very vivid, especially the description of the unnamed port city where Hamza returns after his harrowing experiences of war in chapter 8, the beginning of Part III. My only disappointment with the novel was the loss of narrative tension in the final pages, where the terrible end of the Germanophile African in Nazi Germany is related in the emotionless language of a police report....more
Es un libro bellísimo, que funciona en varios niveles. Primero, es un hermoso tributo y memoria de una relación excepcionalmente afectuosa entre hijoEs un libro bellísimo, que funciona en varios niveles. Primero, es un hermoso tributo y memoria de una relación excepcionalmente afectuosa entre hijo y padre, en una cultura donde los padres típicamente se quedan emocionalmente distantes, ostentantando siempre su autoridad. cuando no se ausentaban completamente
Segundo, como biografía íntima de ese padre, Héctor Abad Gómez, médico, fundador y director de la escuela de salud pública de Medellín y defensor hasta la muerte de los derechos humanos, incluyendo el derecho a la vida y la salud de los más pobres.
En un tercer nivel, es una crítica matizada pero sin piedad de la autosuficiencia, prepotencia y hasta corrupción de los que controlaban las instituciones, civiles y eclesiasticas, de su ciudad.
Y finalmente, es una tragedia que el autor nos hace sentir como nuestra, habiéndolo acompañado en su gran amor a su padre y toda su familia y su país, porque el asesinato de Héctor Abad Gómez, por unos sicarios seguramente pagados por los paramilitares para para callar su trabajo para los derechos humanos, fue una terrible pérdida también para Colombia.
Sin embargo, el libro no me dejó sólo con el sentido de pérdida y frustración sino con una renovada fe en la capacidad, demostrada por Abad hijo y muchos otros hombres y mujeres en Medellín y afuera, de continuar la lucha por la justicia y la celebración del amor al prójimo que había sido la vida de Héctor Abad Gómez....more
Les vies de douzaines de personnages, entre eux des étudiants de bachelier ou mineurs, leurs parents et leurs professeurs, s’entrechoquent dans ce romLes vies de douzaines de personnages, entre eux des étudiants de bachelier ou mineurs, leurs parents et leurs professeurs, s’entrechoquent dans ce roman qui parle des conflits intergénérationnels, leurs jeux sociaux et leur cruauté, mais principalement de la création littéraire. Le romancier Édouard, l’oncle et figure de référence de ces «enfants » , est en train d’écrire un nouveau roman qu’il a intitulé “Les faux-monnayeurs”, qui s’inspire des vies confuses des adolescents, leurs ambitions rien de claires et leurs jeux parfois stupides. Entre eux, le jeu de faire passer des monnaies fausses, et d’autres plus sinistres et jusqu’à mortels. Tout tient lieu au Paris, ou en Afrique et l'Angleterre dans les années 1920 mais sans aucune mention de la Grande guerre. Je crois que je l’avais acheté vers 1980 comme livre d’occasion dans la fameuse librairie Strand, de New York, à cause de la réputation de l’auteur et mon désir d’améliorer mon français. Et seulement cette semaine,enfin, je l’ai lu et j’en ai profité pour ses très intéressantes réflexions sur la composition d’un roman, comme celle-ci: «X. soutient que le romancier doit, avant de commencer son livre, savoir comment ce livre finira. Pour moi [c’est Édouard qui le dit, dans son journal], qui laisse aller le mien à l’aventure, je considère que la vie ne nous propose jamais rien qui, tout autant qu’un aboutissement, ne puisse être considéré comme un nouveau point de départ. «Pourrait être continué…», c’est sur ces mots que je voudrais terminer mes Faux-monnayeurs. …» (Pp. 419-420)...more
Two women, a generation apart though their lives intertwine, tell us in their most intimate voices of their quite different, sometimes comical and mosTwo women, a generation apart though their lives intertwine, tell us in their most intimate voices of their quite different, sometimes comical and mostly but not always disappointing adventures with men. And careers, and cellos, and dope. When the quest for satisfaction of the elder and more pro-active of the two takes the stage, we are treated to a simultaneously comical and erudite 'magic theater' production, in which we see their present dilemmas as repetitions or reflections of the ancient myths of Endymion and the goddesses, with pictorial and poetic references through the ages.
In this short tale of two women, in which the men are also treated very sensitively, Karla Huebner calls on her deep knowledge of European classical paintings and verse for a story of desire denied, delayed, and sometimes precariously fulfilled.
Full disclosure: Karla is a long-time friend whose scholarly work on art and art history I have often found as clever and entertaining as her fiction....more
Huida de Argentina para salvar su vida durante el terror de la dictadura militar, la joven Clara Obligado se encontró en España en los estertores de oHuida de Argentina para salvar su vida durante el terror de la dictadura militar, la joven Clara Obligado se encontró en España en los estertores de otra dictadura, la de Franco, y descubre un país que a la vez es y no es la suya, su "casa". En España se habla el mismo idioma pero con otro acento y otros matices, llevando a veces a malentendidos por los gestos y expresiones normales y casi automáticas para una argentina. Y llega con un apellido que en Argentina suena por sus conocidos poetas (entre ellos, su bisabuelo Rafael y abuelo Carlos Obligado), pero que en su nueva "casa" de Madrid, no suena a nada. De este desplazamiento y las múltiples discontinuidades entre lo esperado y lo encontrado en el nuevo país, tan parecido y tan diferente, sale su singular manera de contar las historias que hemos disfrutado en, por ejemplo, El libro de los viajes equivocados o La biblioteca de agua. Como ella dice, "Iba encontrando mi forma de contar, donde el fragmento resultaba una estrategia para quebrar la continuidad narrativa decimonónica y subvertir la linealidad, proponiendo itinerarios de lectura a través de bruscos cambios de tiempo y espacio, varios personajes protagónicos para que la voz del grupo fuera importante, narradores no identificados y múltiples puntos de vista." ¡Eso! Es como ella escribe, y nos sorprende y nos hace repensar cosas que creíamos normales y rutinarias. Y puede ser por esa cualidad también que ella ha tenido tanto éxito con sus alumnos/as en sus populares talleres, con énfasis en las "cosas breves". En su resumen, "Esa es la historia del exilio: como nadie nos hacía caso, como nos trataban con indiferencia, terminamos incorporándonos."...more
This is brilliant reporting of the British side of the Great European War of 1914 to 1918, “World War I” as we now know it. The focus is not on the biThis is brilliant reporting of the British side of the Great European War of 1914 to 1918, “World War I” as we now know it. The focus is not on the big strategic decisions, the battle tactics and weaponry, though all of that is recognized and discussed. Ralther, what is unusual and fresh in this story is its attention to the individuals, their personal lives, their ties of family and social class, their loves and prejudices, whose combined actions, often from opposing motivations, created and shaped four years of destruction that utterly changed our world, with consequences far beyond their imaginings. Among the most notable figures are Charlotte Despard, a leading anti-war activist and socialist, and the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force for the first years of the war, General John French, whose relationship may come to you (as it did to me) as a complete surprise; the pro-war propagandist Rudyard Kipling, who became obsessed with discovering what had happened to his son, lost on the battlefield, and outspoken anti-war intellectuals including Bertrand Russell; the Pankhursts, mother and daughters, united as militant women’s suffragists but utterly divided on the war; Scottish socialist, labor leader and internationalist Keir Hardie and his long and intimate relationship with the most rebellious of the Pankhurst daughters, Sylvia, and on and on. One of the surprising consequences of the war and the agitation for and against it was the victory of the women's suffrage movement. One of the main themes of Hochschild's book is how these two phenomena, agitation for and against the war and the mobilization of women for the vote, clashed and interconnected, changing the calculations of the British War Office — from their deeply held, patronizing antagonism toward women activists to the conviction that they needed to include women for any national consensus. In his scrupulously factual accounts of their lives and actions, Adam Hochschild brings us the kind of intensity that we expect in fiction, where the author tries to enter the lives and emotions of invented characters....more
Divertido y una manera muy amena de aprender algo sobre la evolución de nuestra especie. El autodominado neandertal es Juan José Millás, novelista, coDivertido y una manera muy amena de aprender algo sobre la evolución de nuestra especie. El autodominado neandertal es Juan José Millás, novelista, columnista y escritor general, que se hace discípulo de Juan Luis Arsuaga, paleontólogo y también escritor y supuesto sapiens, para tomar notas de sus lecciones para divulgar a nosotros, los ingenuos sobre muchas de estas cuestiones. El capítulo más desternillante es la visita que hacen estos dos señores a un sex shop, donde les atiende una joven muy dispuesta a contestarles sus preguntas sobre el gran pene artificial que sostiene Arsuaga en la mano y luego una vagina realista; dicha joven empleada del sex shop también se interesa mucho en el discurso de Arsuaga, y le da mucha pena saber que las hembras chimpancés, después de copular con hast diez machos el mismo día durante su ovulación, tienen que esperar otros "cuatro años sin actividad sexual". Sí, después de la explicación de Arsuaga, la chica dice, "Se entiende, pero da un poco de lástima"....more
Michèle Audin has done meticulous research to penetrate the many myths and distortions around "the week of blood", May 21 to May 28, 1871, the massacrMichèle Audin has done meticulous research to penetrate the many myths and distortions around "the week of blood", May 21 to May 28, 1871, the massacre that destroyed the Paris Commune. How many were killed during that week? And how many of those were killed in combat, barricade by barricade, street by street, by the army columns sent by the Versailles-based government? How many prisoners shot after surrendering? And how many completely innocent civilians, including children and even babies? We can never know exactly, but Audin's examination of burial records for those more or less "officially" buried in or shortly after that week at any of 20 cemeteries in and close by Paris, later discoveries of unmarked mass graves, reports of city agencies responsible for collecting and disposing of the many cadavers, and letters and testimonies of surviving witnesses of mass executions demonstrates convincingly that the numbers must have been far more than those asserted by Maxime Du Camp and other apologists for the Versailles-based government, or those more recently published by Robert Tombs, basing themselves on official data. Not a few thousand, but on the order of tens of thousands for that week alone. And many more than that if we count the many casualties in the previous two months of that civil war, Versailles' war on Paris. Audin reminds us, vividly, of what was already clear to any of us who have studied the Paris revolution of 1871, how terribly savage was the reaction by a government that could not tolerate a free city challenging (to different degrees) capitalist power, social class hierarchy and patriarchy, if only slightly. Because the changes demanded and initiated by the leaders of the elected Commune, or spontaneously by citizens in their neighborhoods — such as burning the guillotines—, were hardly the death of civilization as Versailles portrayed them....more
The eruption of the Commune in the spring of 1871 in Paris, the capital of one of richest and most powerful global empires, caused tremendous commotioThe eruption of the Commune in the spring of 1871 in Paris, the capital of one of richest and most powerful global empires, caused tremendous commotion in all of Europe and beyond. And today, 150 years later, the Commune continues to resound as “a synonym of social struggle,” inspiring the slogans of radical democratic movements from Hong Kong to Spain to New York. As Quentin Deluermoz notes, the 2006 bibliography of the Commune by Robert Le Quillec runs to 600 pages with some 5,000 entries, and more books, essays and philosophical or sociological analyses keep coming. "One life would not be enough to read it all," he says. But Deluermoz has in fact read a great deal of it, in French and other languages, not to offer a review of the literature but to find a fresh way of looking at the causes and impact of those 72 days of revolution, 18 March to 28 May, in and around the city of Paris. What he calls the “stake” of his book — his pari— is to place the Paris Commune in its spatial and temporal dimensions, centuries long and world-wide, as a moment of crisis in the ever-accelerating dynamics of global capitalism and imperialism. The rapid development of shipping, communications and manufacturing technologies in the 19th century had spurred the movement of populations from countryside to the cities and the rapid growth of an industrial working class across Europe, with special turbulence in France. There the continuous re-elaboration of revolutionary discourse begun in the Revolution of 1789 ("Liberté, égalité, fraternité"), continued with the overthrow of Louis Philippe in 1830 (cf. the barricade scene in Hugo's Les Misérables and the passages in Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale), the Europe-wide insurrections of 1848 ("A spectre is haunting Europe": Marx), and the wide publication and repetition of the revolutionary postulates of Prudhon, Marx, St. Simon, Bakunin, and others, had created expectations and possible script for revolution in the rapidly growing associations of workers in particular trades. The immediate cause of the 1870-71 crisis was the French Empire’s disastrous war with Prussia, then aspiring to create an empire of its own. Emperor Napoleon III’s surrender on the battlefield in Sedan, on September 2, 1870, and the proclamation two days later of a “Republic” by politicians and generals in Paris, surrounded by an angry populace, unleashed forces far beyond those politicians' control. In a world still ruled almost everywhere by kingdoms and empires, “republic” was a call for revolution: it meant power to the people, or at least to some of them—adult males. Men from Poland, Italy, Greece, Belgium, the Balkans, even South America and North Africa, eager to overthrow empires and monarchies elsewhere, rushed to France to defend the new republic against the Prussian monarchy. Many rallied around the famed Giuseppe Garibaldi who, with his sons, entered France to form a kind of international brigade, independent of the French high command in Paris. And across France and its colonies, disgruntled workers and bourgeois saw the French republic as the opportunity to create their own autonomous governments, called "communes" in reference to the Paris Commune of 1789-1795. Deluermoz has selected four of the many roughly contemporaneous communes to illustrate different aspects of the spirit and consciousness of the times: - Algiers, capital of France's most important African colony and command center of its war against rebellious Arab and Berber clans; there, European colonists dismissed the colonial governor to set themselves up as a “commune” independent of the metropolis, to rule over the so-called "indigenous" peoples in their own manner. - Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean island that only a generation ago had become free of slavery; there the bloody revolt including the burning of plantations and killing of oppressive landowners, was a response to racial and property status grievances rather than working-class grievances. - Thiers, a small French city 450 kilometers south of Paris, famous for its cutlery, where the associations of cutlery workers proudly took charge but only for several hours; - Lyon, then the second largest city in France and center of the silk industry, where a group of workers, many inspired by the Russian anarchist Bakunin, seized city hall — but failed to secure it properly, and the next day were routed by troops loyal to the new government in Paris. Paris was not the first city to proclaim itself a commune in the French crisis of 1870-71, but it was by far the most dramatic and consequential because, first, it was the capital of the empire, and thus its revolution necessarily created great reverberations wherever local authorities depended on French finance and military power. With nearly two million people, Paris was then the largest city in continental Europe, not only a great financial center but also a major market for producers elsewhere. Finally, symbolically, Paris represented the highest example of what European intellectuals had begun calling "civilization" — the supposed moral and cultural superiority that justified their intervention in the "uncivilized" or “barbarous” regions that were their source of raw materials and cheap labor. In its two-and-a-half months duration, the Commune did not have time to carry out or complete many of the reforms that communards sought, but they did set patterns that remain an example to revolutionaries today. Was the Commune then a flawed but suggestive model for the future, showing how masses can be rallied to seize power and what they can do once they've got it, as Lenin and other revolutionaries saw it? Or should we see it as the death throe of an obsolete form of protest, the last of the great urban risings in France — 1789, 1830, 1848, and finally 1871 — by a mob whipped to a suicidal frenzy, in a still immature period of capitalism now long behind us? In fact, it seems to have been both. But, as this book makes clear, above all it was the most intense crisis of a global economic and political system in the 19th century, a forerunner of the even greater crisis of imperial conflict that we now know as World War I....more