July 2009 Archives

Honest labor

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Call me defensive, but I'm an honest woman, and I resent the fact that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with lying.  I used to be an actor, which many people think synonymous with lying for a living.  (Or, at least, lying on the casting couch; but resenting that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with whoring is another blog post.) 

"I'm a very good actor," is allegedly what Sir Jock Delves Broughton said to the prosecutor, after a jury acquitted Broughton of the murder of Joss Hay, Earl of Erroll - a murder that Broughton almost certainly committed.  When I read statements like that, I'm in anguish: why smear actors?  Acting is a noble profession, a rigorous craft, with an esteemed history (Shakespeare, Ellen Terry, Laurence Olivier).  We're not clowns, for Christ's sake.

Fiction is - obviously - also problemmatic.  Writing down stuff that you make up is - to some people's way of thinking - a lot like lying (or the practice of law; "liar, oh sorry lawyer" used to be the favorite joke of one of my brothers).  So imagine my despair to see Mario Vargas Llosa embracing - yes! embracing - the accusation of lying in his novel, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.

An investigation into the life of an imaginary (but based on real-life) Communist revolutionary by an imaginary (but based on real-life) Peruvian novelist, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is salted with confrontations between the novelist and his skeptical audience.  "It won't be the real story, but, just as you say, a novel," the nameless novelist assures one interviewee, "A faint, remote, and, if you like, false version." (p. 66.)  "'Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it,'" the novelist elaborates. (p. 67.) 

To another interviewee, he protests, "I only want to garner as much information, as many opinions about [Alejandro Mayta] as I can, so that later I can add a large dose of fancy to all that data, so I can create something that will be an unrecognizable version of what actually happened."  (p. 81.)

"[A]ll stories mix truth and lies," he concludes.  (p. 118.)

Nonsense!  The sloppiness - of thinking, or word usage - of confusing fiction writing with lying makes me bristle with indignation.  Detective work involves following a factual path to the truth; fiction writing - and acting, as well - entails discovery of an imaginary path to the truth.  Writing fiction is the creation of a description or account that makes the reader recognize: yes, this is just what life is like. 

Lying, by contrast, is not about truth, but deceit.  While fiction aims for the enlightenment that comes from being able to accept reality, lying achieves its purpose by tricking people into remaining ignorant.   

Of course, I'm so in love with Vargas Llosa's work, that I'll forgive him anything - even a difference of opinion.  His repeated insistence on his own lies in Alejandro Mayta is meant to illustrate a larger social phenomenon: "Since it is impossible to know what's really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, dream, and take refuge in illusion.  Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary."  (p. 246.)

Nonetheless, I think Vargas Llosa is selling himself short; taking refuge from reality in an illusion is quite different than what Vargas Llosa is doing: confronting the reader with the desolation and despair that they might otherwise deny.  And I suspect that Vargas Llosa understands the difference.  As his novelist protagonist responds to one tough customer, who demands: "'Does it make any sense to be writing a novel with Peru in this condition and Peruvians all living on borrowed time?' Does it make any sense?  I tell him it certainly does, since I'm doing it."  (p. 140.)

Words to make an honest novelist proud.
"He is writing, after all, at 'the end of history,' when fundamental debates over how to organize societies and economies seem less important that questions of identity and styles of living."

So writes Adam Kirsch, reviewing Philipp Blom's book, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914, in The New York Review of Books.  I wonder how many of The NYRB's readers' jaws dropped, as mine did, when I read that sentence.

I suspect the sentence can only seem innocuous to a Westerner who doesn't have much of a global perspective.  In China, for example, the fundamental question of how to organize its society and economy is far from settled.  Should people have recourse to institutions outside their families to protect and support them, or is the family the main wellspring of resources?  Should an economy run on cash, or can people be trusted with credit?  Should the legal system regulate the economy, or will such responsibility make the legal system too powerful?  These questions - and others of similarly fundamental import - have raged around me during the past four-and-a-half years that I've lived in Beijing.

Similarly, the notion that questions of how to organize societies and economies seems less important than questions of identity and styles of living is one that can seem credible only to a person blithely oblivious to - to take two examples - the drought currently ravaging Nairobi, Kenya, and the non-existent monsoons in Pune, India.  Climate change - and the droughts and other extreme weather conditions through which it manifests - is the direct result of the way large parts of the (Western) world have organized their societies and, particularly, their economies. 

In brief (but for more information, see, for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), because we don't take into account the value of the myriad, "free" services we enjoy from nature (for example, flood protection afforded by forests), we'll be paying the costs in the form of displacement from lands that become disaster-torn and uninhabitable.  Nothing short of a complete revamping of our economies to take into account (not "externalize" in the economic lingo) services we receive from nature will diminish the devastating environmental losses we are currently suffering.  Compared to questions of identity and styles of living, this issue of how to organize the economy - and the ramifications of ignoring the problem - seems damned important.

Perhaps this Western myopia will be the reason for the end of history when it truly arrives.

Judging the publisher by the cover

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In a recent Publishing Perspectives editorial, Tolu Ogunlesi poses the question, "who exactly are the proper 'gatekeepers' of African literary tradition and production"?  In his analysis, the current gatekeepers are large, international publishers located in former-colonial countries - "outsiders," in his view, "that seem to possess fixed ideas about what African literature should or should not be, and what 'authentic' African 'characters' can or cannot do."

The evidence for this conclusion focuses largely on the selection of jacket covers for books by African authors:

Chinua Achebe, speaking about the early covers of his classic, Things Fall Apart said: "...I have a general sense that we, African writers, have been presented as oddities." He referred to the cover of the original 1958 Heinemann edition as a "questionable depiction of strangeness."
. . . .
Speaking during the Publishers' Panel at the 2009 Cadbury Conference at the Center of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham, British-Ghanaian Publisher (and former Commissioning Editor of the Heinemann African Writers' Series) Becky Ayebia-Clarke (who is now running her own press, Ayebia Publishing) described how her displeasure with the cover of Tsitsi Dangaremba's debut novel, Nervous Conditions (The Women's Press, England, 1988) - another questionable depiction of strangeness - led her to produce a radically different cover for the Ayebia edition (2004). She felt that the image portrayed on the original cover did not do justice to the strong, sassy characterization of the novel's heroine.
While Ogunlesi raises a good question, one worth exploring - and while I share his enthusiasm for the small, independent publishing houses and collectives like Storymoja and Kwani in Kenya that he champions - I think the "book jacket" evidence may be a tad weak for the conclusions it is expected to bolster.

To my knowledge, the book jacket selection process is one that anguishes just about every author.  For authors, the image on the book's cover is often as personal a matter as proposed edits to the book's text.  For the publisher, however - as Seth Godin noted in a recent blog post - the book's cover is a marketing tool.  The disconnect between "representation of the author's person" and "promotional vehicle" is bound to cause friction.

The friction is especially charged any time a book implicates questions of ethnic identity.  Hyphen Magazine ran a piece by Neelanjana Banerjee complaining about the stereotypical images on book covers by Asian authors (e.g., lotus blossoms, dragons).  Author Sonya Chung's post on The Millions documented her anxiety about whether the cover design for her upcoming novel depicted a white or Korean-American woman.

But as Henry Sene Yee, creative director for Picador Books, quoted by Banerjee in her article, explains, "the publishing industry is all about recognizable codes: 'Russian constructivist fonts for Russian books; torn paper and beige for Westerns; italics, diamond rings and legs for women's fiction.'"  In other words, the sterotyping isn't personal, nor is it racism.  It's marketing - reductionist, lowest-common-denominator, aesthetically-bankrupt, financially-astute marketing.

Ogunlesi is right to question the gatekeeper role that international publishers are playing with respect to African literature, but the "strangeness" of jacket covers of books by African authors doesn't support his conclusion that international publishing companies are too far outside African culture.  On the contrary, the book covers - as aesthetically abominable as they may be - may demonstrate that publishing companies are sufficiently savvy to sell African literature globally to audiences that are - by and large, around the world - provincial.

Against the Wall - and another thing . . . .

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Thinking over Professor Sari Nusseibeh's ridiculous analogy about the Israeli-built wall that obstructs Palestinian access to Israel (see my previous blog post), quoted with approval in David Hare's "Wall: A Monologue," published in The New York Review of Books, I realized that I had one additional comment on Nusseibeh's analysis.  As Nusseibeh writes:

[The wall is like] like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.
(p. 8.)  The last sentence contains some deeply sloppy and irresponsible reasoning and argument.  The wall doesn't "create" violence.  The wall creates unfair, unjust and inhumane conditions to which people respond. 

How people respond to unfairness, injustice, and inhumanity is a choice.  In their exercise of that choice, people demonstrate their character and, indeed, their humanity. 

Even acknowledging the justifiable, probably hard-wired human need for revenge, choosing violence as a response is not inevitable.  The "Red Orchestra" chose non-violent resistance to the Nazis; Indians chose non-violent resistance to British colonialism; Black Americans chose non-violent resistance to racial segregation.  Having spent the last five years living in China, India and Africa, I've watched most of the people around me choose non-violent resistance to the myriad and genuine injustices, unfairnesses and inhumane actions to which they've been subjected.

The wall is an instrument of oppression - truly a wailing wall - but it doesn't absolve those Palestinians who chose violence in response of responsibility for their choice.  By eliminating Palestinian choice and responsibility in his analogy (the provocation of the wall = the violence of the response), Nusseibeh denies Palestinian humanity as certainly as does some Israeli policy.  

Against the Wall

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Why call a written account of a trip to Occupied Palestinian Territories a "monologue," instead of a "feature article" or "travelogue"?  One reason is that, as David Hare apparently has done, the piece is meant to be performed by a single person in front of an audience.  Another reason might be that David Hare, an experienced playwright, feels more comfortable writing in a familiar format, and one that absolves him entirely from journalistic standards.

Yet a third reason is that a monologue is a device for allowing the audience a privileged glimpse of the character's interior.  From its tone, I suspect that David Hare, in his "Wall: A Monologue," published in The New York Review of Books, intended his monologue as more of a Hyde Park op-ed piece - a voluble, live-action, attention-grabbing public intellectual's speech - than as a window into his depths, but I found the piece most significant for what it revealed about him: that he's a shallow-thinking asshole.

I don't say this for political reasons.  I agree with his political conclusions.  Like him, I am against the Wall.

But I don't support Hare coming to the same conclusions for the wrong reasons.  And Hare, from the evidence of his monologue, can't reason.

Two examples suffice.  First, Hare quotes with approval the analogy posed by Professor Sari Nusseibeh:

[The wall is] like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.
(p. 8.)  This analogy is dramatic and emotionally-manipulative, but it's wrong.  The wall is like sticking a criminal in prison, along with his family, his neighbors, and everyone in a miles-wide diameter.  Yes, it's unfair.  Yes, it's disproportionate. Yes, the innocent suffer.  But, yes, there is a criminal in the mix.  The criminal doesn't justify the wall, but any reasoned conclusion about the wall has to absorb the baseline fact that Israelis are trying to protect themselves from suicide bombers.

Hare does not absorb this fundament.  As he says later, after having been scandalized by a Saddam Hussein poster in a coffee shop in Nablus,

At least now I know why the wall's gone up. The Israelis want to separate themselves from people who display posters of Saddam Hussein. Who can blame them? Or - hold on, the old conundrum - do they display posters of Saddam Hussein because somebody just put up a wall?

(p.12.)  Hold on, Hare: Saddam Hussein posters are not the issue.  The wall has gone up because Israelis are dying in suicide bombings, which have - as Hare acknowledges - decreased 80% since the wall went up.

I don't think this statistic justifies the wall; even 100% reduction in suicide bombings wouldn't justify the wall from my perspective.  The wall imposes unwarranted punishments on too many innocent people for its effectiveness against criminals to be justified.  But I accept that deaths - not the unbearable sight of Saddam Hussein's visage - is the price of the wall's removal. 

In Hare's view, the wall is a frivolous exercise in power "because they [the Israelis] can."  (p. 10.)  Well, if that's the way you see the balance of costs, then it takes no courage, conviction or intellectual exercise to conclude that the wall needs "gates."  (p.12.)

The Israelis who are against the wall, on the other hand, have a more nuanced understanding of the balance of costs.  Consciously deciding that the wall is the wrong approach to security in Israel requires an openness to risk, a breadth of compassion, and a generous measure of moral integrity (better to live in danger than impose harm on innocents) - qualities that, in Hare's analysis, the Israelis don't have.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has imposed such profound, unnecessary and devastating costs on so many people for so long for many reasons, but one reason has been an absence of clear thinking.  Despite Hare's obvious empathy for the Palestinians (which I share), he's doing them no favors with his contribution to the muddled (lack of) reasoning that has characterized the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.

So should I call this blog post a "monologue"?

For the real mischief, try fiction

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As difficult as writing fiction is, I'm thankful that I'm not a non-fiction writer.  James Fox's White Mischief, which I recently finished, confirmed my sense that sustaining the reader's (or this reader's) interest over a the course of a long work of non-fiction is a task so thankless as to be not worth attempting.  A plea: writers of non-fiction, can't you wrap it up in 20,000 words?

White Mischief is a journalistic-historical account of the murder of Josslyn Hay (a/k/a Earl of Erroll), an event which effectively ended the Happy Valley era for Kenya's white colonialists.  The story ought to be interesting.  All the characters, even those tangentially involved, were glamorous, scandalous, drug-and-sex addled adventurers, many of them fabulously wealthy, who did things about which people like to gossip: attempted suicide, attempted murder, abandoned their children, kept wild animals as pets, mistreated their servants, slept around.

In James Fox's hands, however, the story becomes . . . long.  Because Fox devoted years to investigating the story, he wants to write about his investigation.  The resulting meta-narrative detour introduces the reader to the boring, authorially self-involved, and irrelevant aspects of Fox's tale.  Fox, unlike his Happy Valley subjects - sadly - seems not to have attempted suicide or murder, abondoned his child, kept a beast as a pet, mistreated his help staff, or indulged in promiscuous sex. 

Fox does, however, admire the deceased writer and gourmand Cyril Connolly, who spent the later years of his life obsessed with the Joss Hay murder.  While I can appreciate Fox's tribute to Connolly, his mentor and writing partner - and the source of Fox's own obsession with the case - only someone who knew Connolly personally could appreciate the lavish detail with which Fox recounts what Connolly ate and drank at their meetings.  I, on the other hand, don't care.

Purely out of luck, as I was wondering, "How could Fox have told this story without the boring bits?" I began reading Mario Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and I had my answer.  Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is about unearthing the truth about a violent event that happened more than twenty years previously.  Moreover, Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is as much about the investigation of the event as it is about the event itself.  Unlike Fox's book, however, Vargas Llosa's is fascinating.

Vargas Llosa uses a technique of seamlessly intersplicing his account of the investigation and the event itself.  In Alejandro Mayta, a nameless novelist in 1983 interviews people with relevant information about Mayta, a Communist revolutionary in 1958 Peru.  Vargas Llosa interweaves the testimony of each of these interviewees, along with a first person account of the interviews, with a third person narrative of the events that occurred 25 year previously.  The first person account of the interviews is supposed to be "real," while the third person narrative is supposed to be "fiction."  The technique works brilliantly, not merely to generate a page-turning story, but also to probe questions of consequence, like, "How can we ever know the truth about historic events?" and "Why is fiction sometimes a better vehicle for truth than non-fiction?"

To compare Vargas Llosa and Fox is unfair.  Vargas Llosa consistently and prolifically produces books of astonishing skill; Fox is a hack.  With Alejandro Mayta, Vargas Llosa wrote a po-mo novel; Fox's book is more of an extended feature article for a newspaper's Sunday magazine.

Still, however unfair, the comparison sharply reveals - to my mind - the superiority of fiction as a medium.  Freedom from the bondage of facts releases the author from the tiresome task of shaping a page-turner out of life's petty story lines; instead, the author's challenge is to imagine a story line that's also a page turner.  The former is a problem of organizing information; the latter is a problem of art.  For the both (this) author and (this) reader, the choice of which book is more worthwhile is clear.

Open access to culture: a house divided

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Globalization has hauled us into two major debates about access to and ownership of cultural products that, despite being remarkably similar in their stakes, are raging along completely different lines.

First, Google Books has provoked a fight about the world's written texts.  Authors and publishers worldwide are raising objections to the free availability of their works, as well as Google's status as the gatekeeper of the world's literary cache.

Second, "antiquities" countries like Italy, Greece, Turkey, China and Iraq have precipitated a struggle over the world's ancient cultural treasures.  Using draconian antiquities laws to prevent the removal of archeological finds from their borders, and agitating (sometimes successfully) for the return of ancient booty housed in museums located (for the most part) in former imperialist powers, these countries are raising objections to the availability of cultural treasures outside of the country of their unearthing.

Hugh Eakin's article, "Who Should Own the World's Antiquities?" in The New York Review of Books explores the question, raised by James Cuno in his books Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage and Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, "[w]hy should state sovereignty determine ownership?"  In other words, why should Greece have ultimate say over what happens to pots dug up in its territory?

Instead of the tyranny of sovereignty, Cuno advocates the creation of an "international trusteeship under the auspices of a nongovernmental agency" to assume control of the world's antiquities and ensure fair and equal access by peoples worldwide to their shared heritage.

Cuno's proposal strikes me as idealistic; in reality, it's likely to manifest as a lumbering bureucracy and to be perceived as an imperialist power grab.  Cultural products unearthed in a country belong to that country for the same reason that oil found beneath the land, or lumber harvested from the country's forests, belong to it; forcing deposit of archeological finds into an international trust is not dissimilar from coercing contribution of diamonds mined in a country into an "international mineral fund" for use by the whole world.

Still, this dichotomy between socializing the world's antiquities (Cuno) and isolating them in the countries in which they were found (Italy, Turkey, China, Iraq) is markedly different than the debate over books, which largely turns on money: the vital question there is how will royalties be assessed and apportioned?

There are two principle reasons for this difference.  First, the information in books is intangible.  After your read ("consume") this blog post, the product ("information") is in no way dimished for the next consumer.  Also, a copy of my blog post (in print, on another site, etc.) is as good as the original.  This situation is markedly different from that of antiquities.  They are tangible; if a Grecian urn is in the British Museum, it cannot also be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Similarly, a copy of the Grecian urn is not a substitute; it's a fake.

The second reason is intellectual property laws.  Copyright laws apply to many books that have been, are being and will be sucked into the Google Books vortex.  No intellectual property laws apply to ancient treasures: they are (legally) in the public domain.

I am not convinced that these reasons are good enough for the difference in outcomes.  At bottom, both antiquities and books are necessary for "the promotion of an essential kind of cultural pluralism," as Eakin writes, that "use[s] art as 'a way of creating a new kind of citizen for the world'" (quoting Neil MacGregor in an essay that appears in Whose Culture?). 

People living in a globalized world need access to cultural texts and products, old and new, from around the world, in order to make sense of their existences.  Why should their access turn on the physical fact of tangibility, rather than the principle of open access?  Why should the cultural goods that are supposedly in the "public domain" be less accessible than the texts that are allegedly intellectual property?  And why should books be controlled by an entity with a profit motive, while artifacts are controlled by entities with nation-building impulses?  In both these frameworks, aren't we losing sight of the overriding principle (and similarity): namely, the human entitlement to live a life enriched by the succor and wisdom of art?

Bad books making bad law

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Having written in these posts about the manifold pleasures of reading, I must now admit that reading is not always an unmitigated pleasure.  Reading the preliminary injunction decision in Salinger v. Colting, for example, evokes in me the kind of pain I felt when I was fifteen and saw my high school boyfriend kissing the girl who got the lead in the school musical (when I was cast in a distinctly supporting role -- and one originally intended for a man). 

I love the law; I'm a rule-of-law true believer.  (I feel embarrassed making that confession, because I think true believers of any stripe are jackasses, myself being no exception.)  But I am constrained to wonder whether (with due credit to Jay Leno), if we Americans were destined to live under rule-of-law, wouldn't we have been given, oh I don't know, judges like Solomon?

Which is to say: a judge has barred publication, advertising or distribution of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, pending resolution of J.D. Salinger's lawsuit against the author of 60 Years Later, Fredrik Colting, and his publisher, Nicotext.  The decision is not a wise one.

Sadly, the factor I'd identified previously seemed to weigh heavily in the judge's opinion: namely, Colting's (apparently) poor character.  In footnote 3 of the opinion (downloadable here), the judge makes clear that she doesn't believe Colting's claim that 60 Years Later is a parody because Colting and his representatives changed their stories about the relationship between 60 Years Later and Catcher in the Rye: the characterizations ranged from "a sequel" to "a tribute" to "[it] has nothing to do with the original Catcher in the Rye."  After this flip-flopping, the court found:

It is simply not credible for Defendant Colting to assert now that his primary purpose was to critique Salinger and his persona, while he and his agents' previous statements regarding the book discuss no such critique, and in fact reference various other purposes behind the book.

(p. 21.)  Well, ok, Colting isn't integrity personified, which is not to say that he's a liar.  The author of such previous monuments to culture as, The Macho Man's Drinkbook: Because Nude Girls and Alcohol Go Great Together, might be said (possibly) to be a tad immature. 

But so what?  The court's exegesis of Colting's character and motivations loses sight of the fact that Colting's character and motivations are not factors in the copyright fair use analysis.  Nor, for that matter, is Colting self-awareness of his artistic aims. 

Artists are notoriously inarticulate about their own work.  At a book reading at Politics & Prose in D.C., I once heard E.L. Doctorow say something like, "Writers are the worst people to explain their own process of creation."  And forget visual artists; if they string words together in adjective-noun-verb sequence, we have to applaud them, even if the logical connections between the words is nil (as it typically is).

The well-established and historically pervasive inability of artists to explain their own work is one of two humanitarian justifications for the existence of critics.  (The other justification is that the profession is a jobs-creation program for sadists.)

Demanding of artists that they create works and have perfect awareness not only of what they're doing, but also how the law will categorize what they're doing is simply ridiculous.  Colting wrote a book using Catcher in the Rye as a point of departure; if his work meets the standards of parody, it should be a fair use, regardless of what Colting thought -- or said -- he was doing.

That said, I'm not without sympathy for the judge in this case.  The fair use "standard" is so indeterminate, and it guides jurists through so hollow an analysis, that simply ridiculous outcomes are the only guarantee in fair use litigation.  In these cases, indicia of the defendant having a "bad" intent provides a seemingly solid basis for a legal determination ("Who knows what art, or parody, is, but I can at least identify the skunk," thinks the judge).  Unfortunately, good artists, like good parodists, are usually skunks.

Small consolation that 60 Year Later, from the excerpts in the opinion, appears to have been written by a skunk who's not a good artist.  But, then again, who knows?  60 Years Later is written in the style of Catcher in the Rye and, among the legions of fans of Holden Caulfield's "voice," you won't find me.  I'm with James Stern on this one. 

This is Hitler. See Hitler read.

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Hitler is the poster boy for the limits of activities and practices that are supposed to be good for you.  For example, Hitler advocated vegetarianism and seems to have practiced something close to it.  He probably even ate granola.  Nonetheless, he wasn't interested in giving peace a chance.  As for the purported health benefits of a vegetarian diet, for Hitler, vegetarianism didn't impart glowing skin and glossy hair; nor did it counteract the effects of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head.

Now Hitler is exposed as an avid reader.  In Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life (reviewed by John Gross in The New York Review of Books), Hitler is revealed as a bookworm and condemned as an "autodidact, with an autodidact's limitations."

After quoting the book's epigraph, a passage from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring," Gross reflects:

The trouble was not that [Hitler] didn't drink deeply enough, but that he drank from the wrong springs. . . . It wasn't his defective learning that was dangerous, but his ideas.
I see the problem a bit differently.  Ideas, from my perspective, are neutral.  They take on positive or negative valences depending on how people make use of them.  Shielding Hitler from the idea of anti-Semitism, for example, wouldn't have protected the Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals or handicapped who also died in concentration camps, or humanized the Slavs and Russians who were characterized as animals by the Nazis.

The problem wasn't the idea of anti-Semitism, but the way Hitler responded to it.  And his response may have had something to do with the way he read.  I have been extremely enamored of an explanation put forth by Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid (reviewed by Caleb Crain in The New Yorker; shamefully I haven't read it yet) about the way reading changes human thinking.

"The secret at the heart of reading," Wolf writes, is "the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before."  According to Wolf, reading doesn't use much of the brain, allowing the rest of the gray matter to engage with the text, both rationally (e.g., interrogating the accuracy of a given statement) and irrationally (e.g., calling up emotions provoked by the text).  "The efficient reading brain," Wolf explains, "quite literally has more time to think."

Our brains don't respond the same way to video, for example.  Crain writes:

Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer's appearance, manner, and tone of voice, and they give us the impression that we know more about her health and mood, too. The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate's health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. . . . The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel. The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show.
With the caveat that one can never know what's in the mind of another, I'll hazard that Hitler can't have been engaging very strenuously with his reading material.  He seems to have been reading not to "have thoughts deeper than those that came before," but to "feel at home with his show."  Ryback "constantly reminds us [in Hitler's Private Library] of [Hitler's] intellectual shallowness," says Gross, and Gross himself labels Hitler a "lumpenintellectual."  Hitler apparently read, not for the pleasure of learning, but to bolster his insecurity.  "Cruelty, resentment, and the lust for power weren't the only things driving him.  He needed to believe in himself as a thinker as well," writes Gross.

A man who read to appear learned, and who abstained from meat in order to appear humane.  (According to Léon Degrelle, an SS general, Hitler "could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living creature.")  Perhaps Hitler is not the poster child for the limits of vegetarianism and bookishness, but instead the poster child for the hazards of cultivating a facade at the expense of the interior.  

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This page is an archive of entries from July 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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