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Dissent into madness

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Libertas Schulze-Boysen.jpg
Recently, I've stumbled across books about "good" Germans during WWII.  Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us is about the legacy of a German resistance fighter's silence regarding her war time activities.  Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra (which I haven't read, but which was reviewed recently in The NY Times Book Review) is about a network of people not dissimilar to the protagonist in Those Who Save Us.

I am intrigued and heartened by this interest in the Germans who dissented from Nazism.  The portrayal of WWII as a black-and-white battle of good against evil is one that is both tiresome and troublesome.  It's tiresome because it's not true: among other reasons, Stalin's Russia also fought against Germany, and no one could class Stalin among the forces of good.  It's troublesome because this myth of a "morally clean" war of good against evil has animated the war plans of administrations like W's.

Moreover, the examination of the people who resist (even futilely, perhaps especially those who resist futilely) is revealing of the most interesting aspects of human capacity.  Such people are, by definition, acting within a scope of choice that is severely narrow and punishingly inhumane: as Denis Lehane wrote in a recent review of Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech, "What is the ordinary man to do when his very existence makes him an apparatchik of institutionalized sadism?" 

These people who, existing in regimes that transform daily life into complicity with crimes against humanity, manage to muster the integrity and courage to fight back have so much to teach us.  They have achieved an inspired disconnect from their societies that allows them to act in ways that are, from the perspective of survival, profoundly irrational and yet, from the vantage point of living, are deeply wise. 

The beautiful woman pictured here, Libertas Schulze-Boysen, was beheaded by the Nazis for gathering photographs that documented their atrocities.  Red Orchestra recounts that she died pleading, "Let me keep my young life!"  The poignancy of her words derives from how manifestly she has miscalculated her audience.  I'm no romantic, but I can't help but see a role model in her misguided example.

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Dream sequences: not just for David Lynch

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According to Jonathan Lethem -- and I have to rely on him because I wouldn't know what they teach in writing school -- "the foremost writing-school rules" include proscriptions "against dream sequences," among other common (cliché) literary devices.

Frankly, I was surprised to read this.  Dreams, like falling in love, are a profound experience of the irrational common to all humans.  Banning dreams from literature is like forbidding female characters in novels from crying.  I understand the rationale: the idea (in both cases) is to prevent authors from getting lazy and taking easy routes to conveying information.  But shouldn't the lesson be to be more creative about dream sequences -- and female bawling scenes -- rather than decreeing a literary world absent of quotidian experiences of the irrational?

I was reminded of Lethem's comment after I read a terrific dream sequence in Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us.  (In fairness to Lethem, he mentioned the proscription against dream scenes in the course of praising Roberto Bolaño for violating it.)  In the dream, Trudy, the protagonist, envisions a Santa Claus in the kitchen, making a mess.  When she confronts him, he unbuttons his shirt, showing it to be stuffed with tempting food dishes.  Then he says,

    Come, sit down, he says, and tell me: Have you been a good girl this year?
    No, says Trudy.  No, no, no --
    He cocks his head.  Yes? he says, as if he hasn't heard her.  Good.  Then I will show you a little something.
    He rises from the chair and starts to undo the buttons of these trousers as well.
    Stop it, Trudy shouts.  I don't want to see!
    He parts the cloth and holds it open, standing at attention.  He wears nothing underneath, and his stomach and pubic hair are smeared with dark blood.
    You see, I am not Santa, he says.  I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please.

(p. 188.)  That last line, "I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please," stayed with me for days, blindsiding me in the shower or shadowing me as I took a walk.  Blum's dream sequence tapped my visceral vein, just as a vivid and disturbing dream would in life.

Provoking a gut response with written stimulus is hard -- maybe the hardest feat in literature.  (The author who does this best, in my opinion, is D.M. Thomas in The White Hotel.  But for sheer frequency, the crown no doubt goes to Stephen King.)  Learning how to transcend the page and worm into the reader's gut is a skill that, so far as I can glean, can't be taught.  One stumbles onto by following one's instinct.  Blum reached it through a dream scene. 

If that diminishes her accomplishment in writing school, I'd suggest skipping the writing school.

Adventuress absolute

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Beryl Markham & Percival Gull.jpgWest with the Night is not as compelling as the persona it depicts of its author.  The book has no plot, and I'm a reader who loves plot.  It meanders non-chronologically through a series of testosterone-laden topics: flying, hunting, race horses . . . and then more on hunting and flying.  There's an entire chapter ("Royal Exile") written (mistakenly, in my perspective) from the point of view of a horse.  There's no mention of men she's loved, sex she's had, women friends who were important to her.  She doesn't mention her mother.  As Martha Gellhorn observes in her introduction, West with the Night leaves many questions unanswered (p. ix).

But whatever the failings of the book, I wanted to keep reading it because Beryl Markham comes through the text as so palpably fascinating a person.  I felt like I was having coffee with a person who, regardless of whether I liked her, transfixed me.  Not that Markham seems unlikable in the book . . . just remote.  Unknown.  Unbelievable.  She'd lived through a number of confrontations with lions, had been thrown from horses, trained champion thoroughbred racers, pioneered the use of planes in safaris, flew across the Atlantic by herself, wrote an elusive and fluid memoir -- how could a person of her many and varied talents, courage and insight exist?

West with the Night
is all voice.  Whether fact or fiction, her voice is so compelling that I wanted to keep listening.  Time after time in the course of reading, I was jolted by a frisson of recognition, identification or empathy:

"Oxygen to a sick miner.  But this flight is not heroic.  It is not even romantic.  It is a job of work, a job to be done at an uncomfortable hour with sleep in my eyes and half a grumble on my lips."  (p. 13.)

"It is really this that makes death so hard -- curiosity unsatisfied."  (p. 25.)

"He remained a man of mystery, without age or youth, but burdened with experience, like the wandering Jew."  (p. 61.)

"If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work."  (p. 153.)

"I have had responsibilities and work, dangers and pleasure, good friends, and a world without walls to live in."  (p. 239.)

"There is no hell like uncertainty."  (p. 255.)

"The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all."  (p. 283.)

Given how strongly Markham speaks to me, I am cautiously pessimistic about her fate: three times married and divorced, chronically impoverished, called a "high-grade bitch" by Ernest Hemingway, a man who fraternized with her friends; always distinct and apart.  I have no doubt that Beryl Markham had no regrets, but my own sake I wish her example was less severe.

(Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery)
A resonant thought after reading The Feast of the Goat is the remarkable similarity of the characteristics and crimes of autocratic regimes.  Trujillo's accomplishment was reducing the citizenry of the Dominican Republic to a state where -- in the view of Mario Vargas Llosa -- their only remaining hope of dignity was to die nobly.  That horrendous state was the hallmark of all the worst regimes of the 20th century (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Pinochet, Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, P.W. Botha -- the list is shamefully long, and this assembly is under-inclusive). 

It's not to the U.S.'s credit that, of the people it has placed in this state in the last eight years, most have not been its own citizens.

Staring down Trujillo

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Mario Vargas Llosa does it all: page turners, tight plots, effortlessly-readable sentences; full-bodied, fleshed out characters; global locales; exploration of the big, literary themes.  Vargas Llosa pins the world beneath his pen, compelling it to stop turning just long enough for you to take it all in greedily, reading.

I've heard The Feast of the Goat, which I have just finished, described as his best book, and although I haven't read as deeply into the Vargas Llosa oeuvre as I will, I feel confident that The Feast of the Goat -- though captivating -- will not be my favorite.  The Feast of the Goat can be characterized as being, in some respects, a novelistic equivalent of the Red Cross report on torture in Guantanamo: no matter how important, correct, thought-provoking, and well-written it is, you still wish it didn't exist.

But for all the horror, Vargas Llosa's insights into the human condition are compelling.  One aspect of The Feast of the Goat that particularly interested me was Vargas Llosa's depiction of the slow "deaths" people in the Dominican Republic "died" by way of having their personalities and integrity eroded and corrupted by the Trujillo regime.  As Vargas Llosa writes about Antonio de la Maza, one of Trujillo's assassins, Trujillo had "killed [de la Maza] in stages, taking away his decency, his honor, his self-respect, his joy in living, his hopes and desires, turning him into a sack of bones tormented by the guilty conscience that had been destroying him gradually for so many years."  (p. 90.)

Having lived for more than four years in China, I've seen people stumbling around in this state of slow death, and I've felt -- far at a distance, but still perceptible; still necessary to resist -- the pressures of an autocratic regime.  My knee-jerk thought, reading Vargas Llosa's description of the slow death of Antonio de la Maza, was that de la Maza was too passive.  How can Trujillo "take away his deceny, his honor, his self-respect"? I thought.  De la Maza has to fight for those qualities, stand up for himself.  ("Oppression . . . takes two," writes Waltern Kirn, reviewing The Feast of the Goat for The New York Times Book Review.)  That's why we admire people with moral integrity: it's a quality that's only obtained by being tested and challenged.

But after my first impression thinking mellowed, I reflected that a "slow death" is aptly named; like it's faster counterpart, resistance is futile.  The human capacity for living is a complex thing, with invisible parts and irrational aspects that can weigh as heavily as the biological.  And it's surprisingly tender.  Even a domestic tyrant can choke off an individual from the artery of life.  Disappointments of a magnitude far smaller than the 31 vile years of the Trujillo regime can leave a person in a state of slow death, cradling a part in need of mourning, infuriated that the remainder is expected to carry on as before, though no longer whole.

Vargas Llosa's view of the slow death is severe: it's not metaphoric; what it kills is dead forever.  Antonio de la Maza, already dead in all but his physical state at the book's opening, hoped that assassinating Trujillo would, in some way, resurrect him by making him worthy of living.  But Vargas Llosa takes a dim view of a revenge as a restorative.  De la Maza dies in a storm of bullets, and in the characters of Ramfis Trujillo and Urania Cabral, Vargas Llosa depicts vengeance as ruining its practitioners. 

For de la Maza and his brethren, Vargas Llosa sees only one possibility of redemption: the dignity and nobility with which they end their physical existences.  After the assassination, Ramfis Trujillo rounds up most of the assasins -- and their families -- and tortures them with an extremity of cruelty that sickens.  De la Maza is already physically dead by this time in the book, but his father Don Vicente de la Maza is imprisoned and tortured.  When Ramfis confronts Don Vicente with news of his son's death, Don Vicente asks only, "Did he die fighting?"  When Ramfis nods, the father replies, "Thank you, Lord!"  (p. 338.)

Appreciating such expert depictions of the worst extremes of human capacity is not easy.  Like the Domincans who, repeatedly in The Feast of the Goat, couldn't hold Trujillo's gaze, the impulse when confronting a feast of horrors on the scale of Trujillo's regime is to look away.  Vargas Llosa's adeptness at compelling our attention is impossible not to admire.

Philosophy's new clothes

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My most abiding response to Sophie's World is surprise at how narrow the history of philosophy is (in Jostein Gaarder's telling).  The most basic assertion of philosophy is that the "big" questions -- who are you? where does the world come from? -- are universal to humans.  As Gaarder writes in Sophie's Word, "[T]here is something else . . . which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here."  (p. 14.)  And yet the history that Gaarder writes of the answers to those two questions focuses on the responses of a small group of white men hailing from a sliver of the world's geography. 

I say this not to raise an issue of political correctness, but to question the fundaments of philosophy.  If these questions are universal to humans, why does our history record answers from only so few?  The most obvious possibilities are either that (1) the questions are not universal, (2) that there's a recording problem with the answers, or (3) philosophy has failed to recognize answers to these questions that are offered in another format or under the rubric of another discipline (e.g., myths, political theory, theology).

Is it possible that people don't ask who they are and where the world comes from?  One way of rephrasing this question is to ask if we can we find a society without a creation myth?  Such a society apparently exists: the Pirahã in the Amazon have no identifiable creation myth (as documented in this New Yorker article and this Guardian piece).  The Pirahã also seem not to have a sense of time, which is a likely explanation for why no one in their society asked what existence was like before the Pirahã.

But most societies have a sense of time, along with creation myths.  Are there nonetheless people in those societies that don't ask who they are and where the world comes from?  Without having conducted any empirical research on the question, I'd venture to say "yes."  Asking these questions requires a degree of self-awareness; and self-awareness isn't as common to the human condition as, say, phlegm. 

Gaarder might disagree with me.  In Sophie's World, Gaarder argues that the capacity for wonder is innate in children, and society drums it out of them: "Although philosophical questions concern us all . . . . [f]or various reasons most people get so caught up in everyday affairs that their astonishment at the world gets pushed into the background."  (p. 19.) 

My own perspective is that the process often works in the reverse: absent awareness raising at the outset, people won't necessarily ask "who am I?" and "where does the world come from?"  In my own view, the capacity for wonder, like compassion, is innate only in varying degrees in different individuals, and it must be cultivated.  Sophie's World is itself an account of such calculated cultivation.

Moving on to the second question, is it possible that there are some recording problems with the answers?  I feel confident in saying that oral cultures got the shaft when the history of philosophy was compiled.  Without a written record, oral cultures faced problems preserving their thougths and communicating them across geography, time and language. Whether anything can be done to restore the knowlegdge banks of oral cultures is doubtful -- these repositories largely exist only in the memories of the long-dead -- but the issue of this "lost" contribution to human thinking shades into the third question as well:

Is it possible that the history of philosophy hasn't recognized answers to its questions that were offered in different formats, or under the rubric of different disciplines?  In Sophie's World, Gaarder includes coverage of Darwin, Marx and Freud, people who are not primarily associated with the discipline of philosophy, so perhaps Gaarder would reject my third question.  But I believe the challenge remains.  Aside from Gaarder's exclusion of obvious candidates, like Confucius and Buddha (there are passing references to him, but nothing in depth), Gaarder doesn't confront the fact that modes of thinking in societies vary depending on whether the society is an oral or literate one.

"Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness," writes Walter Ong, a Jesuit priest and English professor, in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy.  People in literate cultures think differently; they organize information and construct the world in patterns that diverge from those that predominate in oral cultures.  Thus, they may ask different questions; and even if the questions are the same, the answers will certainly be different.  A thousand years ago, the Kyrgz tribe answered the question "who are we?" with the epic poem, Manas.  Is it philosophy?  Probably not.  Does it belong in the history of human thought about philosophical questions?  Probably yes.

From this brief examination of these three questions, the shape of an answer to my original question -- why does the history of philosophy include answers from such a narrow range of humanity? -- begins to emerge.  Specifically, before an individual will offer answers to philosophical questions that qualify for inclusion in the history of philosophy, he or she must live in a culture that:
  • has a sense of time;
  • creates conditions for the cultivation of wonder (or, alternatively, creates conditions that don't squash a sense of wonder innately present in an individual);
  • is literate.
Undoubtedly there are more factors, but this is (an already too long) blog post, not a treatise, so let's leave it at those three.  The important point, however, is that philosophy's claims for universality seem rather frail.  If we can't even say that every human society experiences time, or has a creation myth, how can we agree with Kant's theory (as phrased by Gaarder) that "moral law has the same absolute validity as the physical laws. . . . It applies to all people in all societies at all times."  (p. 330.)  It's an intriguing idea -- and one that might even be to some extent right, if an innate sense of fairness can be equated with morality -- but Kant based his assertion on only the slenderest sampling of human culture and society, which either makes his claims for the power of reason either absurdly arrogant or pitiably silly.

And here, perhaps, is the practical answer to the question of why the history of philosophy includes answers from such a limited range of people: philosophy's insistence on the supremacy of human reason and the universality of its application to humanity, regardless of evidence (or its absence), appeals to a particular kind of ego that often goes by another name: asshole.

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