Review: Miles, the Autobiography

Review: Miles, the Autobiography

On a hot day a few summers ago, I took a trip to Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, with my dad. It is an enormous place, so even with the official map it took some time to find who we were looking for. Eventually we stopped the car and got out to front a large black slab, inscribed with two bars of music, so shiny that we could see our own reflections in it. This was the tomb of “Sir” Miles Davis (he was a member of the Knights of Malta), the man who had helped inspire my dad to devote himself to jazz bass.

Through my dad’s influence, I have been listening to jazz all my life (though not always intentionally), and I have come to know and love most of the great names. Some of them were right there in the cemetery: Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins. It was with this background that I approached Miles Davis’s autobiography, and I loved every minute of it.

The magic of this book is the skill with which Quincy Troupe has captured Miles’s voice. He is completely there, in all his profane glory (much to the chagrin of some readers). This, combined with an uncanny impersonation by Dion Graham in the audiobook, makes you feel like you are right in the room with him. But of course the person who ultimately deserves the credit is Miles himself, for agreeing to the project, and for being just so uncompromisingly blunt. His raw honesty is what makes this into a great autobiography.

And if you are in any way a jazz fan, this is a real feast. Miles knew close to everybody. From the very beginning of his career, he was thrown in with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, right at the center of the Bebop world. His stories of Charlie Parker alone—who seems to prefigure Miles in many ways—are worth the price of the book. After his early years, Miles becomes a bandleader, and helps to launch the careers of many other musical giants: Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock… In short, for decades Miles’s career was at the very center of jazz history. And more often than not, he was at the vanguard.

But this book is not just namedropping and a few memorable anecdotes. As I said, Miles the man really comes alive in these pages, and that means, most of all, his love for the music. Near the end of the book, he describes himself as having “musical demons,” and I think that is an apt description of the way that music ruled his life. It really seemed to open up the finest part of his nature: not only in pure musical expression, but also in his treatment of other musicians. Despite his mean reputation, he is generosity itself when discussing the accomplishments of his fellows, and does not stint on praise. This is what, I think, made him such an effective bandleader—he could really appreciate different sorts of musical gifts.

The dark side to an overwhelming obsession like this is that it leaves little in your life for other things. This is apparent in his often abysmal—indeed, abusive—treatment of the women in his life. This is perhaps even more apparent in his behavior as a father—or lack thereof, as his four children are barely mentioned at all in the book (he takes time to criticize two of his sons, though admits he had not been much of a father). Another major theme is drug abuse—an occupational hazard of touring musicians, I suppose—which ebbs and flows throughout his life. Indeed, his substance abuse and mistreatment of women often go hand in hand, as he depends on women either to enable his habit or to help him get clean. Suffice to say that this isn’t the autobiography of a saint.

The final impression is of a deeply restless man. He was never fully satisfied, and never content to sit on his laurels. This is what enabled him to stay musically innovative for so long, this constant searching. It is only near the end of his life that he seems to achieve a modicum of peace, and he accomplished this by turning to painting—another creative outlet that would make the musical demons quiet down. (I quite like his paintings, actually.)

As far as political opinions go, there really is only one Miles expresses, but he does so over and over: That white Americans are stealing black culture—copying styles of music and making millions off of them. Now, to me, this seems to be an obvious fact, as it has repeatedly happened throughout the course of history, most notoriously with Elvis Presley. So I cannot fault him for being resentful. I also think Miles is onto something when he says that black music is America’s one great contribution to world culture.

I picked up this book feeling curious, and put it down nearly obsessed with Miles. It is worth reading because he was one of the major musical forces of the last century, but also because it is simply a great autobiography by any standard. Miles was a complex, and contradictory person, and the book seems to capture his every vice and virtue, and even his living voice. I wish it were longer.

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Since Rick Steves has taken over my life lately—don’t ask—I decided to see how all his travelling has affected his politics. I was sort of afraid, given his background, that this book would be little more than a collection banalities and platitudes (“make friends with people from other cultures,” “don’t think your way is the only way,” and that sort of thing); but this book surprised me by being genuinely, well, political. Steves has definite opinions and a real message—with a few platitudes thrown in, too, of course.

It should be noted that, like almost everything Steves writes, this book is primarily for Americans. Many of his “lessons” will be obvious to people who live elsewhere. For example, he begins with a good chapter on the wars in former Yugoslavia. He paints a vivid picture of the how the Balkan countries are still scarred by the conflict—including a woman who still has a piece of shrapnel in her back. His point is simple: most Americans don’t know what it is like to be in a war, and seeing its effects up close might make us reconsider our proclivity to bomb and invade other countries.

Some of the content is to be expected by any thoughtful American who has travelled in Europe. It is hard not to think at least some aspects of life overseas are superior: public transport, social healthcare, bike-friendly cities, long vacations, family leave… the list goes on. I would add the lack of guns. After you spend some time in a country where you can be sure the vast majority of people—criminals included—do not have guns, the entire “debate” in the United States is immediately seen to be silly. When Americans argue that guns increase personal safety and ensure political freedom, the rest of the world simply laughs.

Steves is strongest on drug policy. He notes the many European countries which have substituted a public safety for a law enforcement model with drugs, and makes a strong case that it is both more humane and more effective than just locking people up. The travel writer is not just all talk, either, since he helped to promote and sponsor the bill to legalize marijuana in his home state of Washington. This is another excellent example of how travel can affect one’s politics, since the first time you travel to a country where marijuana is legal to consume, and notice that the sky isn’t falling, you wonder if it’s really worth imprisoning people for doing so.

The chapters on Iran and on the Holy Land were classic Rick Steves. They were both attempts to understand a conflict (between the US and Iran, and between Israel and Palestine) from a less partisan perspective. It is perhaps extremely naïve to think that by simply getting to know ordinary people “on the other side,” so to speak, we can reduce antagonism. As Steves himself makes clear, there are historical and structural forces at work, which push peoples into conflict. Nevertheless, I find it heartwarming that he so earnestly tries to focus on the ordinary humanity of these peoples, rather than on the political narratives. It is something we see all too little in conventional news.

The chapter on El Salvador was perhaps the most impressive. The United States’ interventions—often violent and undemocratic—in Latin American politics is something that most Americans are hardly aware of. It is an uncomfortable history to say the least, and only figures such as Noam Chomsky routinely talk about it. But Steves travelled to El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War, and several times after that, to see our foreign policy with his own eyes. He even had his travel diary printed and sent to members of Congress, in a bid (albeit an idealistic one) to stop American interference.

By the end, for someone who could easily have spent his life eating gelato for the camera, Steves is shown to be a man of strong convictions. Of course, the book is not perfect. Steves is prone to falling into stereotypes when he compares Europeans and Americans; and, not being an expert on anything he writes about, his analysis can be fairly superficial. And of course there is the trademark cheesy Rick Steves style—that is inevitable. But I think this book is valuable for voicing some opinions that are likely to be quite unpopular among many Americans, and for doing so in a way that is accessible and friendly. Maybe travel really is enlightening? Now, if we could only figure out how to fly without creating greenhouse gases…



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Krakow and the Wieliczka Salt Mines

Krakow and the Wieliczka Salt Mines

The plane—Ryanair, unfortunately—landed well after dark. My brother and I quickly extracted some złoty from an ATM and then got into a taxi. The driver was a friend of our Airbnb host. Quite polite and charming, he asked us about where we were from, and a halting conversation began.

“Man, it’s really cold,” I observed, lamely, during a lull.

“Yes,” he said in his thick accent. “In Poland, we have winter.”

Indeed, he was right: it was winter. In fact, this was the last weekend of February 2020, right before the pandemic turned the world on its head. Though I was blissfully unaware of it at the time, this trip would prove to be my last gasp of “normalcy”—and, at least until now, my final European trip outside of Spain. But at the time, I only noticed that it was awfully cold compared to Madrid.

We had left for Poland as soon as we had gotten out of work. As a result, by the time we made it into our room, it was past midnight, and we only had the energy to crawl into bed and pass out.


The next day we awoke, dazed and still a little cold, ready to explore Krakow.

But first, breakfast. For this, we stopped by a food stand and got some obwarzanki krakowskie, the so-called Krakow bagel. Unlike the bagels I am used to, this version is thinner, saltier, and crunchier—almost like a cross between a bagel and a soft pretzel. Very tasty and affordable. After this wholesome repast, we wandered toward Krakow’s old center.

Like many cities in Europe, Krakow has a history that stretches back to medieval times, and beyond. And like many beautiful cities, a certain set of circumstances conspired to build up and preserve the place. The first necessary step is to enjoy a golden age of artistic creation—either through commerce, or by being the seat of political power, or preferably both—and it just so happens that Poland’s so-called golden age occurred when Krakow was the capital of the country. Then, importantly, political power shifted elsewhere (to Warsaw), leaving many impressive buildings to weather the centuries, bereft of their original importance. Finally, and crucially, Krakow was lucky enough to survive the desolation of modern warfare. While Warsaw was blown to smithereens, Krakow remained relatively unscathed during the Second World War. Thus it is that the city has the look and charm of a medieval capital.

The first thing to catch our eyes was the Grunwald Monument. This is an enormous equestrian statue of the Polish king Władysław II Jagiełło (don’t ask me to pronounce it), who forged an alliance with Lithuania and defeated the Teutons (Germans) in the battle of Grunwald. This epochal battle, which took place in 1410, is said to mark the beginning of Poland’s golden age; and the monument was erected 500 years later, in 1910, to commemorate this symbol of Polish pride. Unsurprisingly, when the Nazis invaded, they could not abide the sight of a monument to a German defeat; so they did what Nazis do, and destroyed it. The monument was rebuilt in 1976—and may it be forever a symbol of Poles triumphing over Germans.

Nearby is the barbican. This is a kind of fortress that once formed an important part of the city’s defenses. Though we did not go inside, a single glance was enough to reveal an imposing and, in a way, a beautiful structure—with gothic spires jutting out over the solid brick walls. I would hate to have been the poor soldier tasked with capturing it. The original medieval walls are also preserved nearby, which encircle the old center of Krakow. We proceeded through the gate, and down a long avenue—Floriańska Street—filled with touristy shops and American fast food, until we reached the Rynek Główny, which is just Polish for “Main Square.” It is a grand, open space, filled with pigeons, tourists, and stately buildings.

Prominent among these is the Town Hall Tower, a gothic clock tower that—as its name suggests—once formed a part of the town hall. For better or worse, the rest of the town hall was demolished in 1820 in order to open up the Main Square. Much more modest in stature is the Church of St. Adalbert, a relatively small church with modest decorations inside. Yet it is distinguished for being one of the oldest stone churches in the country, having been built in the 11th century. Nearby is the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, a large sculptural assembly that may be the best place to meet somebody if you want an easy-to-find landmark. Adam Mickiewicz, by the way, can perhaps be considered the national bard of Poland. (One day, I hope to read his epic poem, Pan Tadeusz.) Right in the center of the square is Cloth Hall, a lovely Renaissance building that once served as a kind of medieval stock exchange, though for spices and fabrics instead of stocks and bonds. Nowadays it is a touristy market.

Yet the loveliest building of the bunch, for me, is St. Mary’s Basilica. Like the cathedral at Chartres, this basilica has two unmatching towers, which rise splendidly over the main square. The interior is even more impressive than the relatively unadorned façade. Pride of place undoubtedly belongs to the magnificent wooden altarpiece, carved by one Veit Stross. As you may have guessed from his name, Stross was a German; yet his masterpiece has—ironically, perhaps—become an icon of the Polish identity. Even more ironically, this artistic treasure was stolen by the Nazis, only to be found in the basement of the Nuremberg Castle (a city, as it happens, where Stross also lived and worked). Passing over the other lovely works of art in the basilica—most notably, Jan Matejko’s murals—I must mention the hejnał mariacki, a bugle call played every hour, twenty-four hours a day, from the taller tower. It is a beautiful melody that ends awkwardly and abruptly, in honor of a bugler who was, supposedly, shot in the throat by an arrow during an attack by the Mongols, in the 13th century.

The altar was being restored when I visited.

Next we made our way to another edge of the old town, to a hill overlooking the river Vistula. This is Wawel, a large building complex that includes a castle and a cathedral. It is an architecturally jumbled place, with buildings from every major stage of Poland’s history. One highlight is the arcades in the Italian Renaissance-style courtyard, constructed under the reign of Sigismund the Old (1506 – 1548). This old Sigismund, along with the younger one, are buried in a resplendent chapel in the cathedral. Yet old as he was, Sigismund was not the first king to be buried in this august place, that distinction belonging to Władysław I the Elbow-high, so called because of his short stature. This cathedral, as it happens, also has two unmatching towers; and while not as beautiful as St. Mary’s, Wawel Cathedral makes up for it with its many royal bodies.

Leaving the old town now, we visited the nearby neighborhood of Kazimierz. This part of town is now most famous—partly thanks to the movie Schindler’s List, which was filmed here—for its Jewish culture. But Kazimierz was never exclusively Jewish, as you can see from the many churches, such as the impressively pointy Corpus Christi Basilica.

The Old Synagogue.

Though this part of the city was looted and destroyed by the Nazis, and then further devasted by the Red Army, many examples of Jewish culture survive. Foremost among these is the Old Synagogue, which is part temple and part fortress, with thick walls built to protect those inside. Constructed in the 15th century, it is the oldest synagogue in the country. Aside from the many synagogues and Jewish restaurants, there are also many reminders of the oppression suffered by this community under the Nazis. A plaque affixed to a stone invites onlookers to meditate on the tens of thousands of Jews from Krakow killed during the Second World War. A short walk across the Vistula brings you to another monument, this one consisting of empty metal chairs, which commemorates the former Jewish ghetto (the Nazis forced the Jewish population to leave Kazimierz and live in this ghetto, where conditions were so bad that most did not survive).

Nearby is the famous factory of Oskar Schindler. If you have seen the movie (I actually haven’t, come to think of it), you know the story: Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, dedicated enormous resources and energy in order to keep the Jewish workers of his factory safe, thus saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews. The factory is now part memorial, part museum. You can see Schindler’s old desk, examples of the enamelware they produced, as well as exhibits on the history of Krakow—including a good deal of information about World War II and the Holocaust. It is an ideal place to learn about some of the more recent history of the city.

To learn about some more distant history, the place to go is the Rynek Underground. As its name suggests, this is a subterranean museum, to be found below the Main Square (it took us a few minutes to locate the entrance). This museum is situated in an archeological site, where the remains of the medieval city are still visible. Rather than just letting the old bricks and rocks do the talking, however, the curators opted for holograms, wherein daily scenes of medieval life (recreated by actors) are projected onto the scene. I am not sure that it was particularly educational, but it was interesting. My favorite part of the museum, ironically, was near the end of the visit, where a documentary of the history of Krakow is simply played on repeat. It was quite well-made, I thought, and taught me more than the actual exhibits had.

This fairly well did it for our time in Krakow. Yet the Rynek Underground did not prove to be the most interesting thing we saw below the earth that trip.


Wieliczka Salt Mines

The train from Krakow dropped us in the town of Wieliczka in a little under an hour. Having a bit of time to kill before our timed entry, we went on a short stroll of the town. It is quite a pretty place, with brightly colored buildings spread out in the valley—though not particularly exciting. Surely, few tourists would go out of their way to visit this place if not for the enormous mine below the ground.

Finally, it was time for us to enter. For reasons that soon become obvious, it is only possible to visit the mines in a group. For one, the descent to the main level of the mine is long; and there are so many passages that it would be easy to get hopelessly disoriented and lost. For another thing, there are quite a number of precipitous chasms that the unwary traveler could easily trip into. In a word, the Wieliczka Salt Mines are big—over 300 meters (1,000 feet) below the earth, and whose chambers and tunnels, if laid end to end, would cover the same distance between Krakow and Warsaw. The guided tour covers a mere fraction of this enormous extent. Thus, to visit you need a guide.

Descending into the mine.

Now, considering that I did not even know beforehand that salt is mined, you can imagine that this experience was a revelation to me. The walls of the tunnels are brownish gray, nothing like the crystalline white familiar to cooks. This salt is truly ancient, having been formed in seabeds eons ago. Through the churning of the earth’s tectonic plates, this oceanic salt has ended up many hundreds of miles from the nearest coast. Apparently sick of bland cabbage and potatoes, Poles have been mining salt here since the 13th century. (The smaller Bochnia Salt Mine, located nearby, is slightly older.) The salt is mined much as anything else might be: by tunneling into rich veins, extracting as much as possible with picks and shovels, and then hurling it back up to the surface where (I presume) it can be processed into something more attractive than its raw, rocky state. For much of its history this work was carried out by man-power alone; but eventually horses were brought down into the tunnels, to perform some of the drudgery in literally abysmal conditions.

Nowadays the horses are just models.

One cannot discuss the history of these mines without mention of Casimir III the Great. One of the most important and pivotal rulers in the country’s history (he ruled from 1333 to 1370), he was instrumental in the development of these mines. This was no disinterested gesture, however, as up to a third of the royal revenues were derived from salt. In the medieval world, salt was big business. Another famous name that must be mentioned is that of Nicolaus Copernicus. (That is the latinized version of his name; in Polish—his country of birth—his name is Mikołaj Kopernik.) He is the first known person to visit the mines as a tourist, and he was followed by many more over the centuries. Thus, even though salt production stopped in 1996, Wieliczka is still a gold mine—pardon the pun—of tourism, with over a million visitors per year. 

A salty last supper.

Yet the reason that Wieliczka became so popular is not because tunnels and salt are so fascinating. It is, simply, a beautiful place. Over the years, talented miners have carved works of art into the walls—humorous statues, religious figures, historical personages. There are four entire chapels, one of them as impressive as a cathedral, complete with a chandelier adorned with salt crystals. Another highlight is an underground lake, eerily blue in the artificial light of the cavern, whose water is so saturated with salt that it is probably quite toxic. And then there are the massive scaffolds that seem to go endlessly on into the bowels of the earth.

Yes, that is salt.

This fairly well wraps up my trip to Poland. But I would be remiss if I ended this post without mentioning the food. Though most people do not think of Eastern Europe as a garden of culinary delights, I must say that every single thing I ate in Krakow was scrumptious. The pierogies, the soups, the fried pork cutlets, the potato pancakes, and, yes, even the cabbage—it was all terrific. (I would like to single out the restaurant Domowe Przysmaki for special praise.) One night, my brother and I walked out of the center of town to visit a food cart selling nothing but grilled kielbasa, and it was worth the cold and the long line. The fresh ingredients and bright flavors of Mediterranean cuisine get all of the attention, but if you ask me the salty, vinegary, smoky flavors of Poland are just as satisfying.

Considering everything I mentioned in this post, along with the opportunity to visit Auschwitz (detailed in another post), I would say that this is one of the most interesting and rewarding corners of Europe for the traveler. 

Review: The Dawn of Everything

Review: The Dawn of Everything

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on…

This is a difficult book to review. Not only is it long and extremely ambitious, it is also a beguiling mixture of strengths and weaknesses that are difficult to untangle. To begin with, this book is not, as its title promises, a history of humanity; and considering that the book only examines the past 10,000 years, it is also not about the dawn of humanity, much less everything. Really, this book has a far more focused purpose: to dismantle the standard narrative of how humans went from hunter-gatherers to urban-dwelling agriculturalists.

The standard narrative—as found in many popular books, from Steven Pinker to Jared Diamond to Yuval Noah Harari—goes something like this: In the beginning, humans were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, taking only what they needed from their environments. Only the most rudimentary technologies were employed; yet there was no war, no poverty, no oppression, no office jobs, no television commercials, no taxes, no bureaucracy, no robo-calls—in short, it was a simple time.

Now, depending on whether you follow Rousseau or Hobbes, you may differ as to whether you consider such a state of affairs a paradise or a slaughterhouse, and thus you may think that the switch to city life was a fall from grace or a stairway to heaven. But both camps agree that agriculture implies hierarchy, since the extra resources freed up some members of the group to do things other than just gather food; and once there was specialization, there had to be people to coordinate the specialists—in a word, leaders, middle-managers, and bureaucrats. Thus, the egalitarian band of hunter-gatherers eventually became the walled city controlled by an oligarchy, or the great empire ruled by a monarchy, or the insurance office run by the regional manager.

The simplest way to characterize this book is that it is a long refutation of this narrative. The authors do this by citing counter-example after counter-example from the archaeological record. This is where the book is most entertaining, as a great many of these archaeological anecdotes are both surprising and fascinating. By citing this evidence, the authors attempt to show, first, that hunter-gatherers did not all have the roaming lifestyle or the total lack of social structure that is often projected onto them. Elaborate burials and, most conspicuously, large stone monuments paint quite a different story of our ancestors.

The authors go on to show that the transition to farming was not sudden, nor did it immediately lead to dramatic social changes. Many communities, they aver, practiced a kind of limited farming for centuries before they became full-time agriculturalists. Furthermore, there is no necessary connection between the switch to city life and the rise of hierarchy, or the rise of empires and the invention of bureaucracy. In a nutshell, the authors contend that the main characteristics of the modern state—centralized leadership, a monopoly on violence, an administration to carry out laws, and so on—are a kind of constellation of social features, all of which have diverse and, often, quite unrelated origins, and which only came together to form the modern state gradually. To put the matter most succinctly, then, our world of nation states was not the inevitable outcome of a deterministic process.

Now, summarizing the book in the above manner is not exactly fair. The central thesis of the book is all too often in the background, and the reader is instead swimming through a sea of examples and ideas, struggling to spot land. This is both a vice and a virtue, since many of these observations, arguments, and examples—though leading off in a thousand directions from the central path—are quite intriguing. Still, it does often feel as though the authors are trying to take on the entire world, criticizing everything from the naming of epochs in archaeological literature to the academic treatment of feminist theories of prehistory. Interesting, yes, but a little distracting.

How to evaluate the book, then? As an attack on a commonly held myth of how humans went from agriculturalists to urbanites, it is successful. At the very least, the authors convince us that prehistory is an awful lot more complex and compelling than the simple, linear narratives we often project onto it. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering to what extent this myth predominates in the academic community. After all, the direct targets of the authors’ criticism are popular writers, whose specialty is not even prehistory (Pinker, Diamond, etc.). When academia is mentioned, the authors portray researchers as so hopelessly specialized, or so beholden to prejudices, as to be unable to see the big picture. Is that true? Regardless, I do think this book has a lot to offer the interested layperson, at least. It is a successful popularization of archaeology.

Yet it would be remiss of me not to mention the obvious political motivations of the authors. Both of them anarchists, this book can be read as one long justification of their beliefs. It is as if they are saying, “See? Humans don’t have to life in states, with huge bureaucracies and oppressive hierarchies!” But I do not think this was necessarily a good rhetorical strategy for promoting their philosophy. For one, when we are considering what we should do now, today, in a sense it does not matter whether humans lived in this or that place, at this or that time, in an approximately anarchist manner. History is not destiny. What is more, the societies the authors discuss are so totally unlike our own—in terms of scale, technology, and accumulated history—that it does not seem particularly relevant, anyway. (I am not, you understand, arguing against anarchism here, only the rather heavy-handed role their sympathies played in the writing of the book.)

While somewhat overbearing, disorganized, and not altogether convincing, as a corrective to many other popular accounts of human history, this book is valuable indeed.



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A Visit to Auschwitz

A Visit to Auschwitz

The train slowed as it approached its destination. Outside, I could see a bleak landscape of dead trees, soggy fields of gray, covered with a haze of fog. We were in Oświęcim, Poland, about an hour’s train ride from Krakow. It was a cold February day in 2020, and we had arrived to visit Auschwitz.

The walk from the station to the former concentration camp was brief. Beside the road, the remains of the old railroad tracks used to transport prisoners were preserved. After showing our tickets at the entrance (it is strongly recommended to book them in advance), we were ushered inside and, within minutes, our tour of the complex had commenced.

The tour guide was a young Polish man who spoke excellent English. From his somber tone, it was immediately clear what kind of tour this was: a visit to the site of a historical atrocity. Still, I could not resist taking a photograph of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate. Though this slogan—German for “Work sets you free”—seems to be a kind of sick joke, according to historian Laurence Rees, it was placed there without any sense of irony by the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, who had himself spent four years in prison. In any case, as you undoubtedly know, it was very far from the truth.

As the guide informed us, what is often thought of as “Auschwitz” was actually two camps, Auschwitz and the newer, larger Birkenau. We were now in the older, original camp. It consisted of tall brick buildings arranged in neat rows. Our guide spoke rapidly, giving us some idea of the history of the camp. It had been opened in 1940, originally to house Polish prisoners of war. Even at this early stage, however, the camp was a sadistically cruel place, where many inmates quickly died. By 1941, mass execution via gassing had commenced; and from 1942 to 1944, the camp became the site of mass death for Jews who were transported from all over Europe. In all, over one million inmates died at the camp. The day of its liberation by the Red Army, on January 27, 1945, is commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But this tour was not primarily educational. It was designed to make us feel the horrors that went on in that place. To that end, many of the buildings in Auschwitz have been converted into exhibition spaces. It is viscerally disturbing. We saw the discarded glasses, shoes, luggage, pans, pots, canes, crutches, artificial limbs, and walking sticks of the victims. Most nauseating, there was a large mound of the victim’s hair, shaved from women’s bodies after gassing, and examples of clothes that were woven from such hair. Inmates with dental experience were also employed to remove any gold teeth from victims. All of these remnants form a powerful summary of how the Nazis dehumanized their victims. It was not enough to kill their ‘enemies.’ The bodies had to be turned, as much as possible, into sources of profit, or industrial products.

This attitude is just as apparent in the so-called ‘experiments’ that the Nazis subjected some of their victims to. The guide only touched on this aspect briefly, but the details are chilling. The company IG Farben, for example, paid the camp for 150 female inmates, in order to test an anesthetic. A letter regarding the test still survives; it reads: “The transport of 150 women arrived in good condition. However, we were unable to determine conclusive results because they died during the experiments.” The letter ends with a request for more inmates. And, of course, there was Dr. Mengele, who performed savage experiments on identical twins before killing and dissecting them. This ‘experimentation’ took place in block 10.

Nextdoor, in the closed space between blocks 10 and 11, executions were performed—usually on prisoners of war. Thousands died this way: forced to kneel, and then shot in the back of the head with a small-caliber pistol. The neighboring building, Block 11, was used for brutal punishments, such as being hung from the ceiling by one’s wrists, or being forced to stand in a cell for days on end. In 1941, a group of prisoners were deliberately starved to death in the small, dark, windowless cells in the lower level, as retribution for other prisoners who had managed to escape.

After this, the guide took us to the first gas chamber in the camp, Crematorium I. Here is where the Nazis who ran the camp perfected their method of mass-execution. Prisoners were told they were going to take a shower or to be de-loused. This kept people calm and allowed the camp to preserve a facade of order. After removing their clothes, they were herded into the chamber, and the door locked behind them. Then, pellets of Zyklon B were dropped into the chamber from the ceiling, releasing hydrogen cyanide gas that would kill everyone inside within minutes. The bodies were then burned. All this was explained to us as we stood outside the structure—which looks like a concrete bunker—and then we were briefly led inside. The structure that stands now is a reconstruction (the Nazis tried to hide the evidence of their crimes). Still, if it is faithful to the original, then it is chilling that such a nondescript place could the site of mass murder.

The gallows where Rudolf Höss was executed

Right next to this crematorium—on the spot where the Gestapo headquarters used to be—was where Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was executed. Höss unsuccessfully tried to go into hiding after the war by pretending to be a low-ranking soldier. But he was arrested in 1946, tried by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in 1947, and hanged on a specially made gallows shortly thereafter. According to Laurence Rees, the execution had to be postponed for several days because the crowd—which included camp survivors—became unruly and aggressive (understandably). Yet as our guide informed us, it is hard to say that justice was done, as less than 15% of those who worked at Auschwitz were ever tried. As a case in point, the horrid Josef Mengele died of natural causes in Brazil.

After this, our group boarded a small bus that drove us to the second camp, known as Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This camp, built in 1941 on Himmler’s orders, has a very different look from the original Auschwitz. It is much larger, built on a wide, open field. The surviving structures are also shorter and less substantial. This is the camp that was specifically built for mass killing and large-scale slave labor. The guide showed us the train tracks that brought the prisoners in through the front gate. Here, Mengele (among others) would make his “selections,” choosing who would be forced to work, who would be used for experiments, and who would be immediately sent to the gas chambers. (Auschwitz is unique for having been both a concentration camp—where prisoners are forced to work—and an execution camp. Usually a camp was one or the other.)

An example of the kind of train car that would transport prisoners to Auschwitz

Our guide then took us to the site of the two main crematoria. They are little more than piles of broken concrete now, as the Nazis destroyed them before they abandoned the camp. Still, it is deeply unsettling to see the remains of a building made especially for mass killing. The victims would be led to an underground room, where they undressed in preparation for “disinfection,” leaving their clothes on numbered pegs. Then, after walking down a hallway, they entered the gas chamber, where Zyklon B was dropped inside. (From the outside these looked like bricked-up cottages; one was called the “little red house,” and the other the “little white house.”) As soon as it was safe to enter, the bodies were taken to the adjoining crematorium and burned. An efficient factory of death.

The ruins of one of the gas chambers

It was here that the guide left us. My final image of Auschwitz was walking through one of the old barracks for prisoners. It was a simple, one-story structure with brick walls. With its poor insolation and large windows (I am not sure if they originally had glass in them), it must have offered little warmth in the cold months. Prisoners slept on wooden bunks, often with more than one prisoner crammed into each bunk. The abysmal living conditions—a scanty diet, insufficient clothing, poor sanitation—meant that many prisoners died without the use of gas chambers, simply through malnutrition, disease, cold, or overwork.

I have given the briefest description of Auschwitz. There is infinitely more that could be said; and there are many captivating books on the subject. There are also, I am sure, many lessons and morals that can be drawn from this atrocity. What struck me was how perfectly designed the camp was to strip inmates of their humanity. The entire process—from transport, to uniforms and tattoos, to the living quarters, to the gas chambers, to the use of prisoners for experiments and their bodies for raw materials—was designed to turn individual human beings into something entirely disposable, like cattle. This allowed men like Höss and his subordinates to perpetuate one of history’s greatest crimes with hardly a second thought.

Later, we were on the train, heading back to Krakow. I did not feel sad, or angry, or even somber—just a kind of emptiness. If a place like Auschwitz is possible, what does that tell us about being human in the first place?

Review: Get Back

Review: Get Back

One would think that, by the year 2021, we would have exhausted all the new material on the Beatles—probably the most thoroughly investigated band in history. I myself thought that, after listening repeatedly to every Beatles album, learning half their songs, performing some of them, and reading several books about them, I would have little left to learn. Yet this documentary shows that the Beatles are not done surprising us.

Here was the situation: It was 1969, and the Beatles were already under strain. They had stopped performing three years earlier—partly because the drowning wailing of screaming fans had made it pointless—and had devoted themselves to studio albums. Yet this shift had inadvertently weakened the group dynamic, as it allowed them to come into the studio and record their songs separately. Much of their previous album, The Beatles (otherwise known as the “White Album”) was recorded in just such a way.

McCartney, who was most eager to keep the group together, hit upon the idea of going back to their roots and doing a live album, hoping this would help to mend things. A film crew was brought in to document the process, directed by Michael Lindsey-Hogg. Sixty hours of film, and 150 hours of audio, were eventually recorded—but the vast majority of this sat unused and unseen, all these fifty years. Only little more than an hour of it was used in the Let It Be documentary, released in 1970.

Peter Jackson—of Lord of the Rings fame—was given access to this trove of material. And, true to his reputation for epic, in favor of doing a single feature-length film, he has edited this sixty hours of video into a (slightly) more manageable eight hours for this three-part documentary. Indeed, the sheer extent of this documentary has proven to be its most controversial aspect. Speaking as a rabid Beatles fan, I can attest that this film—as good as it is—is a slog. I have made my way through it twice now, and both times it took me weeks, and involved me fighting off sleep. If you are not a Beatles fan, or a masochist, I can virtually assure you that you will not enjoy this.

That being said, the footage is absolutely extraordinary. Lindsey-Hogg, a big Beatles fan himself, strove for a kind of fly-on-the-wall effect. He kept the cameras constantly rolling and even hid microphones all throughout the studio. Invasive, yes, but ultimately fascinating. Peter Jackson took this obsessive need to spy on their every action one step further, by developing digital tools to remove the sound of their instruments (which they would turn up when they did not want to be overheard), leaving only their isolated voices in conversation. Jackson also had the 1970s footage digitally cleaned up, so that everything looks as crisp as a modern television show. The result is a documentary that feels surprisingly intimate and authentic.

The documentary even has a kind of plot to it. Of course, you know, and I know, that the Beatles eventually performed their last concert (with a much-abbreviated setlist) on the roof of Apple Studios. But it was a long and winding road from the project’s inception to that impromptu finale. 

The Beatles begin with a ludicrously optimistic plan to write and rehearse enough material to do an entire live album two weeks after filming starts. (Ringo is scheduled to act in The Magic Christian, which puts a constraint on their schedule.) This plan is shown to be foolhardy almost immediately, as the four Beatles jam aimlessly in an enormous movie studio at Twickenham (rented for the documentary), rather desperately searching for new material. Meanwhile, they just as aimlessly try to figure out where to have their culminating concert. Lindsey-Hogg pushes for an old Roman theater in Libya, at one point even contemplating renting an ocean liner to take the band and their audience to this exotic venue. While this heady talk is going on, the rehearsals break down completely. George quits after about a week at Tickenham, derailing the whole plan. The project only recovers its footing when they move to Apple Studios and recruit Billy Preston, a brilliant keyboardist, where they really do manage to get an entire album’s worth of material done. The final concert is only delayed by one week.

Though it may surprise you after reading this summary, the documentary’s main takeaway for Beatles fans was how happy and functional the group was during this time. Lindsey-Hogg’s original 1970 documentary of these sessions, Let It Be, portrayed this time as a joyless slog of constant bickering. There certainly was conflict—after all, George really did quit the band—but the final impression is of four great friends doing what they do best. Indeed, it often seems as if they are having too much fun for their own good: so much time is occupied with unfocused jams and horsing around that the viewer often wonders how they managed to get anything finished at all.

Yet the documentary does have a sad tinge to it, as it becomes clear why the breakup is inevitable. While it would be deeply unfair to blame Yoko for the breakup of the Beatles, her constant presence in the recording sessions is an indication that John’s creative center is shifting away from the group and towards her. Already he is not fully present as a creative force, bringing in only a couple original songs. He and Paul no longer write together.

George, meanwhile, is understandably frustrated with his little-brother role in the group. He has written so many songs—many of them great—for which he has no outlet, as he is only allotted two songs per Beatles record. At one point, he even mentions to John the possibility of doing a solo album (John is supportive). George also comes across as temperamentally at odds with John, Paul, and Ringo—rather serious, somewhat dour, and even a tad joyless compared to the playful dynamic of the rest.

Ringo is revealed to be the rock of the group. He is always on time, always plays great (unlike the others, who can be sloppy), and always game for the next plan. Everyone loves him.

Paul, on the other hand, is starting to get on people’s nerves. After the 1967 death of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, Paul increasingly stepped into the role of unofficial band leader and taskmaster. Yet this is an awkward role for him. He often seems conflicted between his desire to push the group to be more professional, and his wish not to step on anybody’s toes and just to be one of the boys. Perhaps as a result of this tension, he often contradicts himself in the very same sentence—as if afraid to voice his own opinion—and is constantly heard bemoaning their bad work ethic while himself larking around. Yet it is easy to see why he might feel frustrated. Virtually every time he comes into the studio, he brings at least one new song—and a good one. In one of the documentary’s most amazing moments, we witness Paul sit down and come up with “Get Back,” finishing most of the song before John even shows up. With talent like that, he must have felt as if he was constantly either waiting for his bandmates to catch up or pushing them along.

Of course, this documentary is interesting beyond the light it sheds on the Beatles breakup. For example, you might think that the opportunity to spy on the Beatles as they create an album from scratch would have much to teach musicians and songwriters. Yet as a (very amateur) musician myself, I was surprised at how unenlightening it was to see these sessions. Paul McCartney does not have some special process for writing songs. He does what virtually every pop songwriter does, messing about with chords until something clicks, and then writing a melody over that. It just so happens that when Paul—or John, or George for that matter—follows this process, he writes hits; while when other people do that they mostly write crap. The Beatles rehearsal style also reminded me very much of my own band’s practice sessions—showing up late, jamming endlessly, playing sloppily, and only getting it together as the deadline approaches. Once again, the difference was not the process but the result—not a very encouraging moral for the aspiring musician, but there it is.

One thing that impressed me as I watched this documentary is the oddly everyman quality the four of them have. By that I mean that it is effortless to imagine myself in the room with them, even playing music with them; indeed, it is even possible to imagine being them. Of course, this is a trick of the mind. Many tens of thousands of people have tried to be the Beatles and only four have ever succeeded. Still, though each of them is quite charismatic, I would say (with the possible exception of Lennon, perhaps) their personalities fall within the range of the ordinary. I cannot, for example, imagine myself as Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, or helping to write “Paint it Black.” Those two figures—like many rockers—have personalities so outsized that I cannot even imagine being close friends with them. But Paul McCartney and George Harrison? No problem. And I think this ease in identifying with them is one reason why they are so beloved.

Yet, for me, this documentary, joyous as it is, strikes a strangely sad emotional chord. Probably I am just projecting. Being now at roughly the same age as the Beatles were when they broke up, I saw these recording sessions—the self-conscious attempt to get back to their beginnings—as a last stab at carefree youth. For the Beatles to really work, the four of them had to be absolutely committed to one another—to put the group above everything. Yet this kind of dedication to a group of friends may only be psychologically possible when one is young, without any other serious emotional pulls in one’s life. As the four of them got older, fell in love, got married, had kids—they could not always put the group first anymore. This is quite apparent in the documentary, as girlfriends and wives (and even one child, from Linda’s first marriage) are constantly going through the studio. I do not mean to say that getting hitched is a sad thing. But I cannot help but find it bittersweet that, as we get older, friendship is just not enough.

Be that as it may, friendship is a beautiful thing, as we can see in the best moments of this documentary. The four of them took obvious delight in playing with one another. In spite of everything—the paparazzi, the fame, the deadlines, the pressure of performing, the emotional baggage of the passing years, their evolving personal lives—the four of them were able to be silly, have fun, and make some incredible music. Fifty years later, it still sounds fresh.

2021 in Books

2021 in Books

2021 on Goodreads by Various

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, it is fair to say that this year did not go as well as many of us hoped. Pandemics, it seems, are rather drawn out affairs. Viruses have commendable persistence but atrocious manners. Yet books may be enjoyed in even the most trying times.

The most important event of my reading life this year was the publication of my own book, Their Solitary Way. I was extremely grateful for the support of many readers on this site—proving, once again, that this community is one of the bright spots of the internet. Indeed, the experience was so gratifying that I soon began work on another novel (this one hopefully a bit more readable), which has occupied a good deal of my attention lately. If anyone asks, this is my excuse for reading and interacting a bit less on Goodreads these past few months.

But on to the books! Two of my absolute favorite books of the year were about birds. Sibley’s What It’s Like to Be a Bird is a beautifully illustrated compendium of curious bird facts, while Ackerman’s The Bird Way is an exploration of the most extreme bird adaptations. Both books brought home to me how absolutely ignorant I was of our feathered companions, and what wonderfully interesting organisms they are. All this has not, however, been enough to motivate me to become a bonafide birder. You have to wake up too early.

One major theme this year has been my attempt to learn about Asia (another subject I knew very little about). This led me to read a history of India and to listen to lecture series on China and Japan. I also took a crack at some literature, reading Basho’s travel sketches, Babur’s autobiography, and an abridged version of The Ramayana. I remain both eager to learn more and embarrassed at how little I know.

Apart from my novel, one major event was turning 30. To commemorate this milestone, I read Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade, which convinced me that I am a lost cause. I followed this up with a book about aging, Younger Next Year, which essentially said that the secret to a long, healthy life is lots of exercise. This redoubled my commitment to running, and led me to read a couple books by the sports writer, Matt Fitzgerald. Several races later, however, I wonder if all this running isn’t more unpleasant than just letting my body fall apart the natural way.

Throughout high school and college, I was an avid consumer (and occasional producer) of music. This habit fell by the wayside when I moved to Spain, crowded out by other interests. But this year music made a grand return. I became a member of the royal opera house, and signed up for flamenco guitar classes at an academy. Aiding me in this venture were Juan Martin’s excellent instructional volume on guitar technique, and Robert Greenberg’s lecture series on opera appreciation. I also tackled Paul Berliner’s monumental Thinking in Jazz, which convinced me that I am never going to be a jazz musician. (A career as an opera singer is still a possibility.)

Another book category this year has been—for lack of anything more precise—depressing and horrifying events. The four books I read about the September 11 attacks (inspired by the twenty-year anniversary) all fall neatly into this bin, as does Bartolomé de las Casas’s book about the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas, Max Hastings’s book about the Vietnam War, and—most chilling of all—Lawrence Rees’s book about Auschwitz. History is, apparently, inexhaustible in atrocities.

Thankfully we have fiction to distract us. My favorite novel of this year may have been Corazón tan blanco, by Javier Marías. Other honorable mentions are Carl Sagan’s Contact, Hemingway’s For Home the Bell Tolls, Forster’s A Room with a View, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Woolf’s Orlando, Alas’s La Regenta, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and Richard Wright’s Black Boy (though it is somewhere between a novel and an autobiography). And I cannot neglect to mention Flannery O’Connor, whose collection of short stories were easily among the best books I read this year.

I finished many other books, of course, though they seem rather random in retrospect. This includes a virtual class on photography (I think I improved), a book about trees, one about oranges, one about the intestines, and one about a whale attack. The only “serious” philosophy book I read was Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception—and I remain phenomenologically unperceptive. More enlightening was Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. which convinced me that, perhaps, the meaning of life might be found in my refrigerator after all.

I end this year merely hoping that life throws many more interesting books my way, and that I have the time, the patience, and the wisdom to let myself get lost in their pages. Oh, and if I can get this next novel finished, too, that would be nice.



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Review: Auschwitz, a New History

Review: Auschwitz, a New History

Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am having difficulty writing a review of this book without getting sucked down into a spiral of sputtering despair. So I will try to keep it short. There is plenty of information about Auschwitz available on the market; so what makes this book “new”? The simple answer are the interviews. Rees has personally spoken to both survivors and perpetrators, and weaves their individual stories into a larger narrative of the camp. In this way, the book becomes almost as much a psychological study as it is a history.

Judged purely as a history, this book is good but not superlative. Rees does an admirable job of covering the broad sweep of the camp’s history, including many unexpected (and usually quite disturbing) details. However, the book’s brevity precludes any detailed examination, and I was often left wanting to learn more about certain aspects of the camp. Curiously, Rees also includes many stories that are outside the purported purview of the book—such as the story of how the citizens of Britain’s Channel Islands reacted to the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews—stories that are usually quite compelling, but which seem difficult to justify including in a book of this size.

It is as an examination of inmates and perpetrators that the book is most valuable. One conclusion is that the common Nazi excuse—that they were merely acting under orders—does not hold water. Indeed, Rees shows that the National Socialist organization did not have to rely on violent coercion in order to motivate its members; the majority of men in leadership positions were genuine believers in the ideology. This certainly describes Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant. Another conclusion, even more unsettling, is that people can change—not just superficially, but fundamentally—when put under extreme conditions. As one survivor put it:

People asked me, ‘What did you learn?’ and I think I’m only sure of one thing—nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, ‘Where is North Street?’ and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves.

Yet, for me, the book’s defining character is Oskar Groening. He was a low-level SS officer whose job at the camp was to count the money of incoming (and usually executed) prisoners. He is memorable precisely because he is so ordinary: he worked at a bank before the war and at a glass factory afterwards, leading a quiet life. Indeed, he disliked the violence and bloodshed of the camp—not on moral grounds, but because it sickened him. Nevertheless, he worked diligently at Auschwitz for years, counting up foreign currencies with hardly a spot on his conscience. Hannah Arendt was undoubtedly wrong in applying the term, ‘the banality of evil,’ to Adolf Eichmann; but it fits Groening like a glove. For him, Auschwitz was just a job—and a rather cushy one at that.

Indeed, if there is one general takeaway from this history, it is that only the most strong-willed of individuals can rise above their moral climate. Most people (and I am thinking of perpetrators, not victims here) simply go along with prevailing attitudes. There were plenty of ideologically committed Nazis, such as Höss; and there were probably many Groenings, who just wanted a stable job. But there is no record of a single SS officer deserting or refusing to serve at Auschwitz on moral grounds. Indeed, the most disturbing thing of all is that, without exception, none of the former perpetrators interviewed by Rees feel much, if any, remorse. Groening was finally motivated to speak about his experiences, in his old age, not because of lingering guilt, but because he encountered some Holocaust deniers (he wanted to assure them that it was real).

Though it may seem off topic, Rees includes a lengthy section on the Danish resistance to Nazi persecution, which forms a sharp contrast to the many stories of shameful cooperation (for example, by the French, the Hungarians, the Channel Islanders). But he does so to make an important point: in all of these cases, individual behavior seems to be largely a consequence of cultural and social influences. Just as there is no evidence that every Nazi was a true sociopath, so is there no reason to believe everyone in Copenhagen was a born angel. Indeed, as Rees emphasizes again and again, we are talking about people who, in other circumstances, would have been quite ordinary. Yet this is very disturbing, since it seems to exonerate evil doers while depriving the virtuous of their dues. This is a paradox of human behavior: only individuals can be held morally accountable, and yet individuals so often go along with their group. So if the Danes are ordinary as individuals, what explains their extraordinarily praiseworthy actions in this circumstance?

I don’t have the answer. All I can say that few books will make you feel less optimistic about our species than this one. Yet it is important to learn about Auschwitz for that very reason.

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Review: The Phenomenology of Perception

Review: The Phenomenology of Perception

Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are few things more unpleasant than reading a book that you do not understand. One is writing a review of one. But as this is the life I have chosen, I must come to terms with the hardship. There are various strategies for this predicament, none perfect. You can admit that you do not understand (embarrassing), pretend that you understand (risky), or try even harder to understand (exhausting). I have found that the surest method is usually to mix all three, hopefully keeping the reader guessing as to which strategy was employed at any given moment.* On we go.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, along with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, formed the third wheel of the great existentialist tricycle that rolled through the twentieth century. While his two flashier comrades were busy plotting all sorts of revolutions in cafés (social, political, philosophical, aesthetic, sexual), Merleau-Ponty—more respectable, more sedate, and, dare I say, more bourgeois—was busy editing the magazine, Les Temps Modernes, shaping a solid academic career for himself, and enjoying the married life. The Phenomenology of Perception, his most famous contribution to philosophy, was just one of many triumphs in a parade of intellectual distinction.

Now, to cut to the chase, I did not enjoy this book very much, nor did I ultimately agree with much of what Merleau-Ponty (henceforth MP) had to say. But the man was brilliant and must be given his due.

The most influential parts of this book are concentrated in Part 1, on the body. It is telling that, before the twentieth century, this subject was almost entirely neglected by the philosophical tradition. For this alone, MP deserves quite a lot of credit. He also includes a chapter on sex, a subject that had hardly been touched since Plato advised that it is best avoid it entirely (the act, not the subject). Perhaps it helped that MP was married. (The list of unmarried philosophers is virtually identical to the syllabus in an introductory course.)

Another great virtue of MP is his engagement with psychological research. There is a long section devoted to the phenomenon of phantom limb, and an even longer one about a patient with brain damage known as Schneider. This latter case is quite fascinating, as Schneider’s injury profoundly impacted his ability to function, without either impeding his intellect or his motor function. His impediment consisted, rather, in his ability to sense his body, known as proprioception. That is, for Schneider, his body is rather like an object that he clumsily manipulates rather than an extension of his being. When asked to, say, draw a circle in the air, he must first wave his hand in the air, making shapes at random, until he can see what he is doing and, by trial and error, finally make the circle.

This is not an Oliver Sacks book, however; this (unfortunately) is a tome of French philosophy. So what is MP trying to say with all this? In a nutshell, his philosophy is Anti-Cartesian. By this I mean that he wants to dislodge the view that our subjective consciousness and the objective world stand irreconcilably opposed, totally distinct yet somehow in communication. MP prefers to see the subject and the world as two poles of a continuous field, with the body smack dab in the middle—both object and subject. This is in contrast to scientific materialism, which seeks to reduce the subjective to the objective, or to philosophic idealism, which seeks just the opposite.

Throughout the book, MP is at pains to contrast his own views with both the materialistic and the idealistic views, intending to sail a middle course that avoids the pitfalls of both. His solution is to turn reductionism on its head—that is, in characteristic phenomenological fashion, to regard basic human experience as fundamental and everything else as derivative. This basic human experience normally takes the form, in his view, of a gestalt—of a totality that transcends the combination of elements that compose it.

This is entirely within the tradition of Husserl and Heidegger (the two great influences on this book), in which logical arguments are discarded in favor of what an anthropologist might call a “thick description” of consciousness—that is, rather than trying to explain the world in the manner of a scientist, with theories about causal underpinnings, the phenomenologist operates more like an ethnologist writing a study of a particular village.

Advocates of this approach will argue that it is both logical and honest, since of course our experience is the only reality we have direct access to, and arguably all of our other theories and ideas are evolved from this primordial pool. And MP cannot, in fairness, be compared to the mystic or the monk who issues verdicts on the nature of reality based on his own private experience. As I tried to indicate before, MP’s philosophy is anti-Cartesian, by which I mean that he hardly even believes in “private” experience, much as Wittgenstein did not believe in private language. Experience is fundamentally worldly and only accidentally secret. In one of MP’s more poetic turns of phrase, he describes humanity as a “hollow” or a “fold” in being, “which can be made which can be unmade.” (This is in contrast to Hegel, who considered us a “hole,” and Sartre, who considered us a “nothingness.”)

This is reasonable enough. What irks me is that MP substitutes description for explanation. It could be perfectly valid, for example, to argue that depression—which responds to both medication and therapy, and which seems to have both physiological and psychological causes—is a non-reducible gestalt. And a phenomenologist as brilliant as MP may be able to pinpoint the exact structure of the depressed experience. Nevertheless, if we want to actually help a depressed patient, the irreducible richness of human experience will do little to avail us. We need either a therapy (inevitably based on some theory of the mind) or a drug (based on theories of biochemistry). In short, we need reductionism.

This is why much of MP’s philosophy rang hollow for me: it lacks the essential characteristic of an explanation, to reduce the complex to the simple. I must immediately grant, however, that reduction can easily be taken too far. As MP ably shows, for an awfully long time reductionist theories of human consciousness effectively ignored the uncomfortable fact that we have a body in addition to a mind. Similar criticisms can be lodged at any number of sociological or psychological theories of human behavior. Often these dogmas can blind us to the reality of the phenomena under study. Careful observers (and MP certainly qualifies) perform a great duty in puncturing these errors.

In short, my opinion of MP’s philosophy is rather mixed. But my opinion of his writing is decisive: I hated it. Whoever taught MP and Sartre how to write (someone at the École nórmale supérieure presumably) apparently did not believe in paragraphs. This book is one long block of text. I know this sounds petty, but for me the paragraph is the unit of writing, the fundamental organizing principle of prose. It tells us when one train of thought ends and another begins. At the very least, it provides a ledge where the mind can take a break from the relentless climb. Without at least two paragraphs per page, I feel lost and adrift. And it did not help that his prose is rather awkward and cumbersome:

The Gestalt of a circle is not its mathematical law but its physiognomy. The recognition of phenomena as an original order is a condemnation of empiricism as an explanation of order and reason in terms of a coming together of facts and natural accidents, but it leaves reason and order themselves with the character of facticity. If a universal constituting consciousness were possible, the opacity of fact would disappear.

The result is a book where some very sharp thinking is covered in dross and surrounded by masses of unfocused material. After Part 1, in which he makes impressive and original contributions, he spends the next two thirds of the book taking up every philosophical problem he can think of, fiddling with it, and then moving on, as if he thought the psychological material was not heavy enough. Thus it is a book that, while quite profound, is not nearly as profound as its author intended it to be. But if you shoot for the stars…

____________
*A fourth strategy is to write about something else entirely and hope nobody notices.

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Review: The French Dispatch

Review: The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is an artist whom you either take or leave in his entirety. More than any other filmmaker who comes to mind, the content of his movies is the style—his distinct, immediately recognizable, easy to parody, fussy, twee, manicured, zany, wistful, and marrionettish style—and that style will either be to your taste or not. When I first saw one of his movies (The Life Aquatic, back in high school) I decided, for good or ill, that I would take him. But all this makes it feel rather pointless to write a review. Yet for a movie such as The French Dispatch, one with such obvious literary preoccupations and aspirations, a review is called for. 

We are, at once, thrown into the imaginary French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (a name that is either clever or very, very silly—you decide), where Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the founding editor of the titular expatriate journal, has just expired. This is to be the final and ultimate edition of this magazine, whose dissolution is announced along with the obituary of the aforementioned editor (played by a characteristically tired-looking Bill Murray). The movie then goes through the remaining pages: a short description of the city by Herbsaint Sazarac (Owen Wilson), an account of a brilliant and insane artist by J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton), a piece on the student uprisings by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and a food-review-turned-police-chase by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright).

Let us explore these pages. First the obituary. Strangely, although Murray’s character is drawn from the famously neurotic Harold Ross, and although Murray is always wonderful, the character is not given enough room to really breathe in the movie. This is an artifact of Anderson’s conceit of making a movie-magazine, though it is an unfortunate one, as Howitzer is ideally positioned to be the heart of the film. His demise and the magazine’s dissolution thus do not emotionally register; perhaps Anderson took Howitzer’s motto (“No Crying”) a little bit too seriously. The movie bursts into life with Wilson’s tour of the city—a charming, lovely, tour-de-force of Anderson’s aesthetic—which I wish had been longer.

But the real meat of the film are the three long nonfiction pieces—“A Concrete Masterpiece,” “Revisions to a Manifesto,” and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” Each one is only about half an hour long, though Anderson manages to pack quite a lot into this time.

We first meet Tilda Swinton, who is giving us a lecture on the great, avant-garde artist, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Rosenthaler’s abstract artwork, made using prison materials, soon attracts the pecuniary interest of one Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), a character inspired by art dealer Lord Duveen. One might think that Anderson would use this as an opportunity for a portrait of his own artistic process, but the insane and tortured Rosenthaler—hopelessly in thrall to his muse and guard (Leá Seydoux)—bears little resemblance to the careful and meticulous director. Here, we see quite clearly how Anderson takes a story that could have been heavy and full of melodrama in other hands (insanity, prison, artistic creation) and turns it into a light and frivolous romp.

Next we enter the tumultuous world of a student uprising, based on the events of 1968, which we see through the dispassionate eyes of McDormand’s reporter. This story, it occurs to me, is the first time that I have been actively disappointed in Anderson’s work. Anderson based this story on Mavis Gallant’s diary of the event, published in The New Yorker. It is a wonderful document—riveting, incisive, and vivid. Yet somehow, none of these qualities make it into the movie version. The story instead concerns itself with a feeble love story between Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), with McDormand as the third corner of a vaguely triangular love-shape. The protests, meanwhile, are transformed from a thrilling historical event into just another whimsical backdrop. And all the great acting in the world (and the acting is quite fine) cannot breathe life into an aimless script.

Thankfully, the quality improves markedly with the next installment. Jeffrey Wright does a marvelous job bringing his character—an obvious James Baldwin impersonation, though with his passion for social justice replaced with a passion for eating—to life. The story is pure Anderson: start with an absurd premise (Wright is writing a review of the great master of “police cooking,” Lt. Nescaffier—a name silly under every circumstance), then transform it into an absurd story (a kidnapping-caper that eventually hinges on one’s liking for radishes) using absurd means (among other things, there is a circus acrobat). I have very little to say except for bravo all round.

So much for the film’s résumé. In order to round out this review, I must also dwell upon the deeper themes—the ideas, the undercurrents, the message—if I am to call myself a true critic. But here I draw a blank. Anderson has a habit of including a few touching or profound scenes in his films (I am thinking specifically of the final section of the final story), which can seem (in this case, quite literally) roughly shoved into an otherwise farcical story. One never knows how to take these apparently genuine moments of pathos, since so much of his aesthetic is devoted to showing how the potentially serious is constantly rendered ridiculous through the intrusion of trivialities. At his best, Anderson succeeds in showing how poignant feeling can eke out an existence within our very unromantic world, but at his worst one wonders if he values anything beyond prettiness and chuckles.

The standard line on this movie is that it is a “love letter to journalism.” Though I can see why this is said, it strikes me as highly inaccurate. The journalists in this film are not paragons of objectivity, or remarkable for their investigative skills, or even interested in telling truth to power. If this film is a love letter to anything, it is to story-telling—to unearthing captivating characters in unusual situations, and setting it out with flair and panache. His own artistic ideal is thus far closer to Tilda Swinton’s bubbly art journalist than to Benicio del Toro’s tortured painter. He will not rip open his heart, or yours, or solve the riddles of our destiny, or vivisect the viscera of the human soul. But he will give you a thoroughly delightful two hours.