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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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.

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. 

Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

9-11 by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a book that is admittedly kind of a rush job (it consists of a series of interviews done within a few weeks of the attacks, at a time when we were still uncertain whether Bin Laden was responsible), it has held up pretty well. If you are familiar with Chomsky’s critiques of American foreign policy, there will not be very much new here. This book is, rather, an attempt to popularize his basic views; and this means contextualizing the terrorist attack of 9/11 within the history of America’s own violent attacks on other nations.

Ironically, though the tone and subject of this book are quite serious, I often found myself thinking of a comical exchange between Chomsky and the popular philosopher, Sam Harris. Harris presents himself as a paragon of reason; and as part of that, he attempted to have a sort of sober “exchange” of views with Chomsky. This quickly devolved into acrimony as Chomsky was not, shall we say, in a friendly mood. However, I do think that the exchange does, somehow, effectively pinpoint the ethical position that Chomsky is taking, and that so many people fail to understand.

The disagreement between the two centers around the 1998 U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, in Sudan. Chomsky uses this as an example of American state terrorism, and in this book asks the reader what would be the response if the situation was reversed, and Sudan had bombed a U.S. pharmaceutical plant. Harris’s defense—and I believe this is the standard argument in favor of U.S. intervention—is that our intentions were pure. We did not mean to kill anybody or deprive anybody of life-saving medication; we were just trying to stop terrorists from producing weapons.

Harris presents Chomsky with several thought experiments, making the (rather facile) point that intentions matter when making ethical judgments. If I try to save somebody and they die anyway, I am ethically superior to someone who killed somebody and succeeded. But Harris overlooks the (I think) quite obvious point that there is a grey area between altruistic and hostile intentions—that is, not caring one way or the other—which, ethically speaking, is often hardly better than being actively hostile.

This aptly describes the mentality behind the U.S. bombing of Al-Shifa. Consider: If we thought that weapons were being produced by terrorists in, say, Brussels, would we have sent cruise missiles to blow up the building? Obviously not, because the “collateral damage” would be deemed totally unacceptable. And yet, in the case of Sudan—a much poorer country, where people are far more dependent on a single factory for life-saving medicine—the decision was made quickly in favor of attack. Clearly, Sudanese lives were not deemed as important as Belgian ones would have been; and this shows an ethical stance of disregard.

A great deal of Chomsky’s critique on American foreign policy boils down to an attempt to get us to consider all lives as equally valuable, and all nations as equally sovereign. That is, to stop applying a double standard—one treatment for poor nations, another for rich ones. We are still very far from this stance. If we found out that the attack of 9/11 originated in, say, Ireland, what are the chances that we would have invaded the entire country? As Chomsky points out, the U.K. did not invade and bomb Boston, even though many of its citizens actively funded the IRA.

We can see this uncaring attitude of American foreign policy in the August 29 bombing that killed 10 in Kabul this year. None of those killed were terrorists, but six of them were children. Harris excuses “mistakes” like this by pointing to limitations in our intelligence and our weapons technology. With perfect knowledge and perfect weapons, we would never kill any civilians. This is like hunting for ducks in a crowded city park, and then blaming the shotgun when a person gets hit. Being ethical means acting within the limitations imposed by a situation, and considering the possible negative consequences of an action. No drone strike would have taken place in Brussels. But again, the possibility of killing innocent Afghanis is given very little weight.

It is clear that we are dealing with a serious sort of moral blindness, since it leads us to commit blunders as well as crimes. We even seem to think that everyone else will see past the accidental death and destruction, and give us credit for our irreproachably pure intentions. Thus, we are surprised when our long occupation of Afghanistan ends in a humiliating defeat, as we cannot understand why the population does not rally around our wonderful American values. But what speaks louder: the beautiful words on our lips, or the thousands of dead in our wake?



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Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I feel compelled to give this book top marks, not because it I loved every second of it, and not because I agreed with every one of Pollan’s many opinions, but simply because I cannot imagine a better book about food. For a book dedicated to such a seemingly banal subject as what to eat for dinner, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is remarkably ambitious—so ambitious, in fact, that I am inclined to view my dinner with even more reverence than I customarily do.

The titular dilemma refers to the difficulty omnivores have in choosing what to eat. A panda or a koala does not have to spare a moment’s thought in deciding that question. But for a human, capable of eating everything from fried beetles to foie gras, this choice can be dizzyingly open-ended. Traditionally, culture has cut through this infinitude of options by prescribing a typical diet. But in the United States—a place nearly bereft of culture—we have come to rely on government regulation, food science, and big industry to take the place of these traditional prescriptions. The problem, as our waistlines reveal, is that these make poor substitutes.

So Michael Pollan sets out to investigate the American diet, using four meals as focal points. The first is an order from McDonalds, which represents industrial food. Unsurprisingly, it is a depressing picture. Farmers grow acres upon acres of genetically modified corn, which is itself not fit for eating, but meant to be processed into any number of food products. Much of this corn (along with soybeans) is also fed to cattle, who are not really evolved to eat the stuff, but are fed it anyway because the corn makes them fatter, faster. One of the more memorable scenes of the book is Pollan’s visit to a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)—which is equal parts horrifying and disgusting.

The next meal is a dinner cooked with ingredients from Whole Foods, which represents industrial organic. Pollan takes the reader through the history of the organic movement, revealing how the designation “organic” has come to be defined by bureaucrats in ways that are not necessarily meaningful. The truth, he concludes, is that many of these products are only marginally better than their non-organic industrial counterparts. After that, we get to the centerpiece of the book: Pollan’s portrait of Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin. Salatin uses what you might call deliberately old-fashioned, small-scale techniques to create an ultra-sustainable farm—where cows, chickens, and pigs are used to graze, clean, and fertilize the soil. He sells his products directly to customers.

The final meal (after Pollan eats a chicken from Polyface) is one that he grows, gathers, or hunts himself. He shoots a wild pig, “hunts” some wild mushrooms, and gathers some vegetables from his garden to create what, for him, is the perfect meal. But why “perfect”? Because, Pollan says, this is the only meal he has ever had in which he knew exactly where everything came from, and what it took to get it to his table. In contrast to the meal from McDonalds, in other words—which is made out of who-knows-what from who-knows-where—the food is entirely transparent. This is Pollan’s ideal.

In the end, then, Pollan is advocating that we eat very much how Joel Salatin wants us to: old-fashioned, and small-scale. Perhaps it would be quickest to describe him as a modern-day Rousseauian—someone who thinks that the natural is always preferable to the artificial. He argues, for example, that scientists have not truly discovered what makes soil fertile or food nutritious, so traditional practices are possibly better guides. He thinks we should eat what we can get locally, and in-season, so that we can feel a connection to the land and understand where the food came from. He is, in a word, an anti-industrialist.

Now, that is quite an unfairly simplistic summary of Pollan’s positions. Even so, I cannot help but suspect that he is advocating something unworkable. I simply do not think that we could feed the world using farming practices like those in Polyface. And how could everyone in a major city eat locally? This is not to say that we cannot create more sustainable farms or attempt to reduce food transportation. But I don’t see this as a grand solution. Admittedly, Pollan was writing when the issue of global warming was not as omnipresent an issue as it is today. He has an entire chapter on the morality of meat-eating, for example, without mentioning what has become the primary reason for reducing meat consumption: greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be unfair to end this review without mentioning Pollans many virtues. For one, he is a great writer, able to both paint a scene and explain a concept with style. He is also intellectually broad. During the course of this book, he weaves a story together that includes chemistry, biology, government policy, history, philosophy, anthropology, and of course gastronomy. And he is thorough. He visits an industrial cornfield, buys a cow in a CAFO, spends a week at Polyface Farm, and learns to fire a rifle and identify wild mushrooms. I very much appreciated these eyewitness reports, as I often feel myself quite disconnected from my own personal food-chain.

In sum, if you want to think more deeply than ever before about what to have for dinner—so deeply that you accidentally start pondering the whole cosmos—then I can heartily recommend this book.



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Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find out when the time comes.


Along with millions of Americans, I was assigned to read The Sun Also Rises in high school English class. And along with (I presume) a good percentage of those millions, I did not finish reading it in time for the exam. But I do remember the teacher explaining that, for Hemingway, “the most important thing is grace under pressure.” At the time it struck me as very odd that this would be so important to someone. After all, aren’t there many other important qualities for a person to have? What about intelligence, education, kindness, wit?

My professor’s remark came back to me, with full force, as I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a novel about courage—not just grace under pressure, but grace in the face of mortal peril. This idea is developed almost into a full moral system, where instead of sinners and saints we have the brave and the cowardly. Everyone is measured by this metric. At first glance there is a lot to criticize in this worldview. Can’t you fight bravely for a horrible cause? Can’t you put your life on the line for something truly ugly? Indeed, the sorts of situations that Hemingway fixates on—hunting, bullfighting, war—are ethically dubious, at least in my opinion.

And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself thinking of Albert Camus, of all people. The perspective espoused in The Plague seemed, though obscurely, to be mirrored in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The characters inhabit an absurd universe, where traditional notions of good and evil have broken down, where death is unthinking and meaningless, and can come at any time. Both Robert Jordan and Dr. Bernard Rieux are fighting a battle that they are unlikely to win. But they continue to fight, mostly out of a simple sense of duty.

Of course, Hemingway’s hero is fighting other people, whereas Camus’s had to face a faceless disease. What sets Robert Jordan apart from his enemy—at least in Hemingway’s eyes—is that he kills out of necessity, in order to ultimately save others, whereas the fascists kill because they think they have a right to decide who is worthy to live. Indeed, perhaps you can even say that, for Hemingway, cowardice and fascism come from the same impulse: the denial of death—or, rather, the denial of our powerless in the face of death. Cowards run because they think they can exempt themselves from the basic condition of life. It is a form of inauthentic egotism. And fascists kill for the same reason: they think that they can decide who lives and dies, rather than accepting that who lives and dies is not really up to anyone.

The only authentic way to live, for Hemingway and for Camus, is in the direct face of death, with no illusions. This is why the bullfighter is such a central symbol for Hemingway: it is the most literal image of a man facing his own death. Thus, rather than simply a novel about a mission to destroy a bridge, this book becomes a kind of meditation on how a small band of men and women behave when they know they might have only a few days to live. In some places, Hemingway even sounds downright Buddhistic in his ecstatic embrace of the ‘now’ as the only time we ever truly have.

What is not exactly Buddhistic is the way that loves comes into the story. Love, for Hemingway, is a kind of shorthand for the sweetness of life. Or perhaps it would be better to say that love is the ultimate expression of life’s sweetness. And in an absurd universe, the joys of food, of friendship, and yes, of sex, are the only real values we have. To be truly brave, then, means fully embracing the sweetness of life, since it is only by understanding how precious life is that one can understand how much we have to lose. Likewise, one can only love authentically in the face of death, as it is life’s inevitable end that makes it so sweet.

Clearly, I have managed to read a lot into what is, in truth, a fairly straightforward war novel. Most readers will likely not find it as profound. Even without the philosophy, however, I enjoyed it quite a bit as a story of the Spanish Civil War, especially as I have spent a lot of time in the Madrid sierra myself. (As a side note, I am fairly sure that there aren’t many caves up in those mountains. At least not deep ones.)

But of course, the book isn’t perfect. The love story, for example, is lessened by Hemingway’s tendency to make his women absolutely subordinate to his men. This tendency does not extend to (in his words) “old” and “ugly” women, however, as the character of Pilar is quite compelling. As for the love story itself, I have trouble deciding whether Hemingway is touching or simply sappy. At least the tender emotions form a pleasant contrast with the harsh world of war.

An odd decision was rendering the Spanish dialogue as a kind of literal translation into English. When a character says “menos mal,” for example, it is translated (nonsensically) as “less bad,” when it really means something more like “thank goodness.” I had mixed feelings about this, since sometimes I did feel like I could hear the Spanish, but at other times it just was distracting. I particularly didn’t like his use of “you” and “thou” to convey the difference in the Spanish “usted” and “.” Thou and just have such vastly different emotional registers. Also, to be pedantic for a moment, I noticed that Hemingway would sometimes incorrectly use “thee” in his dialogue for the subject (as in, “Thee blew up a bridge”), when it is really an object pronoun (as in, “I blew thee up”).

In the end, however, this book, like all of Hemingway’s, is dominated by his distinctive style. If you enjoy that style, you will enjoy the book; and if not, not. And all the absurdist philosophy in the world won’t change that.



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Review: Contact

Review: Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A couple of weeks ago, on June 25, the Pentagon did something rather unusual: It released a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a subject that has long been associated with alien spacecraft. This was the culmination of the public and political interest piqued by the 2017 release of videos, taken by the United States Navy, of strange flying objects. The content of these videos was not especially groundbreaking—indeed, like all the amateur UFO videos before them, they feature grainy blobs—but their source was. It is one thing when the neighborhood loony says they were abducted; it is another when the most powerful military on the planet admits they cannot identify something in their airspace.

Opinions will differ as to whether report is interesting or boring. Of the 144 reported sightings (quite a lot), 143 remain unexplained. The investigators conclude, tentatively, that these objects are real (i.e. not optical illusions or sensory errors, since they were picked up on many different sorts of sensors, not to mention seen by eyewitnesses), but do not rule out technological malfunction in accounting for the remarkable flight patterns recorded in some instances. Of course, no rational person could conclude that any of this constituted evidence of a visitation by aliens, or even their drones. Still, it is difficult to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the sightings, for example, without one’s curiosity getting piqued. Even Obama seems interested.

In this spirit, I picked up Carl Sagan’s Contact, a physicist’s imagined version of how first contact with an alien species would play out. The book functions on two levels: as a novel and as a thought experiment. Considering that Sagan was no novelist, it is easy to imagine Contact being quite deficient as a work of fiction. Surprisingly, however, the story pulls its own weight. Yes, there is too much exposition and not enough characterization; and yes, the style is more akin to a work of nonfiction than of fiction. But the imaginative plot pulls the reader into the story quite effectively, making the book a pleasurable read.

As a thought experiment, the book is even more compelling. From the details of the message, to its decryption, to the assembly of the machine, to the social and political ramifications of the discovery alien life, Sagan has taken great pains to imagine how his scenario might realistically play out. Unlike so much science fiction, this book does not insult the reader’s intelligence by asking her to suspend disbelief or accept bizarre premises. And as the book is set in the (then) near-future, it is also fun to compare Sagan’s predictions with how events actually turned out. We have not, for example, made as much progress with commercial space flight as he thought we would. And our space billionaires are not nearly so enlightened as Sagan anticipated.

The main theme of the book is the conflict between religion and science: faith vs. reason. I cannot say that Sagan was especially insightful here, as he takes the fairly standard view that science is superior because it is based on evidence. What is more, if I am not mistaken, this issue has lost some of its teeth within the last few years. Nowadays, American conservatives are more concerned with preventing children from learning about racism than about evolution. And as the pandemic revealed, cultural resistance to science is just as likely, if not more so, to come from secular conspiracy theories, social resentment, or political affiliation as from traditional religions.

Above all, this is an immensely optimistic book. Sagan describes all of humanity coming together when faced with intelligent alien life, leading to the triumph of the better angels of our nature. I greatly admire Sagan for this hopefulness; it is one of his best qualities. Personally, though, I doubt that a message from outer space would prompt humanity to come together in the way he describes. A common threat—in the form of a virus—was not even enough to make Republicans and Democrats work together, much less Americans and Russians. At this point, I think even unambiguous contact from an alien race could be absorbed into our polarized politics.

As a last note (and warning, spoiler ahead), though interesting, I did not exactly follow Sagan’s idea of there being a message in π. If you were searching an unlimited string of random numbers—using arithmetic in multiple bases—then is it not inevitable to find a long string of, say, 0s and 1s? And even if a particular string is improbable, how could you rule out a statistical fluke? I suppose a message of sufficient complexity and length, with significant content (say, blueprints to make a Ford Model T), would be difficult to disbelieve. But being able to arrange a circle using 1s and 0s in base-11 arithmetic does not strike me as a clincher.

This is just a quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. Like Sagan’s series, Cosmos, Contact left me full of hope for the human future, and full of wonder for the universe. He was a treasure of a man.
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Sagan imagines billionaires living in luxurious space hotels, or chateaus. But as I learned from a recent story in the news, even now, astronauts in space do not even clean their clothes. They wear them until the stink becomes unbearable, and then throw them away. So it is not exactly opulence above the clouds.



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Review: A Splendid Exchange

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Five or six years ago, a Christmas mix-up resulted in my brother receiving two copies of this book. Not knowing what to do with one, he simply gave it to me. In so doing, however, he disobeyed Adam Smith’s doctrine that humanity has a natural instinct to truck and barter. Clearly, a rational animal would have used it to exchange for something he himself lacked, like cinnamon or frankincense or some textiles. What a wasted opportunity.

This book is part history of, and part homage to, trade. Four hundred pages is not nearly enough space to give such an expansive topic exhaustive coverage. But Bernstein does manage to pack quite a lot of interesting tidbits into his narrative. What most struck me was how central trade has been to human history. It has caused wars of invasion, spurred on colonialism, motivated the great journeys of “discovery,” helped to spread epidemic diseases, and stimulated newer forms of economic organization. In short, the urge to turn a profit has helped to join together every corner of the world—leading to many wonderful things and quite a few atrocities, too.

After reviewing this thrilling history, Bernstein ends by examining the old conflict between free trade and protectionism—or, more concretely, low tariffs or high tariffs. It is an interesting question. Low tariffs provide a small but tangible benefit to the general populace in the form of cheaper goods; but they do so at the expense of workers displaced by competition from abroad (and vice versa with high tariffs). So what is more important, knocking off a few cents from something bought by millions or allowing a few thousand people to keep their job? The traditional answer is that the government should keep tariffs low, and “bribe” those displaced with additional support in the form of welfare and job retraining. But in practice most workers are left to fend for themselves, which can eventually create political instability if resentment grows too widespread.

Another question has to do with the development of an economy. High tariffs can be used to shield domestic industries from foreign competition, allowing them to grow to the point that they can effectively compete. But high tariffs can also preserve inefficient companies and obsolete technologies, putting a country at a long-term disadvantage. Orthodox economic logic always favors free trade, but the evidence is mixed. According to Bernstein, several studies actually found a positive correlation between high tariffs and economic growth in the 19th century. Still, Bernstein comes down in favor of free trade, not because it offers an economic miracle (he says its benefits are overstated), but because it helps to foster bonds between potential enemies. But, if you ask me, when a nation is dependent on another (and potentially weaker) country for its resources, this can easily become a powerful source of conflict.

Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to disobey Adam Smith myself and donate this book to a library.



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