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: 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: 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.
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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Review: The Babur Nama

Review: The Babur Nama

The Babur Nama by Zahirud-din Muhammad Babur

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this History I have held firmly to it that the truth should be reached in every matter, and that every act should be recorded precisely as it occurred.

I do not think I ever would have read this book, had it not been gifted to me last Christmas. It is quite a beautiful volume—hefty but compact, the pages thin but not fragile, the font and layout quite attractive—and yet, I still felt daunted by the prospect of reading an autobiography from a time and place that I knew so little about. It was a kind of miniature adventure.

By any standard, the Baburnama is an extraordinary book. The memoirs of Babur, founder of the mighty Mughal Empire, the book covers his life (with notable lacunae) from his early years to a short time before his death. It was written in Chaghatai, an extinct Turkic language that was Babur’s mother tongue. This edition, by the way, was translated by Annette Beveridge, who was something of an extraordinary figure herself, having completed this translation at her English home for linguistic amusement. It was no easy task, as the mountains of footnotes—almost all comments on a particular Chaghatai word or phrase—attest.

Babur’s life was nothing if not eventful. The story begins in Central Asia where, at the tender age of 11, Babur first becomes a ruler. From this moment he is thrown into the thick of politics and war, conquering and losing territories, fleeing for his life, gathering forces again, and repeating the process. Eventually his changing fortunes force him southward, to India (or Hindustan, as he calls it), where he conquers vast territories in a series of massive battles, thus setting the groundwork for the Mughal Empire that would dominate for centuries to come.

And yet this thumbnail sketch does not really capture the experience of reading this book. For one, it reads a lot more like a diary than a polished autobiography, full of short entries of quite quotidian details. One senses that Babur wrote this either for himself or for a small circle, as he does not take many pains to explain who people are. In any case, there must be well over 200 individuals mentioned in this book, which can make for a pretty frustrating reading experience—especially when you are also unfamiliar with the geography of the region. (I do wish Beveridge’s footnotes added historical context rather than expanding upon linguistic puzzles.)

In most professional reviews I have read of this book, the writer dwells upon Babur’s virtues. There is, indeed, much to admire in the man. His prose is plain and unadorned, cutting straight to the point with no unnecessary flourish. Even more important, Babur is frank to quite a surprising extent. He admits, for example, that his first feelings of love were for a boy (even if he did not go after men, women did not seem to excite him all that much). He can be disarmingly sensitive; at one point he cries after a melon reminds him of his lost homeland. And he is consistently honest and fair-minded, neither magnifying his victories nor minimizing his defeats.

Babur also boasts many intellectual virtues. He was clearly quite cultured and literate. This book is scattered with poems, many his own. Clearly, he cared deeply for the written word; near the end, he even takes the time to chastise his adult son for sending him a badly-written letter. And in the section on the flora and fauna of Hindustan, Babur reveals a penetrating eye for nature. He divines, for example, that the closest living relative of the rhinoceros is the horse—a brilliant deduction, considering how superficially different the two animals appear. He consistently dwells on his love for beautiful natural spots and well-made gardens.

So much can be said for Babur. But not enough is said—either in those reviews, or the introduction to this edition—of the river of violence that courses through these pages. True, Babur does not dwell on this violence; he usually mentions it as a passing detail to a more interesting story. But it is never far off, and I always found it disturbing. Babur speaks quite casually about executing prisoners and, indeed, putting whole cities to the sword. Probably I should not be shocked by this. After all, Babur was one of history’s great conquerors; and it is obvious from his own narrative that he lived his entire life under threat of violence.

Even so, I could not bring myself to admire the amateur naturalist knowing that he had, some time before, been strolling through the streets of a conquered city, stepping over the bodies of hundreds of massacred civilians. And I think that this considerably diminished my enjoyment of the book, as I found it far more difficult to savor the quieter, more human moments of the text. This, along with the preponderance of names and the diary-like brevity, made the book a bit of a slog at times. However, if you have any historical interest at all in this time or place, then the Baburnama is obligatory. It is full of so much valuable detail that a historian could easily spend a decade on this book alone, parsing out all of the references, piecing together the wider story. And even if you are a complete amateur, like myself, this book is still quite an educational experience.

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Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By some fateful coincidence, I find myself writing this review on the 55th anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder. The coincidence feels significant, if only because this is probably one of the most crucial books in my reading life. I originally encountered the little paperback in university—borrowed from a roommate who had to read it for a class. Though I had only the vaguest idea of who Malcolm X was, the book transfixed me, even dominated me. Every page felt like a gut punch. My love of reading was substantially deepened by the experience. One decade later, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has lost none of its power.

This book has so many things going for it that it is a challenge to focus on a few. For one, Haley has beautifully captured Malcolm X’s voice. You can really hear him speak through the page—with humor, with wit, with passion, and most of all with righteous anger. (This time around, I listened to Lawrence Fishburne’s excellent audio version, which brought an extra dimension of realism to Malcolm’s voice.) What is more, the story that he tells is simply a good story on any terms, even if it were all made up. His childhood poverty, his gradual introduction into the ‘hustling life’ (as he called it), his incarceration, his conversion, his betrayal, his journey to Mecca—a novelist would have difficulty coming up with anything better.

But what is most valuable book is, as Malcolm X himself says, its sociological import. The first time I read this, I thought of it mainly as a historical document. Yet the sad truth is that Malcolm X’s story is still very much possible—indeed, a reality—in the United States. All of the essential ingredients are still there: segregation (de facto if not de jure), limited job opportunities, and mass incarceration. Indeed, while some things have gotten better, and much has remained the same, in some ways things have gotten worse. For example, the US certainly imprisons more people nowadays (disproportionately POC) than in Malcolm X’s day. There is still a direct pipeline from the failing public school in the black neighborhood to the prison cell.

Malcolm X is often contrasted with Martin Luther King, Jr., for presenting a “violent” alternative to King’s non-violence. But the perspective that Malcolm X consistently articulates cannot be simply boiled down to violence. His essential point is that, if any group of people in the world had been treated like black people in America have been—enslaved, lynched, legally disenfranchised, economically shut out, thrown into jails—then they would be well within their rights to fight back, “by any means necessary.” One can hardly imagine a group of, say, German immigrants, after undergoing such an ordeal, marching “peacefully” for their rights. Few ethical or legal codes prohibit self-defense. And it is the height of moral hypocrisy to hold the oppressed to a higher ethical standard than the oppressors.

The best response to this I know is from James Baldwin, who, while conceding the premises, wrote: “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.” In other words, if blacks did unto whites what whites did unto blacks, they would do spiritual damage to themselves. Now, not being of any religious bent myself, I at first treated this as a vaguely mystical sentiment. But I have to admit that, during the presidency of Donald Trump, I gradually came to see the real, practical truth in this statement. Racism is really a kind of psychic rot—not localized simply to our attitudes about race, but spreading in all directions, poisoning our sense of justice, spoiling our intelligence, stultifying our emotions. Though Malcolm X never gave up his insistence on the right to self-defense, he agreed with Baldwin in treating racism, not simply as a matter of prejudice to overcome, but a gnawing cancer at the heart of the country, capable of destroying it. And, for my part, I am no longer inclined to view such statements as merely rhetorical.

So in addition to being a thrilling story, wonderfully told, The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents us with a challenging indictment of America—still as true and valid as when he spoke it, fifty five years ago. I think any citizen will be improved by wrestling with Malcolm’s story and his conclusions. But let us not forget the personality of Malcolm, the man—someone who radiates genuine charisma. For my part, what I find most appealing and inspiring in Malcolm X is his intellectual side. Deprived of a formal education, he largely educated himself in prison by reading voraciously. And this curiosity stayed with him all his life. He recounts the thrill of debating college students—white and black—during his speaking tours, and speaks wistfully of going back to school to get a degree, and filling up his days studying all sorts of arcane subjects. In a saner society, Malcolm X would certainly have become a respected member of the intelligentsia, pushing the bounds of knowledge. It is up to us to create such a society.

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