10.30.2014

On the New York Review of Books

On February 1st 1963 The New York Review of Books published its first issue during a printer’s strike that had shut down all seven New York City newspapers. Over the years, the scope of its coverage has expanded to the extent that it has become the leading cultural periodical in this country. I recently purchased a copy of that first issue. The editors introduced the publication this way:

The New York Review of Books presents reviews of some of the more interesting and important books published this winter. It does not, however, seek merely to fill the gap created by the printers strike in New York City but to take the opportunity which the strike has presented to publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel in need in America….The hope of the editors is to suggest, however imperfectly, some of the qualities which a responsible literary journal should have and to discovery whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one.

After more than 50 years of publishing a new issue almost every two weeks, there is little doubt there both a “need” and demand for a publication of this sort. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, once the foremost literary publication in this country, has said it was “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.” The quality of the essays in the succeeding issues has continued that tradition.

The first issue has superb reviews of well-known authors by well-known writers. Mary McCarthy reviewed William Burroughs’, The Naked Lunch; Susan Sontag reviewed Selected Essays by Simone Weil; W. H. Auden wrote about David Jones’ Anathemata; Dwight Macdonald reviewed The Politics of Hope by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. etc., etc.

Separately, the first issue contained new poems: Robert Lowell’s Buenos Aires; John Berryman’s Three Dream Songs; Robert Penn Warren’s "Lyrics" from Delight, as well as reviews of several books of poetry. And there were a great many pages advertising new fiction and non-fiction books.

I always look forward to the next issue. Will there be topics that interest me, writers who impress me with their erudition, and writing that will amuse and educate? There always are; here is an example.

In the August 8, 2013 issue Freeman Dyson reviewed a new biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the troubled genius I so admire, that focuses on his work in physics. Dyson knew Oppenheimer and believes that his work in physics was of minor importance.

But he thinks highly of his many other contributions—role in building the first cyclotron at Berkeley, teaching graduate students, leading the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and serving as Chairman of a committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Still, it is his failure to break new ground in theoretical physics that disappoints Dyson. He attributes it to a lack of what he calls “Sitzfleisch.” “Sitzfleisch” is a German word that means “the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were always done hastily and often full of mistakes.”

I have no way to evaluate Dyson’s claim. But the concept of Sitzfleisch interests me and as I think about it, I realize it applies widely. I know how fruitful it can be to concentrate for an extended period on a topic. And I know others who are simply unable to do that, to their detriment and ultimate regret.

Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have recently made a film, The 50 Year Argument that is an in-depth-portrait of the periodical. It draws upon rare archival material, interviews, and the work of some of its writers to illustrate the range of the magazine during the past five decades.

The film premiered on HBO at the end of September. I trust it will eventually become more widely available.

10.27.2014

Janet Yellen on Economic Inequality


Speeches by government officials on economic inequality are rare. You recall the speech President Obama delivered some time ago in which he said it was the defining issue of our time. We haven’t heard a word from him since, let alone any major policy changes to remedy the situation.

But Janet Yellen, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, spoke out forcefully on this issue last week (10/17/14). In her speech to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston she said:

"The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concerns me. … It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity."

From all accounts this is the first time a Chairman of the Federal Reserve devoted an entire speech to economic inequality in this country. In 2007 when he was Chairman, Ben Bernanke did talk about the issue but lamely concluded,

I will not draw any firm conclusions about the extent to which policy should attempt to offset inequality in economic outcomes; that determination inherently depends on values and social trade-offs and is thus properly left to the political process.” Talk about passing the buck.

In contrast, Yellen identified a number of areas that called for action. She said it was the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to do all it could to promote economic opportunities in this country, called for efforts to reduce the enormous debt students incur in attending college, as well as promoting early education and affordable higher education. She noted that mobility is lower in the United States than most other advanced countries and urged the creation of new businesses that would give individuals a chance of moving up.

All in all, a very concrete set of proposals, an impressive statement from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Let’s hope it isn’t Yellen’s last word on this issue. She obviously cares about the problem, so I don’t think it will be.

Yellen alluded to the possibility that income inequality could be a significant factor in the overall weakness in the economy. According to Neil Irwin (Times, 10/17/14) the logic of this conjecture goes like this:

"The wealthy tend to save a large proportion of their income, whereas middle and low- income people spend almost all that they earn. Because a rising share of income is going to the wealthy, spending—and hence aggregate demand—is rising more slowly than it would if there were more even distribution of income."

If true, this hypothesis provides additional support for using fiscal policy and congressional action to lessen the extent of economic inequality in this country. The benefits are clear. Other than fiscal policy, the likelihood of congressional action now is virtually nil, an outcome that is deeply distressing to this writer and I imagine to Yellen too.

10.24.2014

The Rescuer


What do these well-known individuals have in common: Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Claude Levi-Strauss, Marcel Duchamp? They are among the many individuals, currently estimated to be over 2,000, that Varian Fry helped to escape from Nazi Germany and occupied France during World War II. They were largely Jewish individuals who were well-known cultural figures—artists, writers, musicians and scientists.

Fry began his work by volunteering to serve on the Emergency Rescue Committee, headquartered in Marseille that aided persons fleeing the Nazis. When he began, the group had the support of the State Department, but that ended 13 months later as the Department slowly turned against it in favor of the Vichy Government that, with the State Department’s agreement, eventually arranged his arrest and expulsion from France.

Before then he had successfully procured forged identity cards, visas to America and arranged passage on ships leaving from Marseille or smuggling those in flight across the border to Spain or Portugal. When asked about his motives for his extremely risky activities, Fry responded that when he had visited Berlin in 1935, he saw Gestapo men assaulting Jews in the city’s streets, and he felt he could no longer remain indifferent.

''I remembered what I had seen in Germany. I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them ... It was my duty to help them ... Friends warned me of the danger. They said I was a fool to go. I, too, could be walking into the trap. I might never come back alive."

In her book about Fry, The Rescuer, Dara Horn is less generous. She attributes his reasons to a mental illness, characterized as a manic-depressive struggle that occupied his entire life. She writes that his son held a somewhat similar view. He is quoted as saying, “Maybe you need to be a little unhinged to do something foolhardy like that. If Prozac had existed in the 1940s, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

I regard both accounts as irrelevant to his work. What he did is far more important, indeed of historic and cultural importance, than his motives, motives that neither Fry, his son, biographer or anyone else can ever hope to fathom.

Unfortunately, Fry was never honored or received the kind of gratitude from those he saved that Sousa Mendes did from the individuals he helped escape from Nazi Germany. Mendes was Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France. The Times reported that 40 of them made a pilgrimage to Portugal recently to pay homage to the man who saved their lives.

It is estimated that Mendes issued at least 30,000 (1/3 of whom were Jews) Portuguese visas to individuals seeking to flee the Germans. “He issued many of the visas personally and also persuaded some others on the Portuguese diplomatic staff stationed in France to do the same.” This was contrary to the policy of Fascist government in Portugal that tried and subsequently dismissed him from the diplomatic services, canceling his pension rights. He died in poverty in 1954.

Like Fry he has been honored in Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” One of the people who made the pilgrimage to honor Mendes said, “You hear about people who argued that they couldn’t help because it was wartime and they had their own family to worry about, but here was a man with a career, a wife and an incredible amount of children who certainty did do something for others.”


10.19.2014

The Liar's Wife

Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife consists of four novellas, each about an individual at a different stage of their life. Most look back on previous times, reviewing mistakes that were made and how their life has changed since then.

In the first titled novella, an elderly, retired scientist recalls her brief marriage to a lying, deceiving Irishman and her life in Dublin before she simply walked out on him. Many years later, he and his new wife, both looking like hippies, visit her at her home in Maine. After the night they spend there, she realizes, “Without Johnny she wouldn’t have known, really, who she was. Because he had taught her who she was not.”

In “Simone Weil in New York,” French born Genevieve, now living in New York with her husband, child, and brother, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is troubled by the forthcoming visit of Weil. She and her parents had fled France to escape the Nazis who had overrun the country. Weil decides to visit Genevieve, once a student in her classes.

Genevieve dreads having to spend time with her, day after day listening to her moral hectoring and is no longer interested in engaging in the unanswerable questions Weil keeps pestering her with. Eventually Weil leaves for England to join the French Resistance group there. Genevieve asks, “How is she able to say these things; how did she become the way she is. She comes from a loving family… a maimed genius? A Saint? A madwoman?”

Bill Morton a 90 year-old retired physician looks back on “the greatest day of my life” in the third novella, “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” Young Bill Morton was chosen to introduce Thomas Mann to his classmates when he visited the school after fleeing Nazi Germany.

Bill’s reminiscences as he unfolds the visit are moving. He recalls Mann’s speech to the students was “electrifying.” It was almost as if were being given shock treatments…but instead of torment, being replaced by nullity, the nullity of my own life…of what it meant to be human in a world that was full of evil and greatness, of terms and conditions larger than I had ever imagined.

Mann remarks: I have spoken to you of truth, justice, civilization, democracy … Civilization is in retreat. A period of lawlessness and anarchy reigns over the outward life of people…Evil has been revealed to us in such crassness and meanness that our eyes have been opened to the dignity and simple beauty of the good…I salute you in this country that is conscious of its own human inadequacy, a country that perseveres in a faith which is sound and utterly necessary to life—faith in goodness, in freedom and truth, in justice and in peace.

Many years later Bill enters the University of Chicago during the era of Robert Hutchins. It was the first time he had lived away from home. His excitement at reading the Great Books is an experience well known to me, the study of the Socratic method, the insistence on rigorous scientific evidence, debates about he theory of a just war and moral responsibility. It was one of the golden ages of academic education.

While he loves the study of the literature, Bill knew he would never be a great literary scholar and he saw no point in pursuing the subject unless he was going to be great at it. And so he devoted the rest of his life to medicine.

In “Fine Arts,” Theresa Riordan, a brilliant student in Catholic seminary, is sent by the nuns to a highly regarded university. While there she discovers her love of arts and in particular a rarely known Italian sculptor. After a brief, disastrous, affair with her married professor, she is granted a stipend that enables her to spend a month in Lucca studying the 15th century sculptor, Mateo Civitali.

While there she meets a wealthy, elderly collector, Signore Allard, who has several works by the sculptor. He becomes her guide and mentor as they meet for meals each day and visit museums that have other works by Civitali. After dinner one night the aged Signore Allard is killed as his car runs off the road on the way to his villa.

The fairy tale story ends when, back in America, Theresa receives a telephone call from Allard’s attorney with the following bit of news: Signore Allard has provided very handsomely for you. The villa and its contents belong to you; he has arranged that the staff be kept on, that they be paid an annuity only as long as they continue to work there. And has left you a very large sum of cash because he makes a point that you will be responsible for the upkeep of the villa as he left it....I hope you can come to Lucca as soon as possible.

It is difficult to identify any underlying theme that connects the four novellas. There are ideas that crop up in some, but not all—beauty, affliction, privilege, injustice, responsibility. But otherwise each tale stands alone in my mind, a set of short stories that in no way diminishes the pleasure of Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife.


10.16.2014

On Libraries


During World War II in the neighborhood where I lived, a small lending library of current fiction and non-fiction books was maintained in a nearby home. Anyone could pay a modest fee to borrow a book for a week or so, making it unnecessary to purchase a copy or wait until one became available at the distant public library. It wasn’t so easy to buy books during those wartime years so the little lending library around the block became a popular and much appreciated neighborhood center. Whatever happened to those small private lending libraries? I suspect they have all but vanished from this country.

About the time I entered Junior High, I began to study at the nearby library in my hometown. It was a small library located in the City Hall of what was then a village, albeit no less fashionable than now. The library was not far from my home and eventually I began biking or taking the bus there several times a week. It was quiet. The tables were hidden from one another in between the open stacks that filled the rooms. The books that I needed then were readily available. But mostly I would go to study and read. It was more than enough to simply be amongst those books for an hour or two in the afternoon.

I recall an older man was always there when I arrived. Now that I think about it, he must have been about the same age as I am now. Perhaps he was a writer for he was always scribbling something on a pad of yellow paper. I suspect I was rather impressed by his devotion to writing and seriousness of intent. Strangely, after all of these years, I’ve not forgotten him or that strange blend of paper, leather, and dust that I inhaled each time I stepped foot in the little library in my hometown.

In his blog (10/16/14), Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp describes a somewhat similar experience, updated for modern times. Every weekday in my university library I see a diminutive elderly man seated in front of a computer near the main reference desk. He wears an olive-drab bucket cap with the cord fastened below his chin and a sweater with holes at the elbows. His nose is inches from the screen, against which he holds a pocket magnifying glass. Beside him is a pile of books and papers. His gaze is intent.

Since the days of my youth, I have been to many fine libraries: Widener, Bodleian, the libraries at Stanford and Berkeley. I am overwhelmed with gratitude each time I step foot in one of those places. The first time I wandered in to the great reading room of the New York Public Library I had to stop and catch my breath.

Before me were row after row of tables with hundreds of readers peering at their books. I walked down one of the long aisles lined with book shelves glimpsing the titles of reference books most of which I didn’t even know existed, crossed over to the other side with a comparable collection that I would love to be able to get my hands on. It was hard to leave. While I usually work alone, after being in that room, I realized for perhaps the first time that I could actually read and write in the reading room of the New York Public Library and that if I lived in New York, I would probably go there every day.

And yet, as rich as are the resources of the New York Public Library and other comparable collections, the little library in the City Hall of my hometown, like any first love, will always remain my favorite. It is where I would want to be when it comes time to read my last book. I am sure the card catalog will still be there. After all, the librarians would never think of abandoning it for something as racy as a computer.

Is anyone going to the library now? To find out I went over to the Portland State University library the other day. I walked in the main entry and was immediately confronted by a room full of computers, with a student working at each console and a long line of other students waiting for an opening.

I counted about 50 workstations and as I walked up and down row upon row of them, I failed to see a single person reading a book. Some were taking notes from a website, others were writing text, while still others were composing e-mails. I went upstairs and observed much the same at about a dozen round tables each with five radiating computer stations, fully occupied with students peering at the screen.

As far as I could tell, not one was reading from a book. Where were the books, anyway? What a barren place I thought. Off to the side there were a few scattered readers. Most of them were taking notes from textbooks not anything from the library collection. However, I did see a fair number of students listening to their iPods and talking on their cell phones.

Up to the third, fourth and fifth floor with progressively fewer students but almost without exception each one working away on their laptops. These floors were largely devoted to the library’s open stacks, aisle after aisle of book shelves crammed full of books, journals, and monographs. I walked down the central aisle of each floor, glancing to my left and then to my right and I did not see a single individual browsing through these books.

I did see a few library personal returning books to the shelves. That was reassuring. And there were a small number of students reading at the largely empty tables on the perimeter of each floor, but not one by a pile of books that they had collected from the stacks or checked out from the library. So many books, so many unopened, untouched books, so few, if any, readers, year after year.


10.12.2014

Books by Bike

Every time I return to Portland, Oregon, where I am now, I’m astonished at the number of bikers on the street. Portland is often referred to as the biking capital of this country, although I am sure there are other cities with numerous bikers on its roadways.

I’ve never understood how there could be so many bike riders here. For nine months of the year it often rains, with occasional periods of freezing cold, once in a while it snows, and during those nine months, clouds and dense fog frequently settle over the city. How can they do this day after day? What hearty souls they must be.

Meanwhile, city planners keep adding additional bike lanes to the dismay of automobile drivers. A two-lane avenue can quickly be reduced to one lane, plus a separate bike lane, leaving those in their cars stuck in long lines of traffic, while the bikers go speeding by.

The Times recently (10/10/14) reported yet another biking development in Portland. It is said to combine its bike-friendly (“if not bike-crazed”) tradition with its literary, environmental and liberal history. The development is known as Street Books, a service designed to deliver books to the countless homeless individuals who live throughout the city.

The number of homeless individuals that live in Portland also astonishes me. When it isn’t raining or cold, they sleep anywhere they can find a legal space. When it rains, they move under bridges, highways, or deep in building alcoves that protect them from the elements.

Street Books is a non-profit book bike-delivery service to “people living outside.” It was founded by Laura Moulton, an artist and adjunct professor of creative nonfiction. She started Street Books from Kickstarter backers and raised additional funds from various grants and foundations.

Together with three part time salaried employees, she travels around the city handing out books to homeless readers. One of the employees who pedals the bike around the city commented:

“Taking books to the streets sends the message that poor and marginalized people are no so different from the “us” that defines the educated literate mainstream of the city, whether in its hipster, computer geeks or bankers. It transcends the bookish culture of Portland, though I think it’s perfect for the bookish culture of Portland.”


That’s Portland at its best. I’ve lived here for over 47 years, ever since I came to teach at Reed College. I recall visiting Portland when I was a graduate student during a summer job with an advertising company. That was more than 50 years ago.

The city then was a far cry from what it is now—old and run-down, without city planning, an environmental movement or leaders like Tom McCall who was governor of the State from during the 60s and 70s and Neil Goldschmidt who really transformed the city when he was mayor in the late 80s to 1991.

I found Portland dismal, dreary, and disappointing during that initial visit and vowed to myself that I will never live there. And look what happened!

10.05.2014

On the Ebola Virus

At the time of this writing, the Ebola patient in Dallas is “fighting for his life.” As of now he is the only victim of the disease in this country. More than 7,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola in this latest outbreak, the biggest on record. More than 3,000 victims have died.


The disease continues to be spreading. Meanwhile, medical aid centers from several countries are gradually being established in the hardest hit areas. While the conditions in which the virus is transmitted are well known, it remains uncertain how many more individuals will be infected.

I was reminded of a blog I wrote earlier this year about two films that deal with the spread and consequences of viruses. I am reposting it today.

Deadly Viruses
In 1918 a deadly influenza virus swept over the globe. It infected 500,000,000 people and was responsible for the death of an estimated 50 to 100 million –3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. It was no doubt one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. From time to time a severe virus infects a significant number of people in this country and elsewhere, but not anywhere like the 1918 Flu Pandemic, as it has become known.

Just yesterday there was a report of the arrival in this country of a new virus that spreads from person to person and is often fatal. It is known as the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, that has so far infected three people in the US and many more in sixteen other countries. In Saudi Arabia alone, 157 have died from this virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the virus is from the same family as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS).

Early last month there was an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea. As of April 17th, over 200 cases had been reported, including 137 deaths. Liberia and Sierra Leone, both neighboring countries, have also reported Ebola cases. Research on its origin and treatment has just begun.

The outbreak of such a deadly disease is the subject of two films I saw recently—Contagion and Outbreak. Contagion deals with a killer virus that originated in Hong Kong, spread rapidly to Chicago and elsewhere in this country. A team of researchers was recruited from the World Health Organization, the CDC and a professor in San Francisco. People were advised to wash their hands, avoid shaking hands, be mindful when you open doors in public places, or pressing elevator buttons, etc. The toll the virus takes upon an infected body is horrible to behold.

Outbreak opens deep in an African rain forest where a monkey has infected a small village, killing everyone who lived there. Again a team of researchers descends upon the village in an effort to understand the source of the virus and contain it, insofar as possible. They are unsuccessful, as one of the disease carrying monkeys is imported to this country and escapes into a forested area close to a small town. Eventually most of residents who lived there are infected with the virus, whereupon the military is ordered to quarantine the town so that no one can leave.

Outbreak is the more significant of the two. It explores a complicated issue after the President, at the request of a sinister general in cahoots with a drug company, orders the military to bomb the town with a weapon that will destroy all its inhabitants. The issue that emerges from this order is the moral legitimacy of such an action, one that will kill a relatively small number of people to save millions of other individuals throughout the country.

In philosophy this is known as the trolley problem. In one variation of this hypothetical, you are standing by the side of a railway track as a train, whose brakes have failed, approaches. You note that 5 people are tied to the tracks that will be killed unless you pull the switch you are standing by, sending the train to a sidetrack. Then you observe one person is tied to the sidetrack where you could send the train.

What do you do? Do stand by helpless as the train kills five people or divert it so that it only kills one?

The answer to this question is by no means simple and has been the subject of considerable philosophical debate. It is also the question set before the commander of the plane about to be sent to kill all the inhabitants of the quarantined town. Meanwhile, you are aware that researchers are working feverishly to find a vaccine that will destroy the virus.

9.11.2014

A Break




Marks in the Margin is taking an unexpected break for a while. Hope to be back soon.

9.09.2014

God's Country


In 1979 Louis Malle, the much respected French film director, visited the town of Glencoe, Minnesota, population 5,000. I have no idea why that town. But while there he made a 90-minute documentary, God’s Country, of some of the residents who lived there. I was totally engrossed by each of the individuals he interviewed.

Glencoe is about 60 miles west of Minneapolis and is a farming community with a population that is mostly of German extraction. We meet seed farmers, dairy farmers, those who raise and bred cattle and pigs. There are 9 churches and most of the people are religious.

Malle spends a fair amount of time probing the individuals he depicts in the film—an elderly woman who tends a large garden, a free-spirited woman who works in the Social Security office, a policeman, residents of a nursing home and several farmers. He is amused by how much lawn mowing they do. (Soon the communities in drought-stricken California will be forbidden to have lawns.}


What struck me most about these people was how articulate they were, the intelligence and downright wisdom they display in responding to Malle’s questions. Several had not graduated from high school, none had attended college. And yet they conveyed the kind of intelligence you might find in any group of college graduates.

Yet, not everyone in Glencoe is so open-minded. No African Americans live there, and there appears to be a great deal of prejudice against them, as well as gays. One farmer makes it clear he resents Jews who, he claims, govern the market for his products. A bright young woman claims that Glencoe men “have never had a conversation with a woman.” I doubt Glencoe is unique in that respect.

Many of the younger people are moving elsewhere, giving up on a long family tradition of farming. They feel there is no longer any financial future is staying on the land. One seed grower reported he lost $100,000 the year before he was interviewed.


I imagine the people who live in Glencoe and the life they lead there are not a great deal different than anywhere, big city or small. People get by, they have successes and failures, some years are better than others, and everyone keeps dreaming.

Six years later, Malle returned to see if anything had changed. To some degree it had. Farm prices were down even further and the economy was struggling. The film concludes at the family dinner of a Glencoe lawyer, who says the country now has,

an obsession with greed… it’s horrible but good people won’t take it much longer: They aren’t going to subscribe with this philosophy of greed.”

Sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?


9.05.2014

Hitler's Children

The documentary Hitler’s Children is not about the life and times of his offspring. In fact, it is presumed he never had any children. Rather, the film portrays a small group of descendants of some of the highest-ranking Nazi leaders.

All of them appeared to be grappling with considerable conflict. One did everything to avoid talking about it. Another broke down at Auschwitz. One traveled the country to speak about his experiences.

An Israeli filmmaker interviewed each of them about their life now and what it meant to be closely related to a high-ranking Nazi leader. All of them found it difficult to answer his questions, there were many long pauses, a few tears, confessions, denials.

Bettina Goering, the grandniece of Hermann Goering, left Germany, changed her name and lives in a house in the desert near Santa Fe, New Mexico. She wants nothing to do with her past.

Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Governor General of Nazi occupied Poland, travels throughout Germany delivering lectures, many to young students, denouncing his father and the Third Reich. His actions cost him many friendships, including members of his family who disbelieve Frank’s account of what he did in Nazi Germany.


Monika Goeth, daughter of Amon Goeth, commandant of the Nazi labor camp in Plaszow in Poland, spoke eloquently and with considerable emotion about her memories and the guilt she experiences to this day. She quite clearly displays her shame and distress about her heritage.


None of these individuals lives at peace. No doubt their grief and guilt comes and goes. But it is always there, impossible to ignore, a presence of times not so long ago.

9.03.2014

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been on the Times Hardcover Best Seller list for the past 20 weeks and is currently ranked #15. The book is a dense, lengthy treatise on the distribution of income and wealth in more than twenty countries. Piketty attempts to explain its underlying mechanisms and future dimensions. Who would have believed that a rigorous economic analysis like this would be so popular?

I also wonder how many purchasers actually read the entire book, 577 pages plus another 177 pages of detailed notes. But Piketty, who has become something of a rock star, does provide a cogent Introduction that pretty well outlines his major points. A summary follows:

Discussion about economic inequality has been largely based on prejudice, opinions and very little on facts or research. Piketty calls it a “dialogue of the deaf.” At the same time he acknowledges that even research is always provisional and tentative.

His goal is to provide comprehensive and historically accurate data on income, inheritance and taxes in every country where it is available. It is also supplemented by historical data from other investigators.

Piketty’s findings point to a sharp rise in overall income taken by the top ten percent of households after the decade following the Great Depression. During World War II until 2007, the income of the top 10% and within that group the top 0.1 stayed relatively constant and then rose sharply to its steadily increasing level.

In addition to income, he believes it is essential to assess the distribution of wealth. Wealth is determined by the amount of unexpended income and inheritance that accrues to individuals and families on a year-to-year basis. Piketty believes wealth contributes far more to rising inequality than most people had realized. His analysis of wealth may be the most original contribution of his work.

People with inherited wealth and surplus income are able to save a fair amount of capital each year. Piketty then suggests that, “When the rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy then it logically follows that inherited wealth grows faster than output and income.

This is the condition in the developed world today and the reason the income levels of the top 10% and higher is rising so rapidly. In a sense we have become a “patrimonial society,” of the sort that existed in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries when inherited wealth and family dynasties played such a dominant role in the economy.

It also suggests that great wealth brings with it considerable political power that only reinforces the increasing concentration of wealth at the higher brackets. This is also a feature of current political reality that, in my view bodes ill for breaking the cycle of the rising political power of the rich and very rich.

Then there are the rest of us--the not-so-very-rich, the middle class and the poor, whose economic conditions have stagnated and continued to decline in recent years.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning Economics professor at Princeton says Piketty “gives something we didn’t know we needed—a sweeping, elegant integration of growth theory…and the personal distribution of income and wealth.” He also confesses to a certain jealousy that he didn’t write the book that Piketty did.

I am left with the question when and how is economic inequality going to be reigned in and, thereby, making possible a more equitable distribution of the economic resources of this country. Piketty does suggest a worldwide wealth tax but implementing this idea is utterly fanciful in today’s political climate.

Piketty concludes on a modest tone: “Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import.”

9.01.2014

Labor Day Rerun: The Role of Place in Literature

In yesterday’s, Bookends (Sunday Times Book Review) Moshin Hamid and Thomas Mallon were asked to comment on the role of where you live in how and what they write.

Both agreed it has considerable influence. Hamid suspects Nadine Gordimer would never have written July’s People if she had not lived in South Africa. And Tolkien’s The Hobbit might have been quite different had he lived in Osaka instead of Oxfordshire.

Mallon says much the same things with two examples. “One wouldn’t take Booth Tarkington out of Indiana any more than one would remove Proust from Paris.” And then he isn’t entire sure. “And yet Joyce wrote the most local novel of all time, not in Dublin but in Trieste and Zurich and Paris.”

I imagine a little of local place and imagination is responsible for the work of most novelists. The issue interests me every time I move from one town to another, although I’ve not noticed any difference in what or how I write.

Currently I’m in Honolulu, where surfing and the military seem to dominate local life. Yet, I’ve not written about either. Then again, I’m not a novelist but I have written about the subject and copied what I said below.

In Florence I begin to wonder about the role of place in literature. So many writers have come to this city--Montaigne, Shelly, Byron, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Henry James, George Eliot, Goethe, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Dostoevsky.

Some settled here for long periods, others stayed for only a short time during their travels, and many have returned time and time again. More often than not they come to Italy and to this city in Tuscany to escape the cold, damp areas of the North and for some hoping that its sun and warmth will cure them of some ailment, primarily tuberculosis. However, once winter arrives in Tuscany they very quickly learn it can be as bitterly cold and damp here as it is in the North

How has living in Florence affected their writing? Would they have written differently had they remained in the city they left? If being here influences their work, does that depend on how long they stay?

Lawrence Durrell wrote, “What makes a “big book” is surely as much to do with their site as their characters and incidents." Eudora Welty agreed that, “fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?”

We know that Florence has been the setting of the many of the writers who have come here. One need only think of Forster’s A Room With a View:

It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not, with a painted ceiling…It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine, with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

Yes, very pleasant!

But what we really want to know is whether or not being here shaped their style or turned them in a new direction or solved a writerly problem they were facing. In general, is being here a source of literary inspiration?

Albeit a single example, I think the clearest answer to this question is provided by Dostoevsky, who came to Florence for the second time in 1868, then to escape the “damp and cold of Milan, where he and his wife [Anna] had been living for two months.”

In her Reminiscences Anna records how thrilled Dostoevsky was to be in Florence and that he was working productively on The Idiot. Yet, it did not take him long to realize there is more to writing than being in this benign place. He soon began to miss his friends or any form of congenial company. Anna writes in Reminiscences:

We did not know a single soul in Florence with whom we could talk, argue, joke, exchange reactions. Around us all were strangers, and sometimes hostile ones; and this total isolation from people was sometimes difficult to bear.

And in a letter to his niece, Dostoevsky wrote: I cannot write here. For that I must be in Russia without fail, must see, hear and take a direct part in Russian life; where’s here I am losing even the possibility of writing, since I lack both the essential material, namely Russian reality…and the Russian people.

Then the summer arrived and he and Anna found it almost unbearable to deal with ever increasing heat of this city. Some people seem to thrive in hot weather. Apparently Dostoevsky was not one of them, for he found it almost impossible to write under such “hellish” conditions.

At other times he felt differently. When the sun shines, it is almost Paradise. Impossible to imagine anywhere more beautiful than this sky, this air, this light.

In A Literary Companion to Florence, a rich source of information for this post, Francis King claims that Dostoevsky not only completed The Idiot in Florence, “but also began the gestation of The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov.”

Let us just say, then, that being here in this Tuscan town can offer some writers a comfortable place to work and sometimes give spark to their work. But that these sparks can occur just about anywhere, regardless of place and climate.

The life that Dostoyevsky led in Russia gave him a subject matter that ultimately led to his masterpieces. However, he did not have to be there to write them, at least, not all of the time. Eventually, he needed to return to the source of his tales. And while he did not write novels about the people or places he knew in Florence, he was able to write well while he was here, but only if it wasn’t too hot.

In answer to the general question about the role of place in literature, let us conclude that, as with all general literary questions, there are no general answers. Place has a role, but its role is highly variable and dependent on so many other factors that it is impossible to disentangle their effects from all the others that influence a writer.

8.28.2014

Our Broken Constitution

Late last year Jeffrey Toobin wrote an important essay on what he calls “Our Broken Constitution” (New Yorker 12/9/13). Most everyone believes our government isn’t working now. Toobin asks is that the result of the Constitution? He reviews the history of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the views of the founders, and some recent critiques of the Constitution

But nowhere does he propose a formal solution. He laments the difficulty of the amendment process and discusses some ideas about why we have such an obstructive Congress and a semi-paralytic Senate.

Anyone who reads the daily newspaper knows how dysfunctional Congress has become. We have read about it for years, a popular President from one party and a majority in Congress from the other party and so a Congress that does little else but argue and gets scarcely anything done, year after year.

We live in a time of rapid change that requires a more responsive legislature. The Constitution is clearly out of step with 21st Century. More recently Toobin continued this theme with a post about the unanimous Supreme Court ruling (the Noel Canning case) against the method by which President Obama made recess appointments.

The Constitution gives the President power to make such appointments because in the early days of the Republic travel was slow and the Congress was often in recess. That is clearly no longer necessary, yet the provision remains.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from the bicameral legislature mandated by the Constitution. This is unlike most countries in Western Europe that have a unicameral legislature, with a much greater turnover of members than we have in this country. This makes for a more responsive government, one that can adapt more quickly to change, and is less likely to get bogged down by an obstructive minority, especially one that is persistently so.

Would we have a more effective government with a unicameral legislature? We might at least avoid the inevitable conflict between a President of one party and a Congress from another. We would have a more experimental government, trying one approach and if it didn’t work, trying another.

I suppose we’ll never have an answer to this question. It is almost impossible to amend the Constitution. The country is too large and complicated now, the commitment to the Constitution is too firm, and the citizens of this country have little disposition to have a more experimental government.

Toobin concludes: The Noel Canning case is a reminder that nine Justices can agree on an interpretation of the Constitution that will, objectively, make the government function less well, less justly, and less democratically that it does now. This does little honor to the Constitution itself or the country that continues to venerate it.

We are supposed to have a government of laws, not men—a myth if there ever was one. Consider how current Constitutional law and the course of this country would be, if the Supreme Court in December of 2000 had decided not to end the recount of the Florida Presidential vote. It thereby handed presidential power to George W. Bush who became president with half- million fewer popular votes than Al Gore.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alioto would not be members of the Court today. As David Cole pointed out a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, affirmative action would be on firm constitutional grounds, the Second Amendment would not protect the right of private individuals to own guns, the rights of women to terminate a pregnancy would be protected and so too would regulations on corporate political campaign contributions.

Those are but a few of the differences that would exist today, if Al Gore had served as President. How dramatically different the recent history of this country would be if Roberts and Alioto had not been appointed to the Court.

8.25.2014

Words and Actions

My drama, like everyone’s, goes on upstairs, in the head. And I don’t think you can write the drama of the mind. All you have are the things people do. It’s always about what they do. Zia Haider Rahman

The people I admire most are those who translate their beliefs into action. Knowing and thinking is not enough in my book, nor are the words I write. Yet I am as guilty as anyone in failing to meet this standard.

From my first encounter during the Free Speech Movement while I was a graduate student at Berkeley, to the years not long after when this country was at war in Viet Nam, my beliefs were not followed by deeds. Instead, I stood by to complete my dissertation and teach my classes, while all around me my friends, students, and colleagues were out on the streets protesting.

The life of the nameless narrator of Zia Haider Rahman’s recent novel, In the Light of What We Know, was not unlike mine. It’s true that I’ve lived as someone who stands aside, choices determined by the sweep of ease and opportunity—and the corollary of standing by is not participating.

So it was that I was deeply impressed with what I learned about a man by the name of Andy Bachman, who lived and worked in the affluent Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Andy Bachman was a much-loved Rabbi at a Reform Congregation that drew more than a thousand families, including some of the well-known writers who live in the area.

To everyone’s surprise, Rabbi Bachman recently resigned from his congregation and his other Jewish obligations. He said he wanted to help the poor, regardless of their religion.

“I think that I deliver really good and really inspiring sermons about social justice, but is that really enough. It’s crazy to thank that’s enough. In order to maintain my sense of integrity and to keep the flame burning strongly about my commitments, I knew it was time to step away.”

Insuring justice and acting to preserve it are long-standing Jewish traditions. Bachman no longer felt he really was doing that. And he didn’t feel leaving his congregation was abandoning Judaism. Rather he was simply going to express it in a different way.

Like Rabbi Bachman, Simone Weil is another individual who put their convictions into practice. Weil graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, became a professor of philosophy and teacher at a number of schools throughout France. But that was not enough.

She worked as a laborer among the working class at factories in France. While there she conducted classes for the workers. She did the same with each of the farm families where she lived, harvesting the crops, milking the cows, cleaning up the barns etc.

She said, “From the moment that I act, I make myself exist….What I am is defined by what I can do."

Weil felt that hard labor is the truest road to knowledge, not the academic world in which she excelled. And so, like Andy Bachman, she “resigned” from her academic profession to devote her life to the plight of the working class. She believed it demanded the best efforts of each of us.

She also believed that physical work was important for an intellectual, “lest the mind become all too taken with itself, all too removed from the concrete realities of everyday life, the burdens that rest upon the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population.”

Both Andy Bachman and Simone Weil are among those individuals who serve as models of intelligent activism for me. It wasn’t sufficient for Weil to worry or feel compassion for the poor, nor was it enough for Andy Bachman to preach the importance of justice.

Rather what was required was acting in accordance with their convictions, even if it meant depriving themselves of ordinary satisfactions.


8.21.2014

Henri Cole's Paris Diary

In the Summer Issue (#209) of the Paris Review, Henri Cole remarks that poetry is primarily “finding the right words and getting them in the right order.” Later when asked why he writes, he replied:

For the completely selfish pleasure of composition, which for me surpasses the trumped-up pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex. Since I do not write to teach anybody anything, it’s a completely selfish act, but it gives me a sense of equilibrium and a reason for existence. Nothing gives me as much pleasure, when I’m doing it well, as writing.

I have had the same experience, as I write almost entirely for myself, viewing it as an exercise to put my thoughts to words as clearly as I can. If I didn’t write, those thoughts would never be put to the test, to see if they had any merit. Writing clarifies. Writing corrects.

Writing also takes me away from myself. This happens when I have something to say. I write and the time flashes by. Sometimes I look at the clock and cannot believe what time it is. When this happens writing becomes a kind of mindlessness.

But I have also come to recognize that in part, I write to converse, to make contact with someone, even though the person isn’t present or offers a reply.

Henri Cole is a prize-winning poet. While I’ve not read many of his poems I have come to know him through the poetic-like prose-picture essays he has been writing on the New Yorker’s web site. The most recent installment of his Paris Diary, “Street of the Iron Po(e)t” describes the early arrival of Spring in Paris.





A mild winter has prompted the vegetation in Paris to wake up early. Since February, plum, cherry, and almond trees have been blossoming in France, and the buds on the hazelnut trees are releasing grains of pollen into the wind. Has grim winter really ended?






It is followed by an extensive photo-essay on bees, their arrival, the role of each bee in the hive, and reference to the poetry of bees.


Here in France, bees, symbolizing immortality, were once an emblem of the sovereigns. Napoleon Bonaparte wore them embroidered into his regal garments and they ornamented many of his possessions. Surely the idea of a kingdom originates in nature with the bees. Perhaps the kingdom of poetry is not so different from that of a bee hive.


**Note: The latest chapter in Cole's Paris Diary can be found here.

8.18.2014

Moral Dimensions of Economic Inequality

There has been an enormous erosion of opportunities for people who are at the lower end of the scale. We have faltered in our commitment to create communities where everybody gets a share of the good life. A. Kornblum

While the subject of economic inequality has of late become more prominent, the defining issue of our time as the President once called it, there is scarcely any discussion of the moral issues posed by the enormous and growing disparities between the super-rich and the poor.

Instead, we have charts and tables, data and observations, liberal and conservative disputes, historical trends, recent findings and occasionally a proposed solution. And we have the widespread discussion of Thomas Piketty’s frequently discussed, frequently purchased, and, I suspect, not so frequently finished treatise, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

However, I am not overwhelmed with discussions of the merits, the morality or fairness of the “Great Divide.” Perhaps its moral unfairness is simply assumed. It’s hard to be sure about that. Are not the struggles and yes they are daily struggles of the poor even more important than all the oft-repeated facts? Have we grown to accept, desensitized, to the degree of economic inequality that currently exists in this country?

But is it right? Is it unjust? Is it cruel? What moral principles does it violate? Do we have to study philosophy all over again to answer these questions? Or can they be swiftly answered on grounds of simple fairness, commonsense moral arguments for justice?

Why such widespread silence on this issue? Where is the outrage, the protest, the demand for change?

William Sundstrom, an associate professor at Santa Clara University is one of the few who has confronted this issue head on (Santa Clara University Mark Kula Center for Applied Ethics, Vol. 9, Fall/Winter 1998).

Sundstrom doesn’t explore the claims he makes in any depth or provide their philosophical foundations. Rather he simply lists a set of moral concerns with a sentence of two describing each one. Conceivably he imagines they are self-evidently true. They include:

Compassion: As members of a larger community, we ought to care about individuals who are struggling to get by.

Fairness: Drastic inequalities between individuals in a market economy are incompatible with basic principles of human welfare.

Deservingness: A person’s income should have some relationship to what they deserve. “The low-skilled worker who puts in a long, hard day’s work may in the sense be as deserving as the high-powered lawyer or CEO.”

Opportunity: The limited opportunities of the poor to obtain an education, employment or exert political influence are inconsistent with a free, democratic society.

Individuals who seek to redress economic inequalities in this or other country might be well served by turning to these moral principles. In turn, those who wish to do nothing about the current and apparently growing differences between the rich and poor are obliged, in my mind, to formulate reasonable objections to those who believe the Great Divide violates basic principles of a just society.

Public discourse about the economic inequality seems to wax and wane. Piketty’s book stimulated interest for a while, as did the speech that Obama gave earlier this year. But he has not returned to the matter in any forceful way, preoccupied as he is by both large and small concerns elsewhere.

What will it take to focus public attention on this issue and, above all, its solution? Piketty’s book for all its intelligence and data is too academic. The broad economic policy speech the President delivered is all but forgotten. The economy seems to have recovered a bit from the Great Recession. The Occupy Wall Street movement has come and gone. Again, what is it going to take?

8.16.2014

Smartphone Reading

The ebook will overtake the paperback and hardback as Britons' preferred format for reading their favourite novels by 2018, according to a report. The UK consumer ebook market – which excludes professional and educational books – is forecast to almost triple from £380m to £1bn over the next four years. The Guardian 6/3/14

The other night I took my iPhone with me to a restaurant in Honolulu. I normally take a book when I’m alone or simply enjoy the meal and the view out to the sea. As I deliberated about taking it, having never done so before, I recalled reading about a person who observed Philip Roth reading on his iPhone at a restaurant in New York. I thought: If it’s OK with Philip, it’s OK with me.

I was surprised by how much I liked it. The text was readable, not too small, the screen was bright and clear, as they are on Apple products. Really it wasn’t much different than reading on the larger iPad. I didn’t text anyone, read emails, or search the web. Of course, I didn’t get very far, as the meal was great and the sunset was dazzling.

I have a friend who listens to audiobooks on her iPhone, as she walks along the sunny avenues hereabouts. She says she likes it in a way I will never be able to. In my experience, most of the people who record audiobooks sound so bland and uninvolved in the tale. She assures me that isn’t true most of the time. I reply: Give me an author’s words on the page, not in my ears. I hear them better on the page anyway.

I confess it bothers me when most everyone I see in public places has their nose in a cell phone screen. Can’t they wait until they arrive wherever they’re going to see what’s up? What’s the urgency? Have we also lost the fine art of patience? We live in a beautiful place on this earth. Why not pay attention to it, think about it for a while? Surely we have plans and ideas to ponder. Why not reflect on them for a while? And stop bumping into me.

Serious reading is increasingly difficult in an age of so many distractions. You really have to concentrate for a dedicated period of time if you are to get much out of a book. I was raised long before the advent of cell phones, even before TV, to say nothing of the web and Internet those countless apps. How lucky I was. Sure, it was sometimes a struggle to find the time to read, but then the distractions were textbooks, essay assignments, class presentations, that kind of thing, all of which required concentrated reading.

As far as I can tell, none of these cell phone-users are reading a book. Perhaps I am wrong. Laura Miller writes on Salon (5/14/14):

Those who enjoy wringing their hands in Spenglerian despair whenever they see heads bent over glossy black rectangles in public might want to check their pessimism. For all you know, those smartphone devotees are reveling in the fruits of Western Civilization—rather than playing Floppy Bird while it crumbles around them.

It seems to me most of these people appear to be texting, thumbs typing away with jet-like speed. The younger, the faster. Or playing one of the mindless games that draw people to these gadgets. No doubt there are subway or bus readers, but I doubt those I see on the street wouldn’t be typing away if they were reading Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy.

I have to also admit that there is something about a smart phone and other digital reading devices that have a Kindle App that is somewhat of an advantage. Namely, you can highlight notable passages, save them on your Amazon’s highlighting page, and then copy them in a Word document. In my case, they are then added to my commonplace book. There I can review them, use them if I want in something I am writing, and pass them on to others who express some interest.

I say it is “somewhat of an advantage” because I’m not sure if it really is. Perhaps it is better if I copy each one from a record I keep when I read a printed book. I know I don’t review each of the passages I’ve saved when I copy the Amazon highlights in one fell swoop. But I do when I re-type each one of them in a Word document. I suspect that consolidates their meaning, clarifies why I saved them in the first place and enables me to recall them much more readily than is possible with a single action of copying highlights.

In the past few years, I’ve changed my views about reading digital versions of books. When they first made their appearance, I was an ardent opponent. And while I still prefer reading printed versions of books, I no longer feel reading one on a smart phone or tablet signals the demise of literate culture. It is reading that’s important, not the format you prefer. It is also about what you read and what you make of the experience, if anything.

It seems I am in good company. Margaret Drabble writes of her “deep attachment to my e-reader…It enables you to read, anywhere, anytime, almost anything. It enables you to purchase or acquire texts at midnight, in the small hours, on a train to Tauton, at a bus stop, in a bunk on a ferry in the Arctic Circle.” Now, there is a devoted e-reader.

She claims her device, one that I believe is the Kindle Paperwhite, is almost perfect and, like myself, she too began and still prefers reading printed books. She admits there are so many ways of reading now, it no longer makes sense to ignore the advantages or e-readers, among them highlighting, traveling, being in a town without a bookstore, etc. She concludes, “…but I can feel myself being tempted into colour. The future is bright.”

8.13.2014

Portable Hell


Charles Simic writes that the world has become a portable hell (NYRB 8/6/14). He says he ought to be used to it, but he’s not. No one ever is.

The list of Simic’s hells is a long one beginning with those who grumble about “the laziness of our poor and the insatiable sexual appetite of our women…”

Simic says he “hated the Germans and wished them all dead. However, later on, when I saw the extent of destruction the Allied bombing had done to their cities, I was horrified by what was obviously pure malice.”

He is highly critical of collective punishment, authoritarian governments, “just” wars, the disregard of the poor by the rich, gourmet recipes, privatization, “the transfer of public funds into the pockets of the few.”

Such news bears down upon us from everywhere, cannot be avoided, arriving on phones, newspapers, television, tablets, and, oh, yes, the radio, friends, overheard conversations, tweets emails and blogs, like this one.

My country is bombing a distant country again, we are informed it is going to last a while. It is parachuting survival kits to people stranded on a mountaintop, chased by Islamic militants who command them to convert or be killed.

Government officials say the ISIS terrorist threat to this country is the most extreme we’ve ever faced.

Another country that I have some attachment to is at war with its neighbors, blasting buildings and its people. Collateral damage it is called. It has been going since the country was founded.

The Russians are massing troops on the Ukraine border. Do they plan to invade? If they do, what possible response can we and our allies make?

Planes are shot out the sky presumably by pro-Russians separatists in eastern Ukraine. Several hundred people are killed. Another is lost somewhere in the ocean, hundreds more died.

Conservatives are ranting about everything, our legislature is paralyzed, the President is helpless. He is first thoughtful one we’ve had in ages, reasons with care and insight. I feel sorry for him and my country.

Rebels are at war throughout the world, too many citizens are starving and dying of thirst, a deadly virus has broken out in Africa where young women are raped and taken prisoner, never to be found

Thousands of men and women are held in our prisons, potential terrorists are kept in solitary confinement, our troops are being killed in another far off land by the people we are there to protect.

The rich are getting richer, the rest of us poorer, and nothing is being done about it, the country is virtually mute about the subject.

People are streaming across our borders but Congress cannot agree on emergency measures to manage the influx.

The Red Sox are in last place, having their worst season in my memory after wining the World Series last year.

Portable hell—I’ve barely scratched the surface. What have I forgotten?

8.10.2014

The Secret of Raven Point

A hospital alone shows what war is. Erick Maria Remarque

Jennifer Vanderbes’ novel, The Secret of Raven Point is a World War II saga among areas of Italy that I know well. Both are subjects in which I have an unquenchable interest. It is also the story of a deep love between a brother and sister, Tuck and Juliet, who lost their mother early in their youth.

We read about the stories they told one another, the code words they used, their secret, and relationship with their physician father, who served in World War I. At the outset of the second War, Tuck joins the Army in order to rid the world of Nazi evil, as he puts it.

His father tells him: “…grenades have no sense of justice. That bullets and bayonets care nothing for morality. Being right doesn’t protect you from having your brain blow to bits.”

Tuck writes letters home and, then one day, his last, enigmatic one arrives. Yes, he has enlisted to rid the world from evil. But he didn’t expect what it turned out to be like, “the mud and shit and freeze your asses off while you watch your friends bleed to death. Expect frostbite, crappy food, bad attitudes, no sleep, shitty maps, old weapons and lousy leadership, all while a psychotic enemy pursues you night and day.”

Soon after, Tuck is reported missing in action. Juliet lies about her age, enlists in the Army nursing program, undergoes training and is sent to Italy. She is assigned to a hospital near the front.

The Italian campaign is less well known than the one in France and Germany. But in many respects it was far more difficult with German solders hiding in their bunkers, high in the mountains up the “boot.” One by one, ever so slowly, the hills were taken with heavy loss of young lives, morale, desertions and damaged futures for the men who somehow managed to survive.

A patient, Barnaby, arrives at the hospital, severely damaged, appears to have shot himself, one eye hanging out of the socket. He is accused of cowardice, desertion, and will be tried and eventually sentenced to death. But he is comatose, can’t speak and appears in a semi-coma. And he also served in the same unit as Tuck and may have information about what happened to him.

Willard, a doctor, arrives to assess Barnaby’s condition, tries to get him ready to stand trial. He decides to give him treatments of sodium pentobarbital. We learn that Barnaby and Tuck became separated from their company, that Tuck did everything he could to save him. After leaving to seek help, Tuck was never seen again.

Juliet gives up all hope. “At first I loved the hope, the possibility that he’d come home. Now I hate it. I want to smash it out of me. I can’t bear the endless disappointment.”

In time, Barnaby recovers, realizes he will likely be sentenced to death, and escapes one night with the hospital chaplain. Willard and Juliet are sent on a mission to find them. The War drags on and the case against Barnaby is dropped as the truth about his experience is learned.

The Secret of Raven Point became two mysteries—the disappearance of Tuck and the motive for Barnaby’s attempted suicide. Their solution took hold of me. If there is any greater truth is this tale it is oft-repeated story of war, how it is always worse than expected, always worse than the one before, with inevitable disillusionment, regardless of the outcome.

“How do you save the world from evil? No idea. You take out an ad in the classifieds. Wanted: brave young men to defeat the forces of evil in the world. Every boy in every high school across the country is going to sign right up. What you don’t say in the ad? Expect to live in the mud and shit and freeze your asses off while you watch your friends bleed to death. Expect frostbite, crappy food, bad attitudes, no sleep, shitty maps, old weapons and lousy leadership, all while a psychotic enemy pursues you night and day. If you manage to survive, you get the honor of knowing you helped save the world from Nazi maniacs. But you think that anyone fifty years from now will bat an eyelash over it.”

8.07.2014

Ceremony of Losses


After a life of loving the old, by natural law, I turned old myself. Donald Hall

It was the middle of March, earlier this year, and I was sitting at my desk looking out at the sea. The yacht harbor, beautiful sailing ships, cargo and cruise liners passing by. I was not getting any younger, reasonably fit with most of my marbles still in working order.

No so, claimed eighty-five year old Donald Hall, former US Poet Laureate, who reported the view from his window in the middle of a New England winter. (New Yorker, 1/23/12)

Today it is January, midmonth, mid-day, and mid-New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window.

Hall watches the snow falling, the visitors to his birdfeeder, the barn, no longer a place to work but one to look at. He laments all that he has lost in his antiquity. The poetic metaphors no longer come to him with ease. The young won’t let him forget how old he is. Neither will their condescending treatment.

“…old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to set at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.”

Sometime in 2000 he started working on his poem, Affirmation, says he revised it 35 times, fewer than normal. He submitted it to the New Yorker and it was published immediately, unlike most of his submissions.

Affirmation

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.



8.04.2014

In the Light of What We Know

What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend and only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. Albert Einstein

Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, is a magnificent book. Not for the story that meanders about in a disjointed fashion. But for the ideas, the abundance of ideas and the questions that lead only to more ideas and questions.

It is a philosophical tour-de-force and if you like philosophical fiction, In the Light of What We Know will delight you, as it did for me on almost every one of its 500 pages.

The story is straightforward: one day a bedraggled man arrives at the south Kensington (London) door of a well-healed investment banker. The nameless narrator soon recognizes Zafar, his great friend at Oxford and later in the New York and London financial world.

Zia Haider Rahman was born in Bangladesh, was raised in poverty, came to England as a boy, where his father was a bus conductor. He gained a place at Oxford, excelled in mathematics, went on to study at Cambridge and Yale and eventually worked in finance, thereafter as an international human rights lawyer.

In these respects his life mirrors that of the fictional Zarfar. It appears as if the nameless narrator is in fact, the author, with Zafar his fictional counterpart, and the two in an autobiographical dialogue to understand the life of Zia Haider Rahman.

Zafar is invited to stay at the narrator’s home as long as he wants and the two close friends begin talking, day after day, about their respective lives, mostly Zafars’ who eventually left investment banking to become a lawyer and later an NGO representative in Afghanistan.

Ideas abound from the first words, the first chapter. At the beginning of each chapter, Rahman cites one or more epigraphs. In the first there is one on Exile:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever. Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Exile.”

Then early in that chapter there is the first on mathematics, it’s beauty, the satisfaction it brings to Zafar and one of the many discussions of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem:

Described as the greatest mathematical discovery of the last century, it is a theorem with the simple message that the farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall short of the limits of what is true, even in mathematics. In a sense, then, I have sat down to venture somewhere undiscovered, without the certainty that it is discoverable.

This is preceded by one of the equally frequent reflections on memory:

At the time, the details of those moments did not impress themselves individually upon my consciousness; only later, when I started to put things down on paper, did they give themselves up to the effort of reflection.

And it is like this in virtually every chapter, sometimes on every consecutive page. It took me forever to read the book, as I had to pause, read the passage again, make note of it (highlight in the Kindle version I was reading) and ponder, sometimes until I took up the book again.

The narrator’s life is in shambles, his childless marriage has all but ended, as has his work as an mortgage-backed securities trader, where his dealings in complex derivatives has been called into question. He realizes that the choices he made failed to express his truest self and he never needed the money anyway, as he had been favored with a family fortune. And so he wonders if in recounting Zafar’s life he might learn something about how things could have been better.

I am reminded of a similar question Pascal Mercier poses in his novel, Night Train to Lisbon, while writing about the life of the Portuguese scholar and physician, Amadeau de Prado. In The Goldsmith of Words, Prado asks, Can we better understand ourselves by studying the life of someone else? The question leads Gregorious, the protagonist of Night Train to Lisbon to abandon his post at his school in Basel in a quest to learn as much as he could about Prado, his family, friends and life he led in Lisbon.

We realize how difficult it is to know another person or our self and how often we misunderstand one another. The narrator of In the Light of What We Know realizes this in his effort to understand the life of his friend. Yet, throughout the novel, as Sebald noted “…the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.”

The narration, which really resists any summary, also includes a fair amount of Zafar’s on and off love affair with Emily Hampton-Wyvern, whose father was an eminent judge and the family of an entirely different class than Zafar’s. The difficult relationships between the classes in England underlies much of Rahman’s characterization of Zafar and his thwarted loved affair with Emily.

In the Light of What We Know comes face-to-face with the limits of knowledge, of memory, perception, knowing our self, international aid programs, etc. That is the point of its obsession with Godel’s Theorem: “Within any given system there are claims which are true, but which cannot be proven to be true.”

In this respect, the novel is also a fictional account of this mathematical truth. It reminds us over and over that we know less than we think we do, that metaphors are a poor method of reaching the truth, that memories are often distorted and refashioned over time and that doubt and intellectual modesty is the source of wisdom.

Zafar had set himself to the pursuit of knowledge, and it is apparent to me now, in a way it was not before, that he had done so not in order to “better himself,” as the expression goes, but in order to lay ground for his feet to stand upon; in order, that is, to go home, somewhere, and take root. I believe that he had failed in this mission and had come to see, as he himself said in so many words, that understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life.

7.31.2014

The Theory and Practice of Elevators

The elevator. What an odd subject to write about. But in an essay (Boston Globe, 3/2/14), earlier this year, Leon Neyfakh reviews a book by Daniel Wilk that criticizes academics for failing to recognize the importance of elevators, how they transformed American residential and commercial life. Wilk writes:

“The lack of interest scholars have shown in the cultural life of elevators is appalling.” I know well what he means as I find myself in elevators all too often throughout the day in the high rise condominiums where I’ve lived lately.

I take the elevator to the gym and then back up, to the picnic area and then back up, to the pool and back up again, to check the mail, take a walk, get the car, walk to the grocery, take a stroll in the evening. Up and down several times a day.

Most of the time no one else is in the elevator, but sometimes there are one or more individuals. I greet them. Some return a smile. Others turn away. Some ignore my greeting. And once in a while I engage a person in conversation, albeit a brief one. But never once have I developed a friendship with a person I’ve met in an elevator.

My extensive observations during the past several years of this experience indicate there are two types of people in the world: the friendly and the unfriendly. As I ponder this cosmic distinction, I realize it has far reaching implications

I have also observed the unremarkable fact that the likelihood of conversation varies as function of several factors. The more individuals there are in the elevator, the more likely there will total silence. Conversation also decreases as the size of the elevator increases. People also distance themselves as far as possible from anyone else inside the space. No doubt there are other such relationships. Neyfakh suggests:

“If we tend to ignore the significance of elevators, it might be because riding in them tends to be such a brief, boring experience, and even awkward experience—one that can involve unplanned encounters between people with whom we have nothing in common, internal turmoil over where to stare, and a vaguely unpleasant awareness of the fact that we’re hanging from a cable in a long, invisible shaft.”

In Honolulu, where I currently live a fair number of months each year, the central areas are teaming with high rising condominiums and new ones under construction. You can’t avoid seeing the enormous building cranes dotting the sky in every direction, a Manhattan clone on a distant island in the middle of the ocean.

After dinner one night, I got in the elevator to go down for a stroll. The elevator stops, the doors open and a young girl walks in with her puppy. He sniffs my shoes, seems agitated. I say he is eager to go out. She says he’s always like this. How many times do you take him out? Only twice a day. What is his name? Mo Jo. I like that. We head outside. She says good night. Short and sweet.

The other day I went to an apartment in one of these new residential towers, with state of the art elevators, if it is an art. To fetch the elevator you first need to use a fob to beckon it down, then you press a keypad with the number of the floor you wish to reach. At the same time, it informs you which of the several elevators to take. So you walk over to that one and wait, sometimes you wait for quite a while, as your blood pressure surges. Finally the elevator arrives, you hop in and bingo it takes you to the very floor you had hoped to reach.

Coming back down is a breeze: no fob this time (since you were able to reach one of the distant floors, you are no longer considered an undesirable), simply call for the elevator, move to the one the keypad tells you is just the one for you, hop in, press the floor number you want on the keypad and in a flash you are there. Wonder of wonders.

I haven’t been living in a single family home lately and while I really prefer to take the stairs, most of the buildings I’ve lived in l have been tall towers. Who wants to walk up 40 flights of stairs to reach your home? I know it is good for the heart and bones and all that, but really now, I have more important things to worry about. Like, do I really need to go down to get the mail today?