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.


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.


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.


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?


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.”


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?


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.”


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.


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.


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.