Moby Dick has been making the rounds. "There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written", says a new article in Smithstonian magazine. That's pretty wild. So is this gorgeous video of a couple of people swimming with a sperm whale.
I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.
Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).
Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with some outrage around the world, because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment, He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate has Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan "a catastrophe", and yesterday Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy" of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as long-suffering Tibet. The blog Moby Lives has also taken a few funny shots.
I don't have much sympathy for the government of China, since I've really never stopped reeling from the several books I've read about the long massacre known as the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's masterwork, a manufactured famine that killed more millions of people between 1958 and 1961 than any of the nearly countless other holocausts of the 20th Century. The immensity of recent Chinese history is so overwhelming, in fact, that I'm sure I can't understand it in any meaningful way. Mo Yan was born in 1955, and suffered as a young child with his family through the notorious famine.
The great recurring topic of Mo Yan's historical fiction, though, is not the famine or the later Cultural Revolution but an earlier holocaust that took place before he was born: the vicious Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II. This is Mo Yan's primary subject, though he has also written about the famine and later Maoist and post-Maoist cataclysms. Mo Yan's pride in China and his refusal to play into Western ideas about Chinese history has clearly dented his popularity in my side of the planet. But when I read his sharp, acidic, furious prose, I sense that we can learn more by reading Mo Yan than by rejecting him, even though we may strongly reject his political stance.
Philosophy Weekend has always been about moral, social and political philosophy (I originally thought of calling the series "Ethics Weekend", but that title just does not have any zing to it). In the past couple of years, I've allowed two major developments to dominate my choice of weekly topics. First, I became alarmed by Ayn Rand's increasing popularity and began devoting many blog posts to a critique of Objectivism and its underlying assumption of psychological Egoism. Second, I got caught up in the excitement and crazy drama of the 2012 USA presidential election, and devoted many weekend posts to that whole thing. (Interestingly, the common demoninator between these two themes was embodied in a single person, Congressman Paul Ryan, who I expect to be writing a lot about again in three years when he begins running like a maniac for President.)
I never mind a good diversion, but a recent New York Times headline about an attempt by the Obama administration to create a rulebook for the use of military drones reminded me that I originally had a different underlying inquiry in mind for all of these philosophical inquiries, which has gotten buried amidst all the Ayn Rand inquiries and Mitt Romney bobblehead dolls of the past two years. My big question is this: what is pacifism, and why has it become so quiet? Is the philosophy of pacifism viable at all today? How can pacifism be returned to relevance in an era that seems to have completely disdained it, and how can it possibly be that so few people seem to care whether it is returned to relevance or not?
History has a way of turning complex philosophers into simple cliches. Through the course of my philosophical education, I've only ever heard of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a target for refutation, a "straight man" from an earlier age of extreme rationalism, destined to be torn to shreds by the witty talents of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, William James. With skillful opposition like this, Hegel's legacy of crystalline idealism never stood a chance.
It also did Hegel's legacy no favors when Karl Marx built his advanced theory of utopian Communist society upon a Hegelian framework, though Marx explicitly stated that he was doing so by transforming Hegel's abstract intellectualism into a materialist system of thought, aiming for real-world results rather than theoretical conclusions. It's does not seem that Marx's Communism was a faithful friend to Hegelian idealism (Hegel died when Marx was 13 years old, so Hegel never knew about his most influential follower) -- but it is clear that Marx ruined Hegel's name for legions of anti-Communists. Once a bright light of the German renaissance, Hegel has taken such a terrible beating from the empiricists, existentialists, pragmatists, free market economists and philosophical libertarians who followed him that his reputation can barely be said to have survived at all, except as a symbol of obsolescence.
Can a beating like this ever be fair? Is it possible to find value in Hegel's work today, and is there any point in looking for it? Well, it's certainly possible to understand Hegel as a fuller person when one learns that he began his fruitful philosophical journey as an eager University student in Tubingen, Baden-Wurtterberg, where, incredibly enough, he shared an apartment with the future poet Friedrich Holderlin and the future philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Their dorm parties must have been intense. Hegel's early college years were the years of the French Revolution and its tortuous aftermath, of shocking political changes that rocked all of Germany and central/eastern Europe. Eventually, after young Hegel advanced to graduate studies in the Prussian university town of Jena, he would directly witness Napoleon's victorious entrance into that town, and would applaud the champion of French egalitarianism even though he was fighting against German armies.
This surreal image is a real screenshot from a real website -- the victory website that went live after the polls closed on USA election day 2012, because apparently, stunningly, incredibly ... Mitt Romney's staff was that sure that they would win. They had given unconditional orders -- unconditional! -- to launch the website when the election ended.
Four days after the election, the revelation that not only Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan but their entire entourage and staff were sure they would win is still rocking the world. It turned out that Romney spent the evening of election day stewing in his hotel room with his yes-man entourage, doing nothing but smoothing out the final draft of his acceptance speech.
The prior evidence that he would lose was, of course, rather overwhelming. His campaign had gone unusually badly in the public eye, he had barely unified his own party, and had never dominated any polling cycle. Nate Silver, the most influential poll analyst in the world, a nonpartisan observer who in the past had correctly predicted Republican victories as well as Democratic ones, had already announced in the New York Times that polling numbers strongly favored President Obama. The Obama administration knew it would win, and said so. I knew Obama would win. Even Bob Dylan knew Obama would win.
Yes, of course, the Romney campaign was projecting confidence in its public statements, and everybody on Fox News and conservative talk radio was parroting the weak evidence that Romney might win, but few of us imagined that the Romney inner circle had wrapped itself so deeply in delusion that they believed it deep inside. This was a greater cognitive disconnect than anyone expected. Isn't Mitt Romney supposed to be a solid businessman? Don't businessmen use actual information and data to make decisions? If his judgment was so murky about his own chances to beat a popular President, how could he be expected to produce rational policies involving, say, the chances that a hostile approach towards Iran or China would be successful, or the chances that greater tax breaks for the wealthy would help the middle class, or the chances that deregulating Wall Street banks would not enable another orgy of corruption, or the chances that global climate change was not a serious scientific concern? Romney's final day as a candidate found the man who would be President at an absolute peak of cluelessness, his head completely in the clouds.
There are a lot of ways a book called Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World's Oldest Profession can go wrong. Fortunately, this brisk new study of the cultural history of prostitution by Tyler Stoddard Smith aims for big intellectual and sociopolitical connections, and finds quite a few.
I'll be reading a lot of books from or about Africa this winter. I'm starting with Geoff Wisner's A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.
Then I'll be digging into In the House of the Interpreter, the second installment of longtime Litkicks favorite Ngugi wa Thiong'o's fascinating multi-volume memoir of a literary life in Kenya (we reviewed the first installment, Dreams In a Time of War). I didn't get too far into Ngugi's other recent release, Globalectics, a book assembled from literary lectures by Ngugi, but maybe that's because I'd rather hear the author talk about himself than about the academic reputation of regional African literature. I've always been partial to memoirs, and I'm really psyched to read In The House of the Interpreter.
It wouldn't feel right to say I'm also "psyched" to read a memoir about the horrifying civil war between Biafra and Nigeria, a blight of violence and manufactured famine that ended in 1970 with the eradication of Biafra as an upstart nation (today's situation in Darfur is all too reminiscent of Biafra's disaster). But it is exciting news that the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has now followed his classic Things Fall Apart with a heartfelt memoir of the Biafra war, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. This tragic period of Nigerian history was also the subject of an award-winning novel a few years ago, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (though, as I blogged at the time, I had a hard time matching this book to my expectations). Maybe I'll understand Chinua Achebe's book better.
Also buzzing in the African scene: Black Bazaar by the charming Alain Mabanckou of Congo-Brazzaville, and the first authorized biography of my favorite metafictional expatriate from South Africa, J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, by the brave J. C. Kannemeyer, who must have fielded an unimaginable number of cold stares and awkward silences from the famously sarcastic and antisocial (but, truly, brilliant!) Coetzee while interviewing him for the book. Kannemeyer deserves some kind of literary award just for surviving the interview process.
There really is only one literary award that awes me. The Pulitzer prize? Everybody gets one eventually. National Book Award? Too clubby for my tastes. But the Nobel Prize for Literature is usually something special, and has by far the best track record of every major literary award.
J. M. Coetzee. Orhan Pamuk. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Kenzaburo Oe. Mario Vargas Llosa. Seamus Heaney. Derek Walcott. Pablo Neruda. Doris Lessing. Jean-Paul Sartre. William Golding. Jose Saramago. Nadine Gordimer. Albert Camus. Harold Pinter. Gunter Grass. Dario Fo. Toni Morrison. Samuel Beckett. This is a list worth admiring for its originality, its global awareness, its dedication to a powerful standard of greatness. Today, Mo Yan of China joins the list.
Nguyen Chi Thien was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, and struggled for decades to be an honest poet in a totalitarian state. He finally settled in Santa Ana, California, where he died this week at the age of 73. The New York Times tells his stirring story.