In one remarkable moment in The Last Illusion, a new novel by Porochista Khakpour, a shy and vulnerable young man who was raised as a bird in a cage meets an impetuous young woman who seems to understand him. He then meets her sister, who is so enormously fat that she lives her life in bed, occasionally dressing up in a tiara and gown and high-heeled shoes under her blanket.
We expect Zal, the young man, to become infatuated with Asiya, the passionate and intelligent young woman, and in fact Zal does like and respect Asiya very much. But it's Willa, the gigantic sister who lives in bed that Zal falls instantly and completely in love with.
Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.
The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.
Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
-- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
One Hundred Years of Solitude must be Gabriel Garcia Marquez's best title, and it's the book that made him famous all over the world. But I somehow neglected to finish that epic novel, and was more attracted instead to Love in the Time of Cholera, a book so good it would probably have made the Colombian author famous again if he hadn't been already. I also enjoyed Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, and I wonder if I specially favor these two novels because they both employ a vivid setting: Colombia's Magdalena River.
I'm a fool for riparian literature, perhaps because rivers hold such great spiritual significance (from the Jordan to the Ganges), or because they work so well as metaphor, whether the characters are lazily floating downstream like Huck Finn or tensely steaming up against the current like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. My fascination with rivers makes Love in the Time of Cholera a natural for me, since this novel is basically a happy Heart of Darkness with senior sex. The ever patient Florentino Ariza has waited an entire lifetime to lie in the arms of his beloved Fermina Daza, and after many decades he finally outlasts her husband and scores with her on a boat heading up the mighty Magdalena. (Ariza's patience is his one great power, a character trait so distinct it earned him a seat in my hypothetical literary poker tournament a few years ago).
The river is a constant presence in this novel. Early in the story, Ariza escapes his heartbreak by travelling up the river, where the beauty that surrounds him is disturbed by visions of the cholera epidemic currently gripping the land:
I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.
This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.
William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:
We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.
Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.
We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.
We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.
As Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic begins, a hapless 80s-era hipster in South Africa named Neville Lister is listing badly:
Just when I started to learn something, I dropped out of university, although this makes it sound more decisive than it was.
He works a brainless job, pretentiously puffs on a tobacco pipe, argues bitterly with his racist neighbors while they mouth off about blacks. Neville's father happens to know a famous South African photographer named Saul Auerbach, and casually arranges for his son to spend a day on a photo shoot with him.
"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky
I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.
The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.
A huge realization came to me recently, as I immersed myself in books and old movies about the US Civil War. We all know that the Confederate nation that lost this bitter war was also soundly trounced by the judgement of history, since the Confederacy's key pro-slavery position is clearly on its wrong side.
But the 150 years that have passed since the end of the Southern rebellion might have put a thick patina on the moral arguments that once energized the rebellion, and I made it my goal during my recent bout of Civil War reading to try to understand how a typical well-educated and high-principled Southerner would have explained the Southern position. There were, of course, many thoughtful intellectuals in the Civil War South, and we can take two of the four main characters in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind as useful examples. The noble Ashley Wilkes is a brave Confederate officer who loves books, who loses himself in his vast library, who befuddles Scarlett O'Hara with talk of the Gotterdammerung. His equally noble wife Melanie Hamilton Wilkes relishes the opportunity to discuss literature and morality; we first meet her condemning the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray for being "a cynic" and "not the gentleman Dickens is".
As a lifelong American Northener, I grew up with a shallow perception of Confederate politics as essentially unprincipled. It's clear today that the Confederate position on slavery was terribly wrong -- but even so, an ethical philosopher who wishes to understand history can't stop there. There's a puzzle to be solved, because even though we see the Confederate position to be wrong today, we must recognize that the Confederacy was populated with principled intellectuals who somehow convinced themselves that it was right. How, exactly, did they convince themselves of this, and what can we learn about our own closely held beliefs from their example?
When Vladimir Nabokov read his lectures on literature, he closed all the curtains in the room to make it totally dark and started to speak.
“On the horizon of Russian literature, this is Gogol” -- and the small hall light flashed in the corner. “This is Chekhov” -- and one more star appeared on the ceiling. “This is Dostoevsky” -- Nabokov turned the light on here. “And this is Tolstoy!” The lecturer opened the curtains, and a bright blinding sunlight flooded the room.
Count Leo Tolstoy was the first writer who refused a copyright; he was an opponent of the Russian state system; he fulminated an anathema because he did not accept any religious authorities. He had refused the Nobel Prize, he hated money, and he always took the side of peasants. Many of his unique positions and practices are not known today.
He left us 165 000 sheets of manuscripts, 90 volumes of complete works, and 10 000 letters. He had been looking for the meaning of life and the universal happiness throughout his whole life, and he had found them in one word: kindness.
We all know Tolstoy as the author of long novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which is why some do not realize that Tolstoy could write powerful short letters, stories, or novels. Indeed, his writings are filled with extremely long sentences and scrupulous levels of detail. Interestingly, his handwriting was often barely legible. The only person who could understand it was his wife, Sophia. She had to re-write War and Peace many times before Leo chose the final version to send to his editors. Here is the example of his handwriting: