(I didn't make it to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, but Tara Olmsted did, and here's her report! -- Levi)

The Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. At its worst the annual autumn event is complete chaos: no consistent theme, hot and crowded rooms, poorly moderated panels, no-show authors, smug hipsters as far as the eye can see. This year's list of participating authors is less exciting at the outset than in previous years: the type of book being discussed on all the panels feels pretty much the same, as if some kind of homeostasis has been achieved.

But at its best, the Brooklyn Book Festival s a platform for small, independent presses.  Publishers like Melville House, New Directions, & Other Stories, Europa, Other Press, Archipelago and Greywolf are there. (Technically some of these are not exactly indie publishers anymore, like New Directions, which has been absorbed by the big five publishing conglomerates. I still consider the presses “indie” because they’ve managed to retain the literary identity and traditions on which they were founded.)

Smaller indies are here too: Zephyr, Bellevue, The Head & The Hand. There are literary magazines: BookForum, The Paris Review, NYRB and Lapham’s Quarterly. And many of Brooklyn’s independent bookstores attend, including WORD, The Community Bookstore and Greenlight.  There’s a lot to discover at the outdoor booths.  And for me the highlight of the festival has always been (and remains) the author panels.

"Catch a Fire: Social Collapse in Multiple Voices" began one panelist short (a fairly common occurrence at book festivals). The Somali author Nuruddin Farah was unable to attend for reasons that were not explained.  But the smaller panel created an opportunity for the two present authors to expand their discussion beyond their individual novels and discuss the politics of Jamaica and Somalia.

Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings opens in 1976, Jamaica - the year men armed with machine guns invaded Bob Marley’s home and opened fire, seriously injuring his wife and manager. Marley received only minor wounds and went on to perform at the free “Smile Jamaica” concert two days later.  And then he left Jamaica, choosing not to return for two long years. Taking those events as the novel’s launching point, James goes on to explore the history of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora over the next three decades.

Marlon James is a charismatic speaker and the scope of the book, as he describes it, is impressive:  687 pages, 76 characters, written in Jamaican patois, set in both Jamaica and New York City. The panel's moderator hinted at moments of disturbing violence, which James defended as being necessary. He didn’t seem to believe in trivializing violence by sterilizing it. James also spoke on the topics that interested him and had crept into his writing: the politics of the island where he was born and its role in the Cold War; stereotypes and expectations he’s encountered as a Jamaican author; his views on politics as they relate to his writings; and, in response to one audience member’s question, which of Marley’s albums was the soundtrack underscoring the events in his novel (Rastaman Vibration is the correct answer, not Exodus).

Nadifa Mohamed’s novel is set 13,295 kilometers away in Somalia. The Orchard of Lost Souls follows the lives and fates of three women at the outbreak of that country’s 1987 civil war.  Like James, Nadifa Mohamed did not discuss her novel’s plot at length. She talked instead about her relationship to the place where she was born and the current wave of the Somali diaspora.  She and her family immigrated to England when she was only four years old, and so her experience is completely different than those of the (more conservative) Somali expats arriving in London.  She spoke of the ways in which the country where she was born is and isn’t home, and of how the characters in her novel both experience and perpetrate acts of violence.  The common theme for both both authors -- as for many authors on the panels I attended this year -- was our relationships to the countries where we are born and what that means in the wake of ever increasing globalization.

My next panel, again dealing with international literature and authors, was called "Cultural Collisions: Around the Day in Eighty Worlds".  I’m still not sure exactly what the title had to do with the actual panel.

This included the Brazilian author Paolo Scott (Nowhere People), Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd) and Cuban author Mylene Fernandez-Pintado (A Corner of the World).  All three books are translations.  Anderson Tepper, a Brooklyn Book Festival staple, was an excellent moderator as always, allowing each author to discuss their books in depth and give short readings.

Nowhere People is the first and only Brazilian novel about that country’s native population -- the Guarani Indians -- a subject on which Scott expressed strong feelings. Brazilians, according to Scott, avoid addressing race in a way that is detrimental (and shameful) to the society as a whole.  His novel tells the story of a young Brazilian man who is drawn into the world of an indigenous girl he sees walking along the side of the road.

Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Mylene Fernandez-Pintado’s A Corner of the World are so different that I’m not sure how they all ended up on the same panel. Luiselli’s book moves in time between modern New York City and 1950’s Philadelphia. Her characters are a young Mexican translator living in Harlem and the real-life poet Gilbert Owen (who the author described as “an all-right poet”). Taken directly from the back cover: “As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into a single stream, a mingling that is also a disappearing act, and an elegiac evocation of love and loss”.  Fernandez-Pintado, in contrast, has written a love story set in modern Havana, a story about a society that lacks choices and opportunities.

I’ll say it again: the Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. Particularly this year. The panels for which I harbored the highest expectations turned out to be terrible. And the one’s I felt lukewarm about turned out to be fantastic. But where else can you spend an entire day lining up to hear (mostly) obscure authors talk about books that will never make it onto the New York Times Bestseller List?

At the Brooklyn Book Festival I feel as if I’ve managed to escape the influence of Amazon’s algorithm, NPR recommendations and the Colbert bump. For one day a year I get to be on my own. Which is enough to bring me back in 2015.


Tara Olmsted finds a mixed bag at the annual book festival in downtown Brooklyn.

view /BKBF2014
Friday, September 26, 2014 09:35 am
Brooklyn Book Festival 2014
Tara Olmsted

One of many unforgettable moments in Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is the author's visit to Gitarama prison a year after the massacre. He finds a scene of incredible physical misery, though the sufferers barely complain. It's the suspected Hutu perpetrators of the previous year's genocide, not the Tutsi victims, who are crowded together here.

On the day of my visit to Gitarama Prison, six thousand four hundred and twenty-four prisoners formed a solid-looking knot, and I had to plan each step I took with care. It was difficult to figure out how the people fitted together -- which limbs went with which body, or why a head appeared to have grown three legs without a torso in between. Many of the feet were badly swollen. The bodies were clad in rags.

Gourevitch is perplexed by what he finds as he visits various prisons holding thousands and thousands of suspected Hutu killers. The prisoners could easily escape, the author observes, but they don't try. They just sit there.

Although the tightly packed inmates were all accused of terrible violence, they were generally calm and orderly; fights among them were said to be rare, and killings unheard of. They greeted visitors amiably, often with smiles and with hands extended for a shake ... The captain kept calling out, "Here's a journalist from the United States," and the huddled men, squatting at our feet, clapped mechanically and made little bowing motions. It occurred to me that this was the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority which was often described in attempts to explain the genocide.

Blind obedience to authority is what these bewildered prisoners are guilty of, and it appears possible that they are so passive because they have already judged themselves to be guilty, that they look so confused because they don't understand themselves how they suddenly transformed into murderers. Some of them admit this to Gourevitch, and later he talks to a former Hutu leader who has returned to the village where he presided over the murder of approximately seventy of his neighbors to ask for forgiveness from the few survivors who remain.

This man's neighbors are not impressed and do not forgive him. Later, the man explains to Gourevitch that he felt helpless in April 1994, that he believed at the time that he had to either kill or be killed. When even the leaders feel helpless, how do we locate the source of guilt after a genocide occurs?

There is some sense of satisfaction in punishing individuals who directed or participated in acts of genocide, but the judgement of guilt feels like a category mistake, since an individual person can't be guilty of genocide. An entire society must work together to carry out mass murder. Even a powerful politician or tyrant or general cannot successfully orchestrate a genocide without the voluntary support of an entire society. If a society must think together and act together to cause a genocide to occur, then the question of why genocides occur is a question of sociology rather than of individual psychology.

And yet when we try to analyze the cause of genocide, we always speak at the level of personal motivation, and we always describe the motivation in emotional or psychological terms. Hutus killed Tutsis because they hated them. Germans killed Jews because they were envious of their money. 19th century Americans killed Native Americans because they were greedy for their land. Soviet Russia starved Ukranians to death because Russians had a deep connection to Ukranian land. Islamic fundamentalists attack the USA because they hate our freedom.

These emotional or psychological explanations are probably a dead end. The explanations may be true in themselves, but a careful study of the actual genocides that took place all over the world in the last hundred years show that emotion and psychology don't cause genocide at all. Neither do racial prejudice or religious belief or political ideology. No genocide in history has ever taken place because one group of people didn't like another.

Other than susceptibility to obedience, or excessive willingness to conform to group action, personal characteristics or feelings of people who participate in a genocide are irrelevant to the cause of that genocide. When individuals participate in a group atrocity, they are not making decisions based on their personal feelings or opinions. They are acting as a group, and groups make decisions with a different kind of calculus.

Hutus might not have hated Tutsis. Germans might not have been envious of Jews. 19th century Americans might not have been greedy for land. Russians might not have had a deep connection to Ukranian lands. Islamic terrorists might not have cared whether Americans were free or not. These presumed motivations are all romanticized interpretations, created and popularized by amateur and professional historians after the fact to explain atrocities that previously took place.

What actually took place during each of these atrocities is more basic, more primitive. The word that will explain it has only three letters: war. Nearly every genocide or atrocity or massacre around the world in the last hundred years occurred in the context of war, and was a planned act of military strategy.

Once we begin to look at it this way, answers start to fall into place. Why do genocides occur? Let's say we examine five representative cases:

  • Rwanda in 1994
  • The Chinese famine of 1958-1961 (Mao's "Great Leap Forward")
  • The Holocaust
  • The Holodomor (Stalin's manufactured famine in Ukraine)
  • The Armenian Genocide of 1915

Once you take the time to study these five case studies (or any others, from Srebenica to Bulgaria to Kampuchea to Darfur to Syria), a stunningly clear pattern emerges. Here are the steps that always fall into place before a genocide occurs.

1. Before a genocide occurs, there must be a state of total war and a perceived threat of annihilation in case the war is lost. This was true in all five cases above. The genocide in Rwanda took place in the midst of civil war, as a newly powerful Tutsi army stood poised at the country's borders, about to invade. China was on permanent war footing and believed itself to be under threat of invasion on many fronts from Korea to Vietnam to Taiwan in 1958. Nazi Germany had committed to a fight to the death against England and Soviet Russia when it began slaughtering the Jews. Ten years earlier, Moscow suspected Ukraine of fostering a revolutionary independence movement that would resurrect the Russian Civil War. Turkey was in a fight to the death with Imperial Russia (there seemed to be a lot of that going around) when it ordered the death march of its Armenian population.

2. Most of these genocides were committed by the sides that were losing the war. This is an important truth: winners don't commit genocide. Losers do. Genocide is usually an act of military desperation.

It's a sad truth that, all too often, this act of military desperation turns out to be successful. For instance, Ukraine would remain under Russia's oppressive rule for six more decades after the Holodomor. The independence movement that Stalin endeavored to wipe out was indeed wiped out for generations. Even today, Ukraine is struggling to emerge from under Russia's thumb.

Thankfully, more often genocide does not succeed as a chess move. It may be too psychologically explosive, too demoralizing. In Rwanda, as Philip Gourevitch's book describes, the obedient Hutus who slaughtered their neighbors seemed to lose their nerve halfway through the genocide. After expending so much effort and misery to kill 800,000 Hutsis, the Hutu Power movement suddenly collapsed against the advance of the invading Tutsi army. Philip Gourevitch speculates that individual Hutus were shocked and demoralized by their own descent into genocidal murder, and lost their will to fight. You can see some of this bewilderment and despair in the faces of the Gitarama prisoners at the top of this page.

3. In every genocide, the chosen victims are alien internal populations who are suspected of secret or open loyalty to the invading enemies. This is another essential component, though it is often not well understood. We all know that Turks murdered Armenians, but how many people know that this was considered an act of military necessity as Turkey fought Russia in World War I?

When these three conditions are present, genocide is likely to occur. It may or may not actually occur and this is where the emotional or psychological or spiritual characteristics of the individual people who constitute each society makes an important difference. It's at this level that individual guilt is relevant whenever a genocide occurs: if the people refuse to conform to the military directive of their own government, the genocide cannot occur. The well-known story of Denmark's refusal to participate in the Holocaust, even under Nazi occupation, is an example of this. The happily peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa, after the white government came to the conclusion that it must allow itself to dissolve, may be another:

Still, there appears to be a limit to the meaning of individual responsibility once a society finds itself in a state of total war. The most we can do is resist. The evidence seems to show that the overwhelming motivation for any genocide is simple military strategy. The strategic rationale for genocide is never based on emotion -- not prejudice, not hatred, not sexual aggression, not personal greed, not religious belief -- but is rather always based on the cold calculus of total war.

This seems to be an important conclusion, and I hope it's a worthwhile culmination of the inquiry I've been running on this blog for the past few weeks. I'd like to know if you find this conclusion persuasive, and if you find it important, and if you find it surprising.

I find the conclusion surprising myself, and I think the discovery that genocide is always a consequence of rational military strategy rather than an expression of irrational personal psychology leads to an important question that I'd like to consider next weekend: doesn't this conclusion amount to a very powerful indictment of militarism itself?


We tend to think about genocide in personal terms, but the strategic rationale for genocide is never based on emotion -- not prejudice, not hatred, not sexual aggression, not personal greed, not religious belief -- but rather always on the cold calculus of total war.

view /Gitarama
Sunday, April 6, 2014 08:03 am
Prisoners in Gitarama, Rwanda
Levi Asher

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.

The anniversary of the disaster in Rwanda brings back many memories for me, even though I was nowhere near Africa in 1994. This happened to be a productive and transitional time of my life: I had just gotten promoted at my tech consulting job, had recently become a father, was about to become a father again. The world seemed very peaceful in April 1994. The Soviet Union had collapsed. Central Europe had become free. But the shocking headlines from Rwanda that began to appear every morning in the New York Times made no sense. Even the Times didn't seem to understand what was happening on the ground in this little-known nation across the world.

A hurricane. A tornado. A genocide. Do we really believe that an outbreak of ethnic hatred that results in hundreds of thousands of drunken machete-wielding murderers killing millions of cowering, crying men, women and children is a force of nature, bigger than ourselves? If so, why do we believe this? Have we tried to understand the root cause of genocide? Have we tried so hard and so repeatedly that we can truly say we must give up, that it's a problem we can't solve?

I don't think we have tried very hard. We have barely tried at all. Instead, we comfort ourselves with soapy moralizations. "Genocide is bad." The closest thing we have to a psychological model of genocide is that there's a thing called "evil" that sometimes infects other societies, but would certainly never infect our own. In other words, our common level of understanding of the real cause of genocide resembles an infantile fantasy.

We need better ethical philosophers, and braver ones.

I don't consider myself an impressive philosopher, and I certainly have no training or credentials. But I do have a couple of original ideas and a healthy willingness to embarrass myself in public, and that's why I'm going to continue to discuss this topic on this blog through the end of April. My recent blog posts on the topic may appear excessive (or obsessive), but I do have an overall goal in mind, and I'm working towards a conclusion. I've laid out a few principles, and now I'm ready to put forth a single bold new idea.

The new idea will be the subject of next weekend's blog post. This is a difficult and tricky blog post to write, and I will need another week to fully think it through. I'll present a teaser today, a preview of the conclusion I believe I'm approaching.

When we puzzle over genocide, we often ask how it can be possible that good people can do such terrible things. We may be asking the wrong question here. A close analysis of the worst atrocities of the last hundred years shows that individual psychology and individual motivations don't really come into play when a genocide occurs. Analyzing a genocide by looking at the emotions, beliefs and motivations of any individual person is like trying to analyze automobile traffic by looking at the emotions, beliefs and motivations of a single driver. We're analyzing at the wrong level.

Indeed, the people who commit genocides often feel nearly as powerless as their victims. In order to understand the cause of genocide, we need to rise from the level of individual psychology to the level of group psychology. Important note: this does not mean the psychology of the individual within the group. It means the psychology of the group itself.

That's as much as I can write at this point, and the full explanation of what I'm trying to say will appear here next weekend.


We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes. We seem it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way. If it ever does we plan to hide.

view /NotAForceOfNature
Friday, March 28, 2014 10:03 pm
Pictures from Rwanda
Levi Asher

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 day with Saul Auerbach mainly strikes young Neville Lister as pointless and inexplicable. Accompanied by a journalist friend of Saul Auerbach's, the roving trio agrees to try an experiment with randomness in a poor and banal Johannesburg suburb. Each of the three picks a house at random, agreeing to knock on each door and try to find worthy subjects for the art of photography within. The degree to which they will succeed strikes the three men as a neat philosophical question.

Their luck is good as they strike gold in the first two houses, the ones chosen by the photographer and the journalist. The third house was the one selected by Neville Lister, though he had petulantly refused to play the game correctly when they chose the houses and simply selected the orange-roofed house next door to one of the other choices. Having now completed two unexpectedly rewarding photo sessions at the first two houses, the trio finds Neville's chosen house dark. They are tired, and without mentioning it they agree to go home.

The irony of this empty moment of failed connection is that it ends up meaning everything to Neville Lister. We meet him again decades later, now a mature adult coping calmly with the vast social changes occurring in South Africa immediately after the end of apartheid.

Neville is now a professional photographer. The embarrassing fact that his entire life's career was essentially chosen by his father on a whim is never mentioned. The embarrassing fact that the momentous day young Neville spent with Saul Auerbach was actually an awkward and inconclusive failure to connect is also never mentioned.

Neville Lister now returns to visit the third house that the trio of photographers failed to visit before, and finds in this house other locked doors and beguiling containers including a stash of dead letters similar to those a sad postman named Bartleby might have once collected in New York City in a Herman Melville tale. Years of reflecting upon the questionable significance of Saul Auerbach's photography has left Lister newly aware of the reflections, refractions, surfaces, containers and empty spaces that constitute his lived-in world. He now sees every house or framed photograph or sealed envelope as a naturally occurring rhyme, and a koan,and a meditation upon the relationship between container and contained, as when the past story of a penniless immigrant's arrival from Portugal is told by one inhabitant of a house:

"He arrived with a suitcase, and in it a suit. That's all. I thought it was funny, but he didn't see the joke."

Much of Double Negative involves houses containing people, envelopes containing unread letters, statements spoken between friends or co-workers or lovers containing hidden expressions that will never be delivered. Neville sees himself as a mediocre container, an inferior copy of the great artist Saul Auerbach. Other types of containers briefly appear in his wandering narrative:

A young woman was being buried and the mourners were gathered around the open grave at the end of a row of new mounds. Just as the priest gave the sign for the coffin to be lowered, a phone began to ring softly, as if from the bottom of a handbag or deep in a jacket pocket. Cellphones were less common than they are now and the intrusion was jarring. The priest gave his flock an irritated look and a few people patted their packets. The phone went on ringing. It dawned on them that it was coming from under the ground: the phone was ringing in the grave next door. There was a deathly silence, the report said, the mourners passed and held their breath, waiting to hear whether someone would answer.

A tone of bemused artistic entrapment in random patterns permeates this wonderfully soft-spoken novel, which reminds me very much of the work of J. M. Coetzee, W. G. Sebald and P. Auster. Double Negative even feels slightly fresher than the recent publications from these three giants of quirky flat-voiced first-person narrative postmodernism. Ivan Vladislavic is not actually a new voice in fiction, it turns out -- he's been publishing novels for decades -- but he was new to me when I picked up Double Negative, and this accessible novel may help him reach a larger audience.

Double Negative originated as a tribute to a real-world South African photographer named David Goldblatt, who Saul Auerbach is clearly based on, and the short novel may be found packaged with David Goldblatt's photographs and an introduction by Teju Cole. I enjoyed the novel without delving first into either of those attenuations and found it entirely complete and satisfactory on its own.


A tone of bemused artistic entrapment in random patterns permeates this wonderfully soft-spoken novel, which may remind many readers of the work of J. M. Coetzee, W. G. Sebald and P. Auster.

view /DoubleNegative
Wednesday, March 26, 2014 12:02 am
Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic
Levi Asher

It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).

The first step in the experiment is to identify the simple principles that we will apply to the known historical facts in order to reach an answer. In the previous two weekends I've proposed two:

The Ashley Wilkes Principle is the observation that every society will consider itself highly moral even as it may engage in vile activities. This is a tremendously powerful tool for ethical study, because it means that even the worst and most inhumane actors -- murderous Nazi bureaucrats, rapacious slave traders, vicious Communist minions, bomb-planting terrorists, machete-weilding child killers -- will always leave behind written and spoken evidence of the moral justifications behind their atrocious acts. No large scale holocaust or genocide or massacre or atrocity in history appears to be an exception to this rule. No matter how morally rotten any society may be, evil actors will always leave behind texts that display the precise reasoning with which they pat themselves on their backs and convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. By reading these texts, we can go a long way towards understanding why these atrocities occurred.

Blood Alienation is the name I am proposing for a phenomenon that seems to trigger nearly every major genocide or massacre or ethnic cleansing in history. This phenomenon occurs when one segment of a society becomes convinced that another segment of the same society is its mortal enemy. A transformation occurs within a society when this meme of paranoid fear begins to spread, and when it spreads rapidly and becomes common wisdom, the chances that a massacre or genocide will occur become much greater.

I began this inquiry as an experiment, and have been making the steps up as I go along -- but even at this early stage I find myself surprised at how well the two principles explain the worst atrocities of modern times. At the risk of being ridiculously reductive and simplistic, I have to wonder if the above two principles are nearly all we need to explain every major genocide or massacre of the past hundred years.

The April 1994 disaster in Rwanda is a useful case study because everything happened there so quickly that subterfuge and propaganda had no time to take root. It has become a cliche to describe April 1994 as a sudden descent into primal collective madness and tribal irrationality. Sadly, though, there was nothing primal or irrational about this very modern genocide, and the only reason it has become a cliche to emphasize the primitivistic irrationality of the terrible genocide is that most people don't bother to learn about the political agreement that triggered it -- a political agreement that the Hutu majority ethnic group believed would empower the privileged minority Tutsis at the expense of their own freedom and empowerment.

It's important to realize that there is absolutely no doubt that this pending political change frightened the Hutus and inspired the massacre. We can wonder how the roving gangs of killers could have been so brutal, but we do not need to wonder how they justified their brutalities to themselves. It's all right there in the historical record. The Rwanda genocide was an act of fear, not an act of hatred. Hatred was there, of course -- victims were constantly tortured, mutilated, insulted and raped -- but the hatred does not seem to have been the cause of the genocide. Rather, the hatred appears to have been manufactured and exploited by the still-unknown planners of the massacre, who used radio broadcasts and other media to provoke bands of killers to fast action.

In these radio broadcasts, Tutsis were constantly referred to as "cockroaches". But the massacre did not happen because the Hutu killers thought of Tutsis as cockroaches. It happened the other way around: the dehumanization of the Tutsis was necessary to inspire the massacre. It's worth noting that the bands of machete murderers had to drink themselves into near stupors in order to achieve the state of mindlessness necessary to do their work. After a few banana beers, apparently, a human being can start to look like a cockroach.

Similar patterns are easily found in other violent examples of ethnic cleansing. It seems that we are contextualizing when we characterize any genocide as an act of hatred. The hatred may be real, but it does not seem to ever be the cause of genocide. Rather, genocide is always inspired by fear, by the terrible logic of blood alienation. The hatred comes after. The fear comes first.

The Holocaust that killed six million Jews during the Second World War in Europe seems very similar to the genocide in Rwanda: a majority's fear of oppression by a privileged minority, a vile campaign of dehumanization of the targeted minority in order to provoke the violence that is considered a political or military necessity. As an American Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust, I know that many of my fellow Jews see the Holocaust as an expression of hatred. The more I learn for myself, the more I realize that this perception is an illusion.

The historical record shows that religious or ethnic anti-semitism had very little to do with the motivation behind the Holocaust. Fear of Soviet-style Communism had everything to do with it. Our own understanding of Europe's history during the terrible decades of the two World Wars has become so warped that most people today don't know that there was an attempted Communist revolution in Germany after the end of the First World War, led by the tragic Rosa Luxembourg and other German Jews who wished to replicate Lenin and Trotsky's success in Berlin. The killing of Rosa Luxembourg and her fellow Jewish Communists in 1919 led directly to the empowerment of proto-fascist groups like the Freikorps and the early Nazis whose primary stated purpose was to prevent the possibility of a Jewish/Communist takeover of Germany. While we can't take the thought of homegrown Communist revolution in Germany seriously today, because Rosa Luxembourg and her partners were so completely defeated, we are not seeing history clearly if we don't understand that the possibility seemed very real to Germans in the years after the First World War.

As with the solving of a puzzle, pieces seem to fall in place as we proceed to look at the facts in light of our two primary principles, and new combinations suddenly become possible. After a lifetime of believing that Jews were killed in Europe during World War II because they were hated, it's a tough shift to realize that they were killed rather for political expedience (and, as the Second World War proceeded, for military and strategic expedience). It's also a shocking shift to realize that the hatred that accompanied the Holocaust may have been manufactured and promoted in order to make the killings possible. And yet the historical records seem to support this interpretation. This helps to explain the fact that the few brutal and hateful masterminds of the Holocaust such as Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Hans Frank complained often about the terrible toll it took on their men to carry out their quotas of killings. These pathetic Nazi death troops didn't get drunk on banana beer like their Hutu counterparts, but they must have found other ways to numb themselves.

There's much more to be written here, and there are many, many more disasters of the 20th century to examine. But a critical question begins to emerge: is hatred ever the cause of genocide? I'm beginning to believe it never is. Fear of a perceived mortal enemy appears to always be the cause of genocide, and this stunning realization may be the first major step towards solving the puzzle we need to solve.

I'd like to know if the suggestion I'm laying out here makes as much sense to my readers as it does to me. Am I on the right track? Am I missing anything? Please let me know, because I can't solve these puzzles all by myself.


A surprising yet obvious realization: fear, not hatred, appears to be the root cause of history's worst atrocities and massacres and genocides.

view /TheAtrocityCube
Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm
The Atrocity Cube by Levi Asher
Levi Asher

What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.

Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.

A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.

It did not shock the slaveholders that some slaves would try to escape, but it badly shocked them that their slaves would conspire with the enemy. This introduced a newly sinister element into the relations between Southern slaveholder and slave, leading to increased tensions and harsher laws. If it were ever possible that the American South would voluntarily ease itself from a slavery-based economy into a voluntary-work economy, the suspicion of betrayal that emerged during the War of 1812 added to the already wide fear of slave revolt and made this natural progress impossible. Alan Taylor's book explains that many infamous laws -- for instance, prohibitions against teaching slaves to read -- only came into existence after the War of 1812.

Whenever one people or society or ethnic group begins to suspect that another people or society or ethnic group may conspire with its enemy, an extreme cultural alienation makes itself evident. Once this alienation occurs, it becomes a permanent and infinite condition: you can never trust the enemy, because they might be lying. This is a violent alienation, a blood alienation: kill them before they kill us. Once you begin to look for this pattern of suspicion, you will quickly discover how common it is as the primary cause of some of histories worst atrocities and genocides. Some examples:

  • The Armenian Genocide in Turkey. We all know that 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey were killed on brutal death marches during World War I. But it's not as well known that the expulsion of the Armenians was seen by the Turks to serve a practical and necessary purpose: Turkey was now in a brutal war against Russia, and Armenians were believed to be sympathetic to Russia. Armenians had lived peacefully for centuries in Turkey, but once the Great War began the Armenians suddenly became, like the African-American slaves in Alan Taylor's 1812 Virginia, an internal enemy.
  • The Tutsi massacre in Rwanda. The horrifying machete and gun slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans by their Hutu neighbors in 1994 is often described as an outbreak of tribal hatred, though observers have remarked that there did not seem to be an unusual level of personal hatred between Tutsis and Hutus before the disaster began. Rather than hatred, there was an outbreak of a sudden and terrible suspicion: a new power-sharing agreement was about to take effect in Rwanda that Hutus believed would result in their oppression and disenfranchisement by a Tutsi ruling party. A foreign-based army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front was about to march in, the Hutus feared, and destroy their freedom and prosperity. The carefully-planned nationwide massacre of Tutsis was viewed by Hutus at the time as a preventive act of self-defense.
  • The Holocaust. The murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its Fascist allies during World War II is probably the most well-known genocide of all time, and it's often believed that religious or ethnic anti-semitism was the primary cause. Religious and ethnic anti-semitism certainly existed and didn't help, but in fact there was a practical purpose behind Hitler's murder of Jews that is often forgotten. Jews were considered Communist sympathizers. Once Germany and Russia began fighting to the death, Jews in German-occupied territories were seen as likely to be aiding and supporting the Russians. They were the internal enemy.

It may seem nearly self-evident that most genocides occur during time of war and are primarily fed by suspicion of national betrayal. And yet this fact is often forgotten when the causes of genocide are discussed, and thus the practical logic behind genocide is also forgotten. Suspicion, it turns out, is even more dangerous than hatred. Sure, ethnic groups hate each other, but it turns out that this is not why genocides occur. Different ethnic groups can hate each other and still coexist in peace for centuries. It's only when different ethnic groups become suspicious of each other that genocides and atrocities occur.

Hannah Arendt's well-titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil established the surprising point that Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who organized death camp operations that killed millions of Jews, did not appear to hate Jews at all. Arendt's findings have been seen as a moral puzzle of history, but I think an understanding of the phenomenon of blood alienation provides the answer. Eichmann did not hate Jews, but he did consider Jews to be Communist sympathizers (as indeed they often were) and thus unreliable inhabitants of Nazi-occupied territory during the war against the Soviet Union. This is why he was willing to kill them even though he did not hate them.

The notion of blood alienation seems particularly important in establishing the co-dependent relationship between war and genocide. I have remarked before on this blog that war has always been the greatest enabler of genocide, and that this is one of the best reasons we should all take principled stands as pacifists. (Unfortunately, our shared histories often deemphasize the fact that genocides occur in the vicinity of war, and often support the ridiculous idea that wars can help prevent genocides, though they have far more frequently caused them.)

Blood alienation does not explain all genocides and atrocities. The horrors of Darfur in Sudan, for instance, seem to be motivated by greed for oil wealth rather than suspicion. Stalin may have feared Ukrainian nationalists in the 1930s when he starved millions of Ukranians to death, but it's not clear that Ukraine nationalism ever threatened Russia's existence the way the Armenians threatened Turkey's existence, or the Tutsis threatened the Hutus' existence, or the Jewish Communists threatened Nazi Germany's existence. Likewise, the horrors of Japan's invasion of China before World War II can not be traced back to suspicion of an internal enemy.

At the same time, though, the concept does shed light on other historical incidents that have seemed puzzling. When the United States of America interred Japanese-Americans in prison camps during World War II, it was clearly because the Japanese-Americans were seen as an internal enemy. To USA's credit, this imprisonment never led to genocide -- however, it's worth wondering what might have occurred if Japan had been more successful in threatening the mainland. If Japan managed to invade the coast of California during World War II, what would have happened inside the Japanese-American prison camps? We can look to similar examples from history to see the options.

The concept of blood alienation as the primary driver of large-scale atrocity turns up surprising results. Some Americans have puzzled over the violent atrocities against Native Americans at the uncaring hands of Andrew Jackson, who later became president and whose face is on our $20 bill. It helps to understand that Andrew Jackson made his name as a general in the War of 1812 and that many Native Americans, like the runaway slaves of Virginia's Chesapeake Coast, conspired with the British invaders during the war of 1812. They were, again, an internal enemy.

When a nation or a people becomes riven by blood alienation, a form of violent social psychosis begins to spread like a meme. The nature of this meme is hard to pin down, because the paranoia and suspicion that one group of people feels towards another might not actually be an illusion. Perhaps the Armenians in Turkey really would have betrayed their own nation on Russia's behalf. The reality of war makes genocide sadly logical at times like these.

What can we do when suspicions of blood alienation become expressions of reality? It may be the realities themselves that need to change, and not just our perceptions of the realities, if we wish to free our hopeful human race from eternally repeating the self-inflicted wounds of our past.


Suspicion, it turns out, is even more dangerous than hatred. Different ethnic groups can hate each other and still coexist in peace for centuries. It's only when they become suspicious of each other that genocides and atrocities occur.

view /BloodAlienation
Saturday, March 15, 2014 09:50 am
Blood Alienation: Farm Creek in Woodbridge Virginia
Levi Asher

Thanks to Nelson Mandela, I have a new favorite word. I'm serious about this; I like this word a lot.

I've known about "Ubuntu" for years, but I always thought it was a distribution of the Linux open source operating system. I've installed and used Ubuntu Linux often. But I've just now learned that the Ubuntu distro was created as a spinoff of Debian Linux in 2004 by a South African entrepreneur named Mark Shuttleworth who knew of "ubuntu" as a familiar term in the Ngugi Bantu and Swahili family of languages. The term denotes a communitarian social philosophy that is certainly relevant to the communitarian technology philosophy of open source. Amazingly, the Ubuntu Linux organization even persuaded Nelson Mandela to speak about the meaning of the word in a promotional video for the free and sharable operating system.

I ran into the word while reading about Nelson Mandela, but apparently the word is more commonly associated with Mandela's fellow activist Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has described it thus:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

The term describes a scientific psychological understanding as well as an ethical principle, as in this helpful explanation by African historian Michael Onyebuchi Eze:

A person is a person through other people strikes an affirmation of one's humanity through recognition of an 'other' in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the 'other' becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The 'I am' is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance

"Humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me". That says a hell of a lot. In fact, it says a hell of a lot that I have been struggling to say in previous Philosophy Weekend articles, particularly in blog posts like The Collective Self, The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self and Groupthink, Group Mind.

I have been at times nearly obsessed with this idea, and have had many fascinating comment-section debates with Litkicks readers about it -- particularly as I've introduced and emphasized the concept of the natural "group self" to combat the increasingly popular but sadly isolating ultra-individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand in my short book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters).

Struggling to find the words to express the psychological idea that the human sense of self is intrinsically collectivist as well as the ethical idea that we can live happier and more peaceful lives once we let go of the mistaken and naive belief that the human soul is fully encapsulated in an isolated self, I have evoked a variety of wise thinkers from Buddha to Carl Jung. But I did not know that there was a Southern African tradition I could appeal to as well.

I have previously employed the word "group self" to describe the concept of a human soul that is intrinsically social and naturally inclined to be generous with all fellow human souls. I did not know that I could have used a better word that many of my readers may have been already familiar with. "Ubuntu". Simple as that.

I love learning new words. Sometimes, as when I ran into Jacques Derrida's term "differance" earlier this year, the discovery of a previously unknown word helped me to discover a new way to think. It's very cool when this happens.

But "ubuntu" strikes me differently. This seems to express an exact thing I have already been struggling to express, but without realizing that a word for it existed. I now wish I could reopen all my past debates about the "group self" (especially this mammoth debate from March 2012, which I still remember with a big smile) and replace all instances of the term "group self" with "ubuntu".

Maybe with this ammunition my vigorous opponents would finally realize they'd been bested in the debate. Okay, that'll never happen. But it's still a great word.

To top this off: I've watched plenty of Boston Celtics games in the past few years, but I've also only now learned that "ubuntu" has recently morphed into a big Boston Celtics tradition, originally passed on to coach Doc Rivers by Stephanie Russell of Marquette University.

"1-2-3 Ubuntu!". I like the way that sounds.


"Ubuntu" is an important psychological principle and social philosophy as well as an important Linux distribution.

view /Ubuntu
Sunday, December 15, 2013 11:19 am
Ubuntu is an important social philosophy as well as an important Linux distribution.
Levi Asher

I wonder if all the glory that's been heaped upon Nelson Mandela since his death on Thursday is hurting his feelings. This level of adulation has got to be hard for anyone to endure, living or dead.

Well, the glory is well-deserved, but just for the sake of originality I'd like to celebrate two South Africans today: Nelson Mandela and his political opponent and partner F. W. de Klerk, the last white President of South Africa, who had the courage to take the steps to negotiate an end to apartheid. De Klerk's courage was very different from Nelson Mandela's, but it's no less worthy of praise.

Unlike Nelson Mandela, Frederik Willem de Klerk didn't really look like a hero. He was 18 years younger than Nelson Mandela, but his body shape and physical presence made him look 18 years older. Mandela spent 27 years in jail; de Klerk spent nearly his entire life as a politician in the government that kept Mandela there. Mandela was the son of a Xhosa chief; de Klerk's last name means "the clerk".

But when de Klerk was elected President by his troubled nation's white minority in 1989, he moved fast and decisively to open discussions with the outlawed African National Congress, to finally release Mandela from jail, to remove racial barriers to voting and turn South Africa into a true majority. He initiated a national referendum on March 17, 1992 to end apartheid -- a referendum in which, of course, only white South Africans could vote, because it was only by acheiving a "Yes" vote that all South Africans of all ethnic backgrounds would be granted the right to vote.

This was a political moment of M. C. Escher-like reflectivity, as well as a moment of drastic cultural importance for the nation and for the world. The "Yes" side won by a landslide: 68.7% to 31.3%. From this point on, the brighter future of South Africa was assured.

History has a way of scaling over itself with a patina of inevitability, and I'm not sure if historians of the future will be able to understand how truly surprising South Africa's ascent to racial justice and decency was at the time it took place. History may also fail to capture how impossible it once seemed that peace could ever come to this violently torn nation, which had been suffering from the ravages of colonialism for centuries. Ten years before the referendum to end apartheid, it seemed likely that apartheid would never end peacefully.

There seemed to be two choices: violent revolution, or the terrible status quo. Brutally depressing novels like J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians captured modern South Africa's Kafkaesque situation as most of us understood it: there might be an ending to the story of apartheid, but there wouldn't be a happy ending. The option of a simply successful negotiated path to peaceful coexistence was rarely mentioned; the idea would have come across as a naive and foolish dream.

Today, we still hear that there can never be peace between, say, Israel and Palestine, or between the United States of America and Iran. Between 1989 and 1994 (the year that Nelson Mandela was elected President, replacing F. W. de Klerk to the world's joyful near-disbelief), two men proved the pessimists wrong.

Of course, South Africa did not become a perfect nation after apartheid ended. Of course, F. W. de Klerk was a highly flawed politician, and Nelson Mandela must have been flawed in a few ways too (though I must admit that I can't think of any). Just today, I saw a blog post arguing that it was ridiculous to claim that Nelson Mandela was a pacifist. Maybe this is true. Likewise, for all I know, F. W. de Klerk may in his private soul have been as vile a racist as the preceding white Presidents of his racist nation (indeed, how do you allow yourself to become President of a racist nation through a whites-only election if you are not a racist?).

To all this I say: who cares? Both men were imperfect, and both men exceeded themselves to solve an utterly bleak dilemma.

Mandela and de Klerk appeared to like each other, though their relationship remained complex. They won a Nobel Peace Prize together, and were photographed repeatedly shaking hands or smiling at each other, so many times that they both must have gotten sick of it. But the world needs an endless supply of photographs of Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk shaking hands. These photographs can remind us that anybody who ever declares that peace is not possible -- in any part of the world, no matter how troubled -- doesn't know what they're talking about.


It's easy to praise Nelson Mandela, but let's also remember his less apparently heroic partner in peace, F. W. de Klerk, the last white President of South Africa, who helped Mandela to save their country's soul.

view /MandelaDeKlerk
Saturday, December 7, 2013 07:48 pm
F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
Levi Asher

Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print everywhere I've looked, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.

Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.

Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.

Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.

Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if it is out of print for a completely different reason. Perhaps the book is out of print because its horrific violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture than each. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.

The bisected narrative of the Vietnam War psychologist and the 18th century Boer explorer presents few common plot points, except that both stories are journeys into horror. In the first of the two texts, the brilliant but confused desk worker named Eugene Dawn explains the deft logic behind some of the propaganda techniques used by invading USA forces in North Vietnam. Dawn describes why some programs to destroy enemy morale among pre-literate rural Vietnamese societies succeed while other programs fail. His vaguely Jungian interpretations of the mythological power of political messaging in Vietnam are believable and insightful, but this talented psychological analyst turns out to be himself unhinged in an unexpectedly sinister way. This half of the book leaves the reader with a sense of being dropped off by a speeding bus into the ninth circle of hell.

The second half of the book continues the demonic ride. We meet a bigoted Dutch farmer who likes to smirk and rant about the local "Hottentots", natives (also known as Namaqua) of southern Africa, who he and his fellow colonial settlers joyfully kill at will, at times hunting them down from atop galloping horses. This settler is leading an expedition into inland Africa, manned mostly by a few "loyal" Hottentots, which turns to disaster when they are all taken prisoner by and treated cruelly by a native tribe. Some of the explorer's own men "go native", enraging him and inspiring him to eventually instigate the book's second violent climax: a murder rampage through an Namaqua village that will remind readers (though the connection is never made) of atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnamese villages.

The straight-faced double narrative never circles back to Vietnam, though. Instead, it ends with an ironic flourish, as later commentators summarize the murderous explorer's manuscript only by celebrating his famous legends, completely glossing over his crimes, and replacing the facts we have just read with ludicrously trivial fragments of heroic myth.

Throughout both found texts, familiar J. M. Coetzee themes abound. The concept of fatherhood is weighed and deconstructed. Sexual anxiety runs amok. Most Coetzee-esque of all, the author's identity and presence is subverted in various comic meta-fictional twists that recall two of his most recent books, the multi-voiced Diary of a Bad Year and the pseudo-biographical Summertime (which told the story of a dead novelist named John Coetzee). "Coetzee" appears by name within Dusklands, first as the stern and unlikable boss of the sensitive (crazy) psychologist Eugene Dawn, and then as the Dutch explorer himself, whose name is Jacobus Coetzee.

Taking it further, Jacobus Coetzee's original Dutch manuscript is also "translated" and edited by later people named Coetzee, including J. M. Coetzee. The bibliographic mumbo-jumbo surrounding this section of the book is presented with such a straight face that we almost believe it's real. Of course, the only thing Jacobus Coetzee's narrative was translated from is J. M. Coetzee's vivid imagination. Which perhaps does speak a foreign language -- a spookily familiar one.

Beyond the meta-fictional structure, the Dusklands stories also appear to provide several keys to later Coetzee novels. For example: in Disgrace, the professor David Lurie finds himself strangely offended at the way his awkward and unconfident young object of attraction Melanie (who is, presumably, of native African ancestry) "wiggles her bottom" when she appears in a college play. In Dusklands, the explorer Jacobus Coetzee is angered by a Hottentot woman shaking her "high rump" at him during a suggestive dance. Given Coetzee's tendency to tie threads between his novels, we can only assume that the moment in Disgrace was meant to echo the moment in Dusklands.

Several other Coetzee connections spring from this book. The fact that his first novel was a Rosetta stone of his later themes makes it all the more inexplicable that Dusklands is out of print. It's an essential Coetzee work.

I was so floored by the power of this debut novel (which was, apparently, fairly well received at first publication in 1974) that I began looking for commentary as soon as I finished it, and found many positive reactions to the book. A review at the blog The Mookse and the Gripes matched my own conclusions to a remarkable degree:

I am on a Coetzee completion project. Though I have liked Coetzee’s early books that I have read, I have not liked them as much as his later books, so I was a bit nervous to go back and read Coetzee’s first book, Dusklands (1974). I wondered if I would find it an overwritten (a worry because I greatly admire Coetzee’s pared down prose) or under-developed first novel, but this book is exceptional. Coetzee, it seems, was on his Nobel track from the very beginning. It’s a shame that this book is basically out of print.

Yes, Coetzee certainly was on his Nobel track from the very beginning, and Dusklands must be brought back into print in the United States of America immediately. Nearly all his other books are in print. Penguin Books, what are you thinking?

Could it really be possible that Dusklands is out of print because it's such a disturbing work? Could this book be that mythical creature, the novel so truthful that noone can bear to read it?

One thing's for sure: Dusklands carries a gut-punching message. It's a message about war, about mythology, about genocide, about ethnicity, about colonialism, about love -- and the message is certainly no less relevant today than it was in 1974.


Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel 'Dusklands' is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career. Oh. My. God ... was I wrong.

view /Dusklands
Tuesday, April 16, 2013 09:48 pm
First edition cover of Dusklands by J. M. Coetzee
Levi Asher

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has died. We've written about Achebe on Litkicks before: Juliana Harris wrote a brief biography, and I had a chance to hear him read at a PEN World Voices festival in 2006.

Images of his dignified elderly face have been splashed around since the announcement of his death. His expression signifies a lot, but I thought I'd pay tribute instead by showing four covers of his signature work, Things Fall Apart. The rightmost image above is the paperback edition I was assigned to read in middle school (I can't remember if it was 6th or 7th grade). The book didn't make much impact on me at the time, but I was able to appreciate it later.

I like the paperback covers a lot, and I also like these two earlier hardcovers. The one of the left is the book's first edition.

Finally, from Slate, here's a chilling look at how easily this classic novel might have never been read by anyone at all, ever.


Images of Chinua Achebe's dignified elderly face have been splashed around since the announcement of his death. His expression signifies a lot, but I thought I'd pay tribute instead by showing four covers of his signature work, 'Things Fall Apart'.

view /ThingsFallApart
Sunday, March 24, 2013 10:36 am
Paperback covers of Chinua Achebe's novel 'Things Fall Apart'
Levi Asher