Thursday, 22 June 2017

Book Notes: "The Revolution Betrayed" by Leon Trotsky

The Revolution BetrayedThe Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I lecture I will often, in the heat of the moment, say things based on my understanding of the topic, and oftentimes it is hard to pin-point where this knowledge came from - a case of: how do I know what I know? The experience usually sends me back to the books to reconfirm my knowledge. Whenever I read the classic political science texts from J.S. Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Burke, et al., I feel as though I am reading what I know. This is clearly a result of my education, but after having read these works, a series of gaps in my knowledge is simultaneously filled, and then, like a muscle at the gym, ripped asunder. To be sure, this is how we learn and improve, but the experience to this day leaves me feeling desperate for more time on this earth to learn the things I do not know - a list that grows daily. And Trotsky's work read like a familiar text. I may have read parts of it before, but in my class readers during my political science degree. But to rediscover these words and thoughts and ideas and ideals is mind-blowing. Trotsky was clearly a genius. This cannot be denied. But he was a politician in the same vein as Dr John Hewson: Fightback! was brilliant, and it has been for the most part implemented, but Dr Hewson was not a popular politician, Fightback! was a (in a "presentist" sense) a policy failure, yet Dr Hewson was right all along. I am probably drawing a long bow by putting Dr Hewson in the same category as Trotsky, but the same high intellectual-low political capability divide is evident. Parts of this work remind me of an old Soviet joke:
Comrade 1: What is the difference between capitalism and communism?
Comrade 2: In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it is the other way around.
Trotsky points out all the theoretical problems with Stalinism, and brings in a useful comparison with the French Revolution, a common thread throughout the work, with the Thermidorian reaction to Robespierre explaining what was happening in Russia in the mid-1930s. Trotsky has no issue with deviations from the communist plot. He is well-aware that Russia was not meant to be where the great international revolution would begin. But now that it had, then some things had to be taken into account. Trotsky's issue was that these deviations from the plot, albeit necessary, were being hidden in bureaucratic nonsense, enabling the exploitation of man by man pretending to be a system that was meant to be overthrowing this very system. Trotsky's arguments are so solid that Stalin had to "liquidate" his ideas. The habit of purging, of course, was the antithesis of the Marxian ideal, and showed Stalin's "socialism within one country" as little more than a nouveau-bourgeois power-grab. Ultimately, Trotsky's predictions proved correct, and the rest is history. Trotsky's attack on the international "friends of socialism", in particular the Webbs (Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb), demonstrates his commitment to theoretical communism. I suspect that Lenin had the political nous that Trotsky lacked. Little wonder the back cover blurb states, accurately, that this work is "one of Marxism's most important texts". That communist theory has been so routinely dismissed because of Stalinism and the Russian experience is premature. In the long course of history, especially as technological developments mean there is less for more of us to do, if life continues as it does now, forevermore, then the extinction of the species will demonstrate natural justice in a way that our theorising never could.

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Monday, 19 June 2017

Book Notes: "Proletarian Dictatorship and Terrorism" by Karl Radek

Proletarian Dictatorship and Terrorism (Classic Reprint)Proletarian Dictatorship and Terrorism by Karl Radek

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Radek raises the proverbial "one man's nourishment is another man's poison" by comparing Stalin's purging to the treatment of Irish revolutionaries by the British in the Irish War of Independence of 1919-1921. This brochure was written by Radek in about 1920 (the English translations came later) and was endorsed by Leon Trotsky as a suitable response to Karl Kautsky, a German social-democrat, and his critique of Trotsky's Dictatorship vs. Democracy, among other works. It is interesting that the title of which Trotsky was most fond was "Terrorism or Communism", but this was toned down for an American audience. And here I discover a whole can of historical worms. Communists in America, communists in the UK, critiques and critics of Bolshevism and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and so on. And then much later Trotsky in exile and a major critic of Stalin and the self-serving bureaucracy that was to become the antithesis of socialism, as the lowest level of communism. The great communist experiment was of global interest, despite the Western Allies' support of the anti-Bolshevik White Russians in the Russian Civil War of 1919-1923. Even a small contingent of Australian soldiers fought against the Bolsheviks. Yet there remained support from socialists in the West through various trade union and communist movements. This "support" seemed an ideal rather than a plausible solution to humanity's problems. I recall reading that Lionel Murphy's parents (according to Jenny Hocking in Lionel Murphy: A Political Biography) visited Russia after the Second World War but never spoke of the great socialist experiment ever again after lifting the veil on the propaganda. Reading this has provided me with several historical insights, aside from the Soviet Union, into the Irish War of Independence and the French Revolution, and for these alone it was worth the discovery, if not for the intellectual debating that went on between the Soviet intelligentsia and their detractors in the 1920s.

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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Essay Notes: "Is the Russian Revolution a Bourgeois Revolution? A Keen Analysis of the Situation in Soviet Russia" by Karl Radek

Is the Russian Revolution a Bourgeois Revolution? a Keen Analysis of Situation in Soviet RussiaIs the Russian Revolution a Bourgeois Revolution? A Keen Analysis of the Situation in Soviet Russia by Karl Radek

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Karl Radek photographed in Berlin, 1919. Radek travelled
in the sealed train across Germany with Lenin in 1917, but
remained in Stockholm. He was an Austrian citizen
and would not have been allowed entry to Russia.
This photograph of Karl Radek from 1919 depicts the quintessential communist intellectual (see right). I am convinced he set the fashion for left-wing university students through the ages! This pamphlet is an attempt to counter critics of the Bolsheviki. Trotsky says it best, in effect, that Russia was not ready for "socialism, the lowest form of communism", and it could only set up a level somewhat lower than that. The Internationale was meant to break out in France, be advanced by Germany, and then be established by England. But instead, it all began in Russia. By 1921, it was clear that there was no real dictatorship of the proletariat, and the Bolsheviki were becoming the new ruling elite. I was hoping for more from Radek, but it would seem that Trotsky was the real intellectual of the Soviet Union. That Radek was part of the bureaucracy while Trotsky was not speaks volumes. Yet even Radek would succumb to Stalin's tyranny. It really is a tragic story but as I delve more into the original documents, I am pleased to see that my education is holding up. It is a mere facsimile of the primary documents, but it would seem to be helpful to grasp the basic story before diving into Bolshevik ephemera!

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Friday, 16 June 2017

Book Notes: "Lenin on the Train" by Catherine Merridale

Lenin on the TrainLenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting history of the Russian Revolution and Lenin's trip from exile in Switzerland via train through Germany and on to Petrograd. The work covers (loosely) the time period from February (Julian Calendar) 1917 and the overthrow of the Tsar, and culminating in the Bolshevik's overthrow of the Provisional Government, led by Lenin, in October (Julian) 1917. This is quite a scholarly work with excellent referencing and suggestions for further reading. The level of detail filled in so many blanks in my historical knowledge by focusing rather narrowly. I was grateful for this focus, but I was also left with no clear end-point for the historiography. No sooner had Lenin's train arrived and he suddenly appeared in the mausoleum in the present day having his suit tailored (after killing millions of people). This sets the work up nicely for a historical sequel, but given the level of detail up until Lenin's arrival, the subsequent lack of detail was somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, I found it hard to put this book down, and I learnt many new things. In particular, whenever I have read inside cover biographies of W. Somerset Maugham, I discovered he worked in propaganda during the Great War. But I did not know how involved he (or Hugh Walpole for that matter) was involved in Britain's spying on the Russians at the time. I also discovered that much of Maugham's backstory is sitting on my bookshelf in the as-yet unread Ashenden. Walpole's book, The Dark Forest, is about this time period and was mentioned in Hemingway's short story The Three-Day Blow, which I read just before this book. I discovered Merridale's work as a result of an interesting Twitter project where Lenin's revolution, one hundred years later, is being covered day-by-day via tweets. See: "Relive the Revolution". Now, I really do not like Twitter but if it could be more often like this I would be hooked! I recall discovering this book after I had discovered Russia Today, a Russian English-language news service. RT's animation of Lenin's journey provides a helpful recap of the book's chronology, see: #Lenintracker, it is a blast! So an interesting journey comes to a close, 100 years ago for Lenin, and just today for me. My next steps will be to read Maugham and then some Hugh Walpole. Moreover, I shall dig up some G.K. Chesterton, who, incidentally, was not only mentioned by Hemingway in The Three-Day Blow, but was also connected with Maxim Gorky and wrote the foreword to Creatures That Once Were Men. A fruitful experience overall, even if a review of this book in The Spectator reckons that the twentieth century would have turned out better if Lenin was left, cranky, and without a train, in the Swiss Alps.

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Book Notes: "The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories" by Ernest Hemingway

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other StoriesThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is drawn from other works and I have read all of the stories several times before either online or in other collected works. Rather than read in awe of the master, this reading had me feeling sorry for the depressing note to all things. While this makes the short stories art, it also hints at a fragility, but not of manhood, as Hemingway's critics often suggest, but of the absurd. And yet Hemingway had no time for the absurd, or at least, Malcolm Cowley with:
...a stupid look on his potato face talking about the Dada movement...
Yet here, in this collection, I couldn't help but think of the meaninglessness of life and Hemingway's enunciation of the absurd, building over and over in a collection put together, not by Hemingway, but by others. I suspect this is worth looking into further and a few re-reads of Hemingway's major works might benefit from a view through this lens.

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Monday, 12 June 2017

Book Notes: "Utopia" by Thomas More

UtopiaUtopia by Thomas More

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yet another of the books for which I could provide a synopsis but have never read cover to cover (until now). There is much to Sir Thomas More's communist (note my use of a lowercase "c") essay that surprised me. One can see the little twists to insure against More being burned at the stake (the Utopians were ready to receive Christ as they had more or less self-discovered Christ's communal teachings - but it didn't prevent him having his head cut off for refusing to succumb to its antithesis) along with it being presented in the form of a dialogue in Book I (as per Plato, Machiavelli, et al.). A few things made me think it might be more socialist than communist, if one accepts that communism attempts to abolish the state in order to achieve equality, whereas socialism aspires to the same aim but through governmental or formal institutional arrangements. The founder of Utopia, "King" Utopus, suggested the limitations of More's imagination, and had me thinking of modern Bhutan. But the notes on the translation point out that Ralph Robinson, the translator, had added his own interpretations of the original Latin that added kings and princes where none was intended. The introduction by Richard Manus explains the reasons for keeping the original translation and for that I was pleased. The focus on religion and the idea of bondsman doing all the unpalatable work for the commonwealth brings to the fore many of the problems of communism in it twentieth century practice. Aside from the obvious problems where the dictatorship of the proletariat has never ended in its practical forms, communism has never really obtained that level of freedom, particularly in terms of occupations or individuals becoming "Renaissance" men or women, whereas, and despite its reliance on the "Metroplesque" underground to make it practicable, this is achieved, along with a six-hour work day, in Utopia. The interesting use of mercenaries in warfare and foreign relations and the stigmas attached to precious metals and pearls (for bondsmen and children respectively) point to the absurdity of surviving ideas about value and money. The use of Plato suggests a reinvention of the Commonwealth of centuries before, whereas Jonathan Swift, too, draws on the folk tradition to protect himself from his own political commentary, albeit over a century later, but relying on similarly strange peoples with startlingly homogeneous cultures. But, taken in its times, More seems to have done a good deal of the theorising for Marx to arrive and merely iron out the shortcomings. Despite my familiarity with the work, there is much fruit to be harvested by taking the time to read thoroughly what one has previously learnt second-hand. Yet I am pleased that our education system is remarkable in that, despite its secondary-source nature, the synopses I (at least) have received are true to form, if otherwise lacking in detail.

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Thursday, 8 June 2017

Book Notes: "The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How does one rate a classic? If one could only change the world in 30 pages or so! What always strikes me is that, much like Dr John Hewson's Fightback! policy from the early 1990s, most of the pamphlet has been implemented already (sans the revolution, and admittedly Hewson's work was considerably longer at 650 pages!). Nevertheless, of the ten "measures" (p. 20), Australia has, over time, implemented many of the plans through what, in some ways, still displays remnants of social democracy. However, as with Fightback!, and while many like to think it was all nonsense, much of it has been done or is still in the doing. Whether the great Internationale will die with the contemporary return to nationalism is a moot point when one considers the exponential increase in growth and power of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" (not to mention India, which is quite another story). But this probably won't concern me, at least in this life.

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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Book Notes: "The Inner Life" by Thomas à Kempis

The Inner LifeThe Inner Life by Thomas à Kempis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Penguin's Great Ideas series showcases important works in an abbreviated format (not my favourite way to read), and this work by Thomas à Kempis is drawn from the larger work The Imitation of Christ. After reading Benjamin Franklin (see his 13-week virtues program in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin), Albert Camus, and James Allen, I can see the connections to this work dating from the early fifteenth century. There are also elements of Stoicism, recalling Marcus Aurelius. For example, on death at p. 20:
If you are not ready to die today, will tomorrow find you better prepared?
And of being in the world, especially when one is distracted by others, on p. 28:
But to be able to live at peace among hard, obstinate, and undisciplined people and those who oppose us, is a great grace, and a most commendable and manly achievement... He who knows the secret of endurance will enjoy the greatest peace. Such a one is a conqueror of self, master of the world, a friend of Christ, and an heir of Heaven.
Here, James Allen's meditations shine through and it is pleasing to read these in the original. Having said that, there are times when the dialogue between Christ and the disciple, I suppose borrowing from Plato, irked me a little. Nevertheless, there is one part where, and I say this without having researched others' views on the matter, but in Chapter 2 of Book 3 (pp. 40-41), entitled How Truth Instructs us in Silence, the disciple raves on and on and never lets God put a word in edge-wise. This reminded me of Franklin's second virtue, silence, and how we tend to talk too much. I wonder if this was a precursor to the style of La Rochefoucauld? It certainly had me yelling at the disciple to just shut up and listen! Finally, Franklin's thirteenth virtue, to be like Jesus or Socrates, might make the reading of the complete book worthwhile. This is the most difficult of the virtues to comprehend. My reading of Kempis suggests that to think ourselves capable of imitating Christ is folly, and as a non-Christian, even emulating Socrates is egotistical, especially if one were to self-assess as anything other than a black mark for each day for not having been able to be so. Again, without looking to others, what I have gained from Kempis is not that we can imitate Christ (or Socrates, for that matter), but that we can only strive for the ideal. In self-assessing against Franklin's thirteenth virtue, I can only ever give myself a perforated black mark, as I could never say I had reached such levels of perfection (some suggest that Socrates belongs to the list of Abrahamic prophets, so he may well be out of reach, too). And yet the struggle over this one problem is exactly what Kempis suggests we do. Herein lies the genius of Franklin. In assessing himself every day for thirteen weeks, I doubt he could ever not give himself a black mark; yet every day he was reminded to strive for the ideal, no matter how imperfect a man may be in (as opposed to "of"), the world.

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The Dunning-Kruger Effect, or: The Illusion of Confidence

Head-on car accident. Rural South Dakota, 1932. Photo: Wikimedia.

What know-it-alls don’t know, or the illusion of competence

One day in 1995, a large, heavy middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler. When they showed him the surveillance tapes, Wheeler stared in disbelief. ‘But I wore the juice,’ he mumbled. Apparently, Wheeler thought that rubbing lemon juice on his skin would render him invisible to videotape cameras. After all, lemon juice is used as invisible ink so, as long as he didn’t come near a heat source, he should have been completely invisible.

Police concluded that Wheeler was not crazy or on drugs – just incredibly mistaken.
The saga caught the eye of the psychologist David Dunning at Cornell University, who enlisted his graduate student, Justin Kruger, to see what was going on. They reasoned that, while almost everyone holds favourable views of their abilities in various social and intellectual domains, some people mistakenly assess their abilities as being much higher than they actually are. This ‘illusion of confidence’ is now called the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’, and describes the cognitive bias to inflate self-assessment.

To investigate this phenomenon in the lab, Dunning and Kruger designed some clever experiments. In one study, they asked undergraduate students a series of questions about grammar, logic and jokes, and then asked each student to estimate his or her score overall, as well as their relative rank compared to the other students. Interestingly, students who scored the lowest in these cognitive tasks always overestimated how well they did – by a lot. Students who scored in the bottom quartile estimated that they had performed better than two-thirds of the other students!

This ‘illusion of confidence’ extends beyond the classroom and permeates everyday life. In a follow-up study, Dunning and Kruger left the lab and went to a gun range, where they quizzed gun hobbyists about gun safety. Similar to their previous findings, those who answered the fewest questions correctly wildly overestimated their knowledge about firearms. Outside of factual knowledge, though, the Dunning-Kruger effect can also be observed in people’s self-assessment of a myriad of other personal abilities. If you watch any talent show on television today, you will see the shock on the faces of contestants who don’t make it past auditions and are rejected by the judges. While it is almost comical to us, these people are genuinely unaware of how much they have been misled by their illusory superiority.

Sure, it’s typical for people to overestimate their abilities. One study found that 80 per cent of drivers rate themselves as above average – a statistical impossibility. And similar trends have been found when people rate their relative popularity and cognitive abilities. The problem is that when people are incompetent, not only do they reach wrong conclusions and make unfortunate choices but, also, they are robbed of the ability to realise their mistakes. In a semester-long study of college students, good students could better predict their performance on future exams given feedback about their scores and relative percentile. However, the poorest performers showed no recognition, despite clear and repeated feedback that they were doing badly. Instead of being confused, perplexed or thoughtful about their erroneous ways, incompetent people insist that their ways are correct. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man (1871): ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’

Interestingly, really smart people also fail to accurately self-assess their abilities. As much as D- and F-grade students overestimate their abilities, A-grade students underestimate theirs. In their classic study, Dunning and Kruger found that high-performing students, whose cognitive scores were in the top quartile, underestimated their relative competence. These students presumed that if these cognitive tasks were easy for them, then they must be just as easy or even easier for everyone else. This so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ can be likened to the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby high achievers fail to recognise their talents and think that others are equally competent. The difference is that competent people can and do adjust their self-assessment given appropriate feedback, while incompetent individuals cannot.

And therein lies the key to not ending up like the witless bank robber. Sometimes we try things that lead to favourable outcomes, but other times – like the lemon juice idea – our approaches are imperfect, irrational, inept or just plain stupid. The trick is to not be fooled by illusions of superiority and to learn to accurately reevaluate our competence. After all, as Confucius reportedly said, real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Book Notes: "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus

The Myth of SisyphusThe Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Camus gives words and thoughts and theories and literary examples to my own primitive discoveries about work and suicide. I remember waking one morning, at age 19, and thinking: "If this is all my life will ever be, then today I must either change it or end it". If I had to roll that rock up the hill one more time then that was it for me. I don't write this gratuitously or intend to treat suicide glibly, but in the context of Camus' "philosophical suicide", my experience of the absurd has informed much of my philosophy for living. I have often thought that if God does not exist, then there is no point in living. Camus twists around varieties of my thoughts, but he does so referring particularly to Nietzsche (that most famous of God's "assassins") and antitheses of my understanding. This is a short book and it seems to be an abridged version of a much larger work. Nevertheless, it is sufficient to point out a number of my reading deficits. This may require a second reading once I complete Kafka's The Castle, and much of Nietzsche. Camus broaches many topics that tend to be completely avoided by almost any person to whom I have ever spoken. It would seem that once again Continental philosophers have a monopoly on saying what everyone is thinking but were too afraid to say. Two quotes resonated with me:

On the futility of suicide, from p. 6:
I have heard of an emulator of Peregrinos, a post-war writer who, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to attract attention to his work. Attention was in fact attracted, but the book was judged no good.

And on death as a work in progress, from p. 111:
If something brings creation to an end, it is not the victorious and illusory cry of the blinded artist: 'I have said everything', but the death of the creator which closes his experience and the book of his genius.

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Book Notes: "The Authentic Swing: Notes From the Writing of a First Novel" by Steven Pressfield

The Authentic Swing: Notes From the Writing of a First NovelThe Authentic Swing: Notes From the Writing of a First Novel by Steven Pressfield

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this work, what might be called a pamphlet, Steven Pressfield tells the story of how he wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life. The work is interesting on a number of levels. First, it explains, in some detail, how Pressfield conceived of Bagger Vance and recreated the Hindu scriptural epic, Bhagavad-Gita. The protagonist, Rannulph Junuh, is also based on a character in the Hindu text, Arjuna (recreated as R. Junuh). Second, the work tells the story of Pressfield's love of golf, and his idea about "the authentic swing", something "remembered" rather than learnt, and recalling Saint-Exupéry (de) Antoine:
Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
This process of stripping oneself away to reveal the true self recalls James Allen and Kempis Thomas, but Pressfield presents this in an accessible form. Third, the work provides guidance for writers, specifically of fiction novels, but the process can apply equally to any style of writing. While the work is short, and there are entire pages devoted to only one short paragraph (making the book thicker than it need be), there is much below the surface of the iceberg that can be easily missed if this is the only work of Pressfield's one has read. It pays to have read Aristotle and the other aforementioned authors, not because one needs to to understand Pressfield, but because Pressfield brings it all together like a folk song. Read James Allen and then Kempis Thomas and one will see the connection. It is not the same, not just copied, but enlivened. That is what makes this pamphlet, and, indeed, all of Pressfield's shorter works, worthwhile.

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Sunday, 4 June 2017

Book Notes: "Eva Luna" by Isabel Allende

Eva Luna (Popular Penguins)Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title, the name of the protagonist, belies the intricate web of various stories woven into one coherent piece. The style is known as magical realism. I can hear one of my favourite professors now: "You are too discursive, my son, you need to focus on one thing and unpack it sufficiently". Eva Luna covers religion, politics, gender-bender, sexuality, morality, revolution, spiritualism, the old and the new, multiculturalism, and "indigenous affairs", and so on, yet still manages to bring together a gripping story. Not what I expected but thoroughly enjoyable. And proof that one can be discursive if the weaver is skillful.

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Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Notes: "A Summary of Stoic Philosophy: Zeno of Citium in Diogenes Laertius Book Seven" by Charles Duke Yonge and Keith Seddon

A Summary of Stoic Philosophy: Zeno of Citium in Diogenes Laertius Book SevenA Summary of Stoic Philosophy: Zeno of Citium in Diogenes Laertius Book Seven by Charles Duke Yonge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me a while to get into this book. It was recommended by one of the Stoic websites I have visited. I was a little confused when I first picked up the book. It was published by Lulu, a self-publishing platform, and for a time this put me off. But this is actually an annotated work of an original Greek work written some time in the early 3rd century CE, and then translated into English by Charles Duke Yonge in 1853, and then re-worked by Keith Seddon in 2007. The original author, Diogenes Laërtius, has, in effect, written a literature review of some of the major Stoic philosophers, and listed their various works. Unfortunately, only fragments of the original work, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, of which the present work is drawn, from Book 7, have been recovered. Once I had the provenance under control, I appreciated Seddon's work in resurrecting a Stoic classic, and then the knowledge of how much I don't know began to flow in. Without Diogenes Laërtius' work, the existence of many of the Stoic works would be unknown, as it seems that none of these other works has survived. These Stoic authors wrote on logic and ethics and physics and so on, and were far more sophisticated in their philosophy then simply not budging when somebody punched them in the face. As I am currently reading Aristotle's Rhetoric, there is some congruence with the basic elements of the philosophy that all piece together as I read more of the classics. What surprises me most is that much of my knowledge of the classics, gleaned as it was from the formal education system, is a facsimile of a facsimile copied and recopied and passed on through the ages until what I have been given barely resembles a mere trace of the original. There is too much in this for one reading, and it really is a study piece rather than a work for easy leisure, pointing to further studies to be done more than a standalone piece of literature (as one would expect of a literature review). That scholars were so sophisticated 2,000 years ago makes me wonder how humanity went so backward and has arrived today at what is barely an echo of the wisdom of the past. It haunts me in that if it happened before, it can and will happen again, so our present circumstances could easily dumb things down, if it is not already too late. And all this from reading a book published on Lulu. It is enough to change my opinion of the self-publishing platform!

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Saturday, 27 May 2017

Book Notes: "The Good Soldier Švejk" by Jaroslav Hašek

The Good Soldier ŠvejkThe Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is quite a tome. It is really four books in one (view spoiler). This is my first reading of a Czech author. I understand that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was held back by the Russians and later the Italians, otherwise the Anglo-French and their allies may have been in some mighty trouble during the Great War. Švejk puts an interesting spin on the peoples and cultures of this part of the conflict and, as an ex-soldier, I couldn't help but chuckle at the timeless idiocies of the military life, and Švejk's nonchalant way of handling such banal annoyances as "greatcoats on, greatcoats off", making "lists of lists", and nonsensical statistics about serving soldiers. While the work is part comedy, it is also satirical. In my mind's eye the comical events were reinforced by the cartoon drawings of Švejk and his antics. These cartoon characters tended to dance in front of real war footage, so a Laurel and Hardy figure had me laughing with embarrassment while at the same time I felt like I shouldn't be laughing. The effect is brilliant. There are so many stories within stories, and Švejk reminds me of the many characters I crossed paths with during my time in the army. One constantly came to mind as I read The Good Soldier Švejk: a soldier who could recite word for word any Monty Python movie ever made. At times, you had to tell him to just shut up, but it was hard to dislike him. Švejk is this same person. Tragic comedy is how I would describe this work. Brilliant.

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Monday, 15 May 2017

Book Notes: "Eclogues" and "Georgics" by Virgil

Eclogues and GeorgicsEclogues and Georgics by Virgil

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book of pastoral poems is a classic, and therefore difficult to dismiss off-handedly. What I found interesting were other reviews on Goodreads. One stated: "I have hardly any clue what I actually read". Virgil reads like Shakespeare, although the work is translated from Latin, so I share the sentiments of the other reviewer! It took me some time to read the poems, as I had to research the various characters and Greek and Roman gods to make sense of it. Even then, the background story of the civil wars and political instability in Rome is difficult to discern simply from the poems' text. The imagery of the text is evident in Naomi Mitchison's book Cloud Cuckoo Land, but the difference between Roman and Greek ideals about pastoral life are significant. While Virgil applies Greek imagery to the Italian landscape, the images belie the true story. In Virgil's time, rich Roman families dominated the farms and used slave labour to operate them. According to David Quint, writing in The New Republic, it was the Roman equivalent of what has happened in agribusiness in the United States, where the virtues of the rural life on the family farm persist, yet 'big business' owns most of the farms. The Georgics are didactic in that they provide guidance for farming, interspersed with metaphors for the birth of Rome. I found Georgic IV, which concludes the book, to be inspiring. We are hoping to keep bees, and bee-keeping is the subject of the poem (if one puts aside the birth-of-Rome metaphor). So there is some joy to be found for the virgin reader, much like one might find in a Shakespearean sonnet. However, without the background information, one might read and not absorb a word of what one had read. This brings me to this particular Dover Thrift Edition. I enjoy the size and price of this series, but sometimes I wonder whether a more substantial text with notes would be useful. Of course, there is the tendency, like in the Penguin version of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, to have longer notes than the actual work, and this can be worse. Nevertheless, this reading was useful as I steel myself for tackling Homer, Milton, and Dante.

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Book Notes: "Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Virginia Woolf novel I have read, but I have read her work before, specifically A Room of One's Own, where Ms Woolf writes about writing and feminism, and I found this interesting, even though Ernest Hemingway, my favourite author, didn't like Ms Woolf, and I wasn't sure whether this was because she was a rival or because she was a woman, and given her feminism and her love of women, more generally, I was not surprised that Hemingway, in his obvious then-contemporary male chauvinism, might not like Ms Woolf's views, but of course this was before I had read Mrs. Dalloway, which really is an interesting work, and rivals Hemingway's themes, at least in terms of the psychological impact of war, but Ms Woolf also covers the "war and society" aspects that Hemingway tends to ignore, outside of his protagonists' meanderings through society, so in this regard, at least, Ms Woolf's work differs, yet tends to be gender-focused in its own way, and that is not to say that it is bad, for it isn't, or that I found it difficult to read, for it wasn't, but there was something about it that made it difficult to read in bits and pieces, and it would be much better suited to a long sitting, if one could find the time, because it tends to read a little like James Joyce, even though Ms Woolf and her husband (notice I use Ms as I am sure 'Mrs' Woolf would have done, even though the New York Times referred to her as 'Mrs Woolf' in her obituary, which was, interestingly, only a 'believed dead' obituary because of a suicide note and her missing body, which is also interesting given that Hemingway, who really didn't like her so much, also took his own life), Leonard, were unable to print Ulysses because it was too big for their printing establishment, known as Hogarth Press, and all this from reading what is, comparatively, a rather short book, almost a novella, but if I were to record what I gleaned most importantly from this book is not so much that Woolf was a good or bad writer, for surely her work is very good, but that the reason Hemingway didn't like her had nothing to do with their polar opposites in terms of gender and so on, for surely even in death they were alike, but the thing that is most striking is the difference in their prose, and it is for this reason, I believe, that Hemingway didn't like Woolf, not for the aforementioned issues, but mostly because her writing leaves one feeling rather frantic and out of breath, which may well be a deliberate technique, and it surely works, as in leaving one breathless, but what I am not sure about is whether this has anything to do with the content or the simple fact that Ms Woolf's sentences are just so bloody long.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bank bashing popular, but taxpayers lose, too

Photo: Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am imagining the populist sentiment: "About time those banks got some of their own back!" 

But this won't make much difference to the banks, that will simply pass on the costs to shareholders and consumers. This is effectively a tax increase on anybody who has a bank account and anybody who has a superannuation fund - in effect, almost everybody of working age. 

The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, saying "Cry me a river" sounds funny, but the populists should be crying in their soup, even though they won't because, despite paying more, they will do so without knowing. As a political scientist, this is the part that fascinates me.

Extracting more revenue from successful Australian industries is now de rigueur. Australia's penchant for tall poppy syndrome lends popular support for governments to go after any part of the economy that dares to do well. 

Sometimes there is good reason to rein in the cost of externalities like pollution, but doing so using a populist approach to attack the mining industry ended in disaster for everyone. Australians missed the opportunity to capture the benefits of the mining boom and then forgot to implement a proper emissions trading scheme.

If the targeting of industries for revenue extraction was based on the prevalence of high-wealth individuals in the Forbes list, then the packaging and media industries should get a guernsey, too. Note there are no bankers on the list!

It will be interesting to see how the banks react. The carbon tax potentially impacted mining industry profits (it is difficult to pass on costs to customers in commodity export industries). And the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies' advertisements worked.

The big question is whether the banks will do the same. They may simply pass on the costs to consumers and quietly simmer away. But I daresay the backlash has already started.

What I find interesting is the basis of the claims and counter-claims about industry profitability and the value of particular industries to the nation. Given that almost all Australian workers have super funds that invest in Australian shares, which more than likely include the big miners and the big banks, one might think that targeting successful industries was counter-productive.

By way of example, BHP's performance since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008 is shown below. Notice how, due to global market factors and the change in value of the Australian dollar, BHP shares have not recovered their pre-GFC value.
ASX: BHP via Google , 9 May 2017
The Commonwealth Bank, however, has been travelling quite well. What happens to the share value of the major banks remains to be seen, but it can't be good for investors.
ASX:CBA via Google, 9 May 2017
If the major banks choose to pass on the increased costs to shareholders and consumers, the impact upon households may be significant. If the Australian Bankers' Association launches a counter-offensive, then the budget will be ineffective as in past years.

How did this happen? I suspect that the lumbering, inefficient nature of liberal democracy is largely to blame. Citizens do not want to pay more tax, consumers do not want to pay higher prices, but somebody has to pay.

If only it could be as simple as saying this is what everything costs, and this is how much tax will be charged. But it is never so simple. The political process is inevitable. The only way to overcome politics is to allow tyranny. Most people don't want this, so the system evolves as it has.

But a cold, dispassionate view of the tax on the banks is that it is effectively a tax increase for everyone. That governments have to use smoke and mirrors to increase taxes is a consequence of the political process.

Harold Lasswell's famous definition holds true: "Politics is who gets what, when, how". The key to good politics today is to hide how the getting gets done, and I think populism helps this cause immensely.

PS: Ironically, the ABC's Budget Winners and Losers list shows taxpayers and banks side by side!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

From Brad Baranowski, Aeon: How Robert Nozick put a purple prose bomb under analytical philosophy

Photo: Suzy Dubot CC0 (Public Domain)
Libertarians are a quarrelsome lot. Debates about who is the better von, Hayek or Mises, rivalries between the Austrian and the Chicago schools of economics, and fights among Ayn Rand’s objectivists and Murray Rothbard’s Circle Bastiat – schisms that would make a Leftist blush – have rent libertarianism. So heads turned when one of their fold decided to throw in the towel on arguing.

Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was not averse to controversy. Five years after arriving at Harvard, he published Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). A response to John Rawls, who had just published the monumental A Theory of Justice (1971), Nozick outlined the libertarian case for limited government. While plenty found A Theory of Justice unconvincing, critics found Anarchy, State, and Utopia to be unsavoury. One reviewer equated Nozick to ‘the average owner of a filling station’ whose only joy in life comes from ‘grousing about paying taxes’.

Such criticisms stung. ‘Is not the minimal state,’ Nozik’s book had asked, ‘an inspiring vision?’ A state stripped down to providing protection and enforcing contracts was simple and elegant. It was an art form, enchanting and efficient. Why didn’t others see this beauty? A sickness, answered Nozick, had descended upon Anglo-American thought. This illness had transformed intellectual life into a fit of assertion and counter-assertion. Nowhere was this impulse more malignant than in his own discipline, philosophy.

Postwar American philosophy departments were not famous for providing insights about living the good life. Dominated by philosophical analysis – a movement preoccupied with logic – professional philosophers neglected or even condescended to issues of broader interest such as ethics. In The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (1951), Hans Reichenbach, a prominent defender of analysis, asserted: ‘Those philosophers who are willing to derive moral directives from their philosophies can only offer you a sham proof.’ Proof, in this rigorous, new philosophy, was everything.

Nozick had studied philosophy as a graduate student at Princeton University during the early 1960s, writing his dissertation about logical notation and decision theory. Few other topics were appropriate. Analytical philosophers made up the bulk of the faculty, and they sniffed at ethics and aesthetics. ‘There was a purity about the air,’ recalled one graduate student. Professors believed that there ‘were philosophical wars to be fought, with good guys and bad guys’. The latter, those who talked about the good and the bad, were easy targets. As W V O Quine, the philosopher whose work launched many dissertations, declared in 1953, ‘philosophy of science is philosophy enough’. All other approaches should be purged.

By the 1980s, Nozick had had enough of this mode of philosophical enquiry. ‘The language of analytic philosophy,’ he complained, ‘“forces” the reader to a conclusion through a knock-down argument.’ Discussion thus became a zero-sum game. If the loser of an argument did not accept his opponent’s conclusion ‘he dies’, a victim of his own mental weaknesses. Among the collateral damages of this aggression was an appreciation of intellectual diversity. Nozick aspired to pacify philosophy.

He was not alone. At nearly the same time, three highly regarded analytical philosophers began an intellectual guerrilla war within the discipline, breaking down the conceptual barricades against the value-talk that the previous generation had erected.

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter battled the widely held perception that formal logic was impenetrable, showing in Gödel, Escher, Bach how cognition ran around a ‘strange loop’ of self-reference. The same year, Richard Rorty staged a coup against academic epistemology, calling it a ‘self-deceptive effort’ in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Following these engagements, Alasdair MacIntyre launched a frontal assault on contemporary meta-ethics in After Virtue (1981), decrying how the ahistorical assumptions of contemporary moral thought had created a new dark age.
‘I want to speak of the purity and dignity of an apple, the explosive joy and sexuality of a strawberry’
In Philosophical Explanations (1981), Nozick opened a new line of attack. Philosophers, he posited, would be better off if they stopped trying to prove things like scientists, an impulse he believed led thinkers to overlook how philosophy might stimulate the ‘mind’s excitement and sensuality’. Rather, they ought to limit themselves to explaining how a system of thought is possible. This would allow a ‘basketful’ of approaches to exist within philosophy, transforming it into an art form, one that sculpted ‘ideas, value, and meaning into new constellations, reverberative with mythic power’. Such an attitude would also recognise philosophers for what they were: ‘valuable and precious’, free to mould and express their lives as artists do theirs.

This big change in conceptualising philosophy liberated Nozick. He now discussed topics ranging from explorations of modern poetry and Hindu theology, to considerations of parenthood, emotions, and personal enlightenment. Gone, too, were the formal equations of his dissertation, replaced with the considerably looser prose in his next book, The Examined Life (1989), a series of informal reflections on life, death, and fruit. ‘I want to speak of the purity and dignity of an apple,’ he waxed in a representative passage, ‘the explosive joy and sexuality of a strawberry.’ Remarking on the shift in style himself, he admitted that he would have found this second line ‘ridiculously overblown once’. Some of his readers still did. As the British philosopher Bernard Williams observed, reading Nozick’s later work was like watching ‘a commercial for breakfast food’.

Purple prose aside, Nozick largely won praise from his colleagues. He had appeared, as one reviewer wrote, like a ‘knight in shining armour’, rescuing his peers from doing obscurantist philosophy. Thanks to his willingness to quit arguing and start explaining, philosophy had rediscovered its obligation to provide the public with lessons about living the good life. The Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking thought it nothing less than the ‘rebirth of philosophy’. Lost in this ballyhoo was the irony that a man who, in the previous decade, had argued for the moral benefits of privatisation, now spearheaded philosophy’s concern with the intellectual commons.

Of course, it had become easy to overlook such political incongruities. Nozick certainly did. If his libertarianism had gained a joie de vivre, it had done so by diluting its original raison d’être. Students should read Max Weber or Karl Marx, he contended in Philosophical Explanations, not because these authors provided insights into how society functioned. On the contrary, these political theorists were notable because their books are part of the ‘long list of human accomplishment, striving, and excellence’. Capital (1867-94) was a model of what hard work could achieve, not a book about how hard work is.

The same standard applied to Nozick’s own work. ‘The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate,’ he announced in The Examined Life. From here on out, he would apply his libertarianism inwardly, focusing on the cultivation of his self rather than the destruction of the state. While this admission shocked admirers of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, it was a logical outgrowth of the author’s intellectual development. After all, this was the man who had declared that attempting to convince others of your views – the modus operandi of politics – was a ‘philosophically pointless task’. For Nozick, libertarianism had ceased to be an ideology. It had become a lifestyle, one that was not better or worse than any other – at least, not arguably so.Aeon counter – do not remove

Brad Baranowski

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons CC-BY-ND 4.0.

Monday, 8 May 2017

"Into the Wild" but not Out of the Misery, or: First World Problems are simply history repeating...

The old Fairbanks City bus on The Stampede Trail, Alaska, where Christopher McCandless starved to death in 1992.
A recent email from The Atlantic explains how, in 1857, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Russell Lowell sat down for dinner (Harriet Beecher Stowe wouldn't go because alcohol was being served), and the iconic magazine was born. The Atlantic "would make politics, literature, and the arts its chief concerns". 

For a long time I have been fascinated by these very things, but since the beginnings of the twenty-first century, I have become somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for humanity. 

Art and literature, fine; but politics? For a political scientist to be jaded at politics, things must be really bad. Oh woe is me. Turns out this is a First World Problem.

The first indicator came via Scott Pape, the Barefoot Investor. I like Pape's newsletters. He tells people straight: 
Old Lady: "Sir, we can't afford our McMansion, what can we do?"
Barefoot Investor: "Sell it and move into a smaller house you can afford, moron!"
This evening I watched Sean Penn's 2007 movie Into the Wild (based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakaeur). This was no Hollywood sap story, and finding it on Netflix was a bonus (I had it sitting in my inbox as a "must watch" movie that Google had informed me about, no doubt because I recently read and blogged about Ralph Potts' book Vagabonding). 

As "Alexander Supertramp" travels throughout North America as a rejection of modern materialism, it had me thinking about my tiff with politics. And I was thinking about how the more things change, the more things stay the same.

As I read historical literature, the same old patterns keep repeating. Willa Cather said it best in O Pioneers
...there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before...
Fairbanks Bus 142 (pictured above), where McCandless was found starved to death, has become a pilgrimage site since the book and the movie. This is creating its own problems, not to mention some rather tacky re-enactments.

But pilgrims do what pilgrims do, and nothing much has changed since Ibn Battutah's time. Even Virgil was bemoaning the loss of the pastoral life that didn't exist for most people way back when.

The reaction to McCandless' plight provides an apt metaphor for contemporary politics. In the words of the book's author, Jon Krakaeur:
I’ve received thousands of letters from people who admire McCandless for his rejection of conformity and materialism in order to discover what was authentic and what was not, to test himself, to experience the raw throb of life without a safety net. But I’ve also received plenty of mail from people who think he was an idiot who came to grief because he was arrogant, woefully unprepared, mentally unbalanced, and possibly suicidal.
What does it all mean? Different things to different people. Some sick of experts telling them how to be, others sick of populism undoing all that is good for others. 

None of this is new. It is the same old story. And being jaded is a First World Problem. Although it may still be end of empire, it probably won't happen before my time is up. 

So what is there to be jaded about? For this, I return to the ancient wisdom of the Stoics, and the words of Marcus Aurelius:
You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
I suppose I won't need to go on the wallaby to grapple with contemporary politics, after all. And what I find repulsive today will be the fascinating beginnings of post-truth politics in years to come. I don't need to go on a pilgrimage or recreate McCandless's photograph, maybe just somewhere in between.

Amazing what can happen to one after watching a movie that is un-Disneyfied. Shakespeare-esque is much better!

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Book Notes: "How to be Idle" by Tom Hodgkinson

How to be IdleHow to be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was useful in that it points to historical authors and works and it is reasonably well-referenced and includes some historical texts in an appendix. I enjoyed reading the book and had a good laugh several times, but it was obvious that the author was young (at the time of writing) and tended to reify a young person's happy relationship with drugs and alcohol as something that could not only be perpetuated indefinitely, but that was a normal part of being an idler. That may be true if you want to die young or do yourself a Hemingway, but it seemed to be a little too keen on the idea of chemically-induced idling rather than an intellectually-focused "flâneurie". I suppose it is easy to be a critic, but the book is formulaic in the way Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday, or Mark Manson tend to write. This is a recent trend and while I have followed this trend and read the contents of these authors greedily, it just doesn't have the spark that sets apart great literature from great absorption of the work of others. That's it! These works are useful and good, but the works tend to be - what was it they recently suggested lecturers should be? - that's right, "curators" of content. That's it precisely. This book is an excellent example of curated content on idling that the reader will enjoy and no doubt learn from. But it lacks that creative spark of great literature, and it tends to be mono-cultural in its appeal. Just like a competent lecturer. You will learn, not burn.

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Friday, 28 April 2017

Book Notes: "Symposium/Phaedrus" by Plato

Symposium/PhaedrusSymposium/Phaedrus by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading ancient classics in their entirety is an interesting exercise. Not reading them from start to finish, and instead gaining one's classical education purely from secondary sources, is a sure way to reinforce modern prejudices. The standard "folk-style" (re)interpretations render one's thoughts on the classics, the Renaissance, ethics, and sexuality recast in modern fashions of morality. This is no laughing matter, and as recent as 2005, pointing out the obvious was less an exercise in self-flagellation (pardon the pun), and more an exercise in publicly shooting oneself in the foot. For example, the book Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West was not going to be published (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 October 2005) following objections by "conservative activists". This is what leaves me shaking my head - if being a conservative is all about respect for the traditions of the past, where "Western" thought and the Hellenic tradition are one and the same (especially in opposition to "others"), then the veritable chink in the conservative armour is undoubtedly amour homosexuel. That is not to say that one shouldn't take the best bits of the past and reject those practices that were not simply actions between consenting adults (specifically pederasty, but bestiality and cannibalism probably count, for that matter), but to whitewash history so thoroughly dishonours George Santayana's legacy no end. In Symposium, it was a real treat to hear from Alcibiades (even if he did mention how he tried to seduce Socrates). Undoubtedly, Steven Pressfield's depiction of Alcibiades' character in Tides of War was magnificently rendered. It is a challenge to deliberately reconfigure my "knowledge", which was invariably based on abridged and whitewashed versions of history, and taught by well-meaning but oppressive moral crusaders. As I write this I am experiencing waves of liberal education that are making me feel truly free. I will have to find all of the sources that have stated time and again that if you do not read, you are not free. This is true. I am fortunate to have read History of the Peloponnesian War and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (Vale Robert Pirsig) beforehand, but whether a proper reading of Homer is better before or after I shall not know until I get through that tome. While Baz Luhrmann innocuously advises one to wear sunscreen, I would advise one to read. But don't blame me if taking the red pill destroys the prefabricated foundations to your intellectual existence.

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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Book Notes: "O Pioneers!" by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! (Great Plains Trilogy, #1)O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So far, every one of the Penguin Pocket Classics is worthy of five stars. These are, after all, classics, and as such, one would expect their rating to be nothing less than the best. But what makes a classic? Sometimes, there are certain quotes that stick. For example (p. 73):
Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.
I wonder if Annie Proulx's work, The Shipping News, will be regarded as a classic in 80 years' time? I cannot recall a single quote from that book, and, although I enjoyed reading it immensely, I don't recall much of the story. Willa Cather's work, however, will haunt me for some time, just as John Steinbeck's book The Red Pony did from the 1970s to the present, just as anything by Alexander Dumas does, and so on. I suppose I should now read the rest of Cather's trilogy. The idea of bringing one's family to the end of the earth for a better life, then finding only misery and death so that one's children might prosper, reminds me of tree planting. At a recent visit to Retford Park, I wondered at the forethought of Samuel Hordern and later James Fairfax in creating such a wonderful garden. Two days ago we planted some trees, and we have no idea whether we will enjoy the fruits of our labours in the distant future, or move away or even die imminently. One can only hope for the first outcome, but without ever really knowing. It would seem, then, that being a pioneer, whether it be carving a new life out of new land (which has its own inherent assumptions that usually involve displacing the traditional owners), is neither selfless nor selfish. The two would seem to balance each other out. Selfish, in that carving a life for one's own offspring at the expense of the "other"; and selfless, in that one may well die and not enjoy what cost one so much, but leave a legacy (which one won't know about if one is dead) for others to enjoy. I am talking about the earlier pioneers, and our protagonist, Alexandra, picks up her dead father's dream, amid many of her Swedish colleagues who decide to leave during the hard times and return to the cities, while those who remain keep doing the same old thing. I recall in the 1980s on the Atherton Tablelands, young farmers would obtain grants or subsidies and all plant onions. At harvest time, with onions everywhere and the market price dropping like houseflies facing-off Mortein, it was cheaper to plough the onions back into the ground rather than harvest them. And then the cycle would repeat with the next grant or subsidy. Any sane person would wonder at the strangely conservative nature of farmers, supported by an insanely conservative and stupid grant and subsidy system (which is now rather different since deregulation). But our protagonist, Alexandra, shows initiative that earns her the label "pioneer" in various ways, including carving a life out of the land, experimenting with new agricultural ideas, and doing all of this as an unmarried woman. There is much more to the story, and while I do not wish to give too much away, the reader will experience the "two or three human stories [lived] fiercely" and marvel at the inter-generational viewpoint that will no doubt haunt the mature reader. One might also learn a thing or two about peer pressure and jealousy and how stupid these things can be. And all from a measly 189 pages!

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Book Notes: "The House of Ulloa" by Emilia Pardo Bazán

The House of UlloaThe House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was hard to put down. Unlike Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley (even though I admire their work); not to mention era, translation, and social-construction-of-gender issues, Bazán writes of a socially-constructed man better than any biologically-female woman from the nineteenth century I have read to date (to mention but a few qualifications, if indeed, I could possibly know what a socially-constructed man of the nineteenth century was like, but I doubt it could be anything like The Professor or the annoying, whingey, whiney Frankenstein). Given that George Eliot and Miles Franklin and many others had to pretend to be men to be published, even in the early 1900s, it makes me wonder if Spain was not considerably more advanced than Anglo countries in Bazán's time? Or maybe her feudal titles helped? I can only imagine what is lost in translation - and if the use of the good old "Mrs Grundy" was true to Bazán's words - but there is much to this novel that I lost due to my lack of historical knowledge of the Spain of these times. I would not have read this novel other than it was there to be read, so this was fortunate. What is unfortunate is that the book has given me a glimpse of Spanish literature that will probably remain beyond my reach for some time to come. But it is pleasing to discover classic works by female authors that is so very good, but at the same time, sad that such talent lies buried in the biases of history.

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Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at Background image © @redshinestudio