Monday, December 21, 2009

$20 per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasloline will Change Our Lives for the Better / Christopher Steiner - NY: Grand Central, 2009

Many oil industry analysts have concluded the world has reached its maximum annual production of conventional oil. Henceforth, our energy requirements will need to be increasingly fulfilled by other energy sources: coal, nuclear, renewables, poorer quality oil, tar sands, etc. All of these are inferior sources of energy and are much more expensive to produce. Consequently, the world will see a steady increase in the price of energy which will change our society and our way of life. Christopher Steiner's $20 Per Gallon is an attempt to understand what these chnges will be. Surprisingly, Steiner believes that on balance we will be better off by losing our addiction to cheap oil.

Steiner is a journalist and an undergraduate engineering major. He is not an economist, and this shows in his work. Nonetheless, $20 Per Gallon is a welcome attempt to begin thinking seriously about the consequences of rising oil prices. The work proceeds through ten chapters, titled with a rising price of a gallon of gas (Chapter $4, Chapter $6, Chapter $8, etc.). In these chapters Stiener describes how the incremental increas in gas will wean Americans from SUVs, drastically downsize the airline industry, stimulate the production of electric cars, rebuild our cities and destroy suburbia, restore the character of small towns, rebuild U.S. manufacturing, "deconstruct" our global food system, and stimulate the construction of high speed trains all across America.

While the broad outlines of Steiner's vision of the future are probably correct, he fails to provide the details necessary for a clear picture of the future. The optimistic tone of the work often relies on technological solutions to the problems raised by expensive energy. Hydrocarbon fertilizers will be replaced with electrolosis created amonia, the burden that electric cars will place on our electric grid will be solved by smart grid technologies, and petro-plastics will be replaced by bio-plastics. Between the lack of detailed economic analyses and the faith in technological solutions, the hopeful picture of the futre seems more hopeful than justified.

Perhaps the strongest chapters in the book outline the development of urban neighborhoods, public transportation, and high speed interstate rail lines. These developments rely mainly on proven technologies and a will to implemented cost effective plans. It is very easy to see how the rise in energy prices will stimulate retrofitting our housing and building stock to avoid heating and cooling waste and how our transportation needs will require the development of cost effective ways of moving our workforce to and from their houses and workplaces.

It is less clear that we will be able to feed our huge population without the cheap energy that made such a population possible. Steiner would have done better to investigate the carrying capacity of land in and around our major cities to see just what land and water resources would be needed to feed them and how much it would cost to bring enough food to the market. If our current conurbations are not viable, our future will be different in ways that Steiner does not explore.

Nonetheless, one is left with less anxiety about the future having read $20 Per Gallon. For anyone contemplating the most dire scenarios spun out by "peak oil" theorists, that may be a good thing. One should not underestimate the resourcefulness of people and our ability to create meaningful and enjoyable lives without the goods and services of our hydrocarbon economy. Still, Steiner's vision is certainly too rosy. He consistently glosses over the real sacrifices that people will need to make with the loss of cheap energy or during the transition to a new energy economy.

Many of these sacrifices are likely unanticipate today, but it precisely because they are unanticipated that Steiner's book is so valuable. It is the first attempt I have seen to seriously imagine the consequences of rising energy prices. If only a good economist would bring her or his attention to the issue as Steiner has.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate / Andrew E. Dessler & Edward A. Parson -- Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 2006

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change is just what its subtitle asserts: a guide to the debate -- or perhaps the debates. The combined expertise of Dessler (a climate scientist) and Parson (a professor of law) allow them to summarize several debates regarding the scientific facts about climate change, its causes, its likely consequences, and the wisdom of various mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Global Climate Change's first chapter briefly sets the stage for the work, laying out the fundamentals in the scientific and policy debates. The second chapter gives a brief description of the scientific method and attempts to distinguish and clarify empirical and normative claims made in the wider public debate on climate change. The best of the work begins in Chapter Three, which provides an admirably clear account of what is known about climate change and its likely consequences as of the time of publication. The conclusions are based largely on the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other special reports published by the Panel. Some subsequent material is included to bring the findings up to date.

The conclusions of these reports show significant global warming and argue that it is caused mostly by our production of various greenhouse gasses. Consequently, the fourth chapter outlines adaptation and mitigation strategies and discusses their costs and benefits. Finally, the fifth chapter describes the political debates related to responding to climate change. In each chapter, Dessler and Parson give an even-tempered presentation of the main arguments of the parties to the debates, but without withholding their own views. Usually, these views assume the middle ground of various ranges of uncertainty described by the IPCC.

Among the more interesting elements in Global Climate Change is Dessler and Parson's the treatment of "the climate skeptics," i.e., those who believe some number of the following claims, (1) the Earth is not warming, (2) the Earth may be warming, but human activities are not responsible, and (3) future climate warming will almost certainly be very small. The authors address these claims directly in the last chapter, but much of what is in the third chapter is sufficient to rebut the claims. There, Dessler and Parson examine five natural factors that might cause the climate to change: orbital variations, tectonic activity, volcanoes, solar variability, and internal variability. The authors conclude that none of these factors are significant enough to account for the rise in the global temperature during the past century. At most, they are able to explain small fluctuations or minor deviations from the general warming trend. Indeed, the best climate models include all these factors and human activity in the explanation of the data.

In brief, Dessler and Parson definitively reject the skeptics first claim, believe that human activity has likely caused most of the recent temperature increase, and caution us not to believe that climate change won't be a significant problem in the future. They write, "If climate change lies near the low end of the projected range, impacts over the twentyfirst century are likely to be manageable for rich, mid-latitude countries, but may pose serious difficulties for poorer countries. If climate change lies near the high end of the projected range, impacts over the twenty first century are likely to be severe and potentially unmanageable for everyone." Unfortunately, they dedicate only six pages to describing these impacts. For a readable and well organized treatment of the impacts, see The Rough Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson -- London: Penguin Books, 2008.

Global Climate Change is an excellent treatment of the debates, but since its publication, the gravity and certainty of the conclusions in the climate change debates have increased. For the most current information on the scientific aspects of the debates, one must read the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (2007). It is available at The report is presented by three working groups covering "The Physical Science Basis," "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," and "Mitigation of Climate Change." Each group provides a detailed survey of the scientific literature and its main conclusions, along with a kind of executive summary for policy makers. It would be a great contribution to public understanding if Dessler and Parson published a second edition of Global Climate Change based on the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Totem and Taboo / Sigmund Freud -- in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill, tr. -- NY: Random House, 1938

Sigmund Freud's influence on the 20th century is hard to overestimate. His contribution to psychology had an impact on nearly every social science and the humanities generally. In his work Totem and Taboo, Freud himself brings his insights drawn from years of psycho-analysis to anthropology. While these insights are valuable, the work is, by and large, indebted to the work of previously published anthropologists, particularly J.G. Frazer (see Totemism and Exogamy and The Golden Bough.

Freud is not completely clear about the extent to which the theories at the core of his psycho-analytic practice explain the determinants of hunter-gatherer societies. In places, he merely claims that there are analogies between the behavior of his neurotic patients and the behavior of members of communities constraint by taboos. In both instances, there is no rational explanation of these behaviors. Consequently, Freud seeks explanation in the sublimation of libidious drives in the neurotic patient and the reverence of the totem in the hunter-gatherer society.

However, Freud suggests that the incest taboo common in hunter-gatherer societies has its roots in the Oedipal Complex. Here, he makes a claim that is stronger than analogy, asserting that the mature reaction against the boy's sexual love for his mother results in a prohibition against sex with all close female relatives. Freud complicates this explanation with an account of the origin of the totem. Freud writes that the people identified with a totem are "brothers," all culpable in the murder of the "father." Given this society of brothers, it becomes taboo to mate with anyone identified with the totem, i.e., anyone within one's tribe. By this, Freud uses his psycho-sexual theory to explain exogamous marriage practices in hunter-gatherer societies.

Totem and Taboo convinced me that Freud's psycho-sexual theories -- in so far as they might be correct -- must have some influence on tribal social structures and behavior. Exactly what this influence is remains unclear to me. Totem and Taboo succeeds insofar as it shows how Freud's theories might be used in fields outside of psychology; however, I was disappointed in the detail and force of his specific arguments and disappointed by the derivative nature of his discussion of anthropology.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex / Sigmund Freud -- in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill, ed. -- NY: Random House, 1938

After reading Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, it's easy to understand why he shocked the Victorian world. We might take his views in stride today, but asserting that children had sex drives and elaborating forms of "perversion" was a stark departure from the climate of his time.

Sex Theory is divided into three sections. The first claims that sex "aberrations" can be explained by understanding the interactions between the infantile sex instinct and their restraining forces, shame, loathing, sympathy, morality, and authority. The aberrations include fetishism, sadism, masochism, voyeurism, and inversion (homosexuality). Psychoanalysis can understand the causes of these aberrations by uncovering unusual events in the psycho-sexual development of the child resulting in either "inhibited development" or "dissociations from the normal development."

Today, one might question the moral judgements (implicit or explicit) in Freud's account, particularly with regard to homosexuality, as today we recognize a wider diversity of sexual behavior as healthy and normal. Nonetheless, Freud's observation that infantile sexuality has some significant affect on adult personality stills seems plausible. In the second section of Sex Theory, Freud describes various stages and characteristics of infantile sexuality. It may have been less shocking to his time had he called this "carnal satisfaction," since much of what he described was considered to be quite distinct from adult sex. Nonetheless, describing it in these terms establishes the connection between infantile and adult sexuality and expands the boundaries of what might be understood sex. Both consequences are important to understanding his theories.

The third section, entitled "The Transformation of Puberty," explains the important phase in which the diverse streams of infantile sexuality are united into "one unit, one striving, with one aim" to become adult sexuality. At the same time, he recognizes that perversion and neurosis (perversion's "negative") are present to some degree in all adults.

After reading Three Contributions to Sex Theory, I can appreciate how Freud has been identified as one of history's greatest theorists. Whether his particular theories are valid or not does not detract from the rigor of his analyses and the creativity of his approach to understanding the human psyche. It seems quite appropriate to rank him with Aristotle, Galileo, and Darwin.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement / Sigmund Freud -- in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill, ed. -- NY: Random House, 1938

The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement is a short work composed of three chapters. In the first, Freud recounts his early investigation of the psyche in collaboration with Josef Breuer and his ground breaking invention and development of the psychoanalytic method. The chapter is largely biographical, but includes brief explanations of Freud's central ideas, particularly the libido, the unconscious, and repression. Freud describes the scientific establishment's opposition to his emphasis on sexuality, particularly infantile sexuality. Of course, in time he attracted enough adherents to found a movement.

The second chapter is largely an account of the growth of that movement and is perhaps the least interesting of the three chapters. Most of what one learns is the names of the psychoanalyists and the cities in which they worked.

The third chapter recounts the defection of Alfred Adler and Carl Jung from Freudian orthodoxy. Here Freud describes what he takes to be the elements in Adler and Jung which depart from essential psycholanalytic principles. According to Freud, Adler de-emphasizes the unconscious and seeks to explain neurosis and other psychological phenomena by examining primarily the ego, while Jung abandons the sexual impulse and its repression as being the root cause of neurosis, but adapts such complexes as the family and Oedipus complex for "use in abstract streams of though, of ethics, and religious mysticism." Freud finds Adler's views meaningful, but "radically false;" whereas he finds Jung's views "unintelligible, muddled and confused," though he acknowledges that he might simply be misunderstanding the content and object of Jung's psychology.

Overall, Freud's History of the Psychoanalytic Movement seems more concerned with setting the record straight (from his point of view) of the internecine struggles within the movement. Freud often suggests that those who disagreed with him did so out of professional ambition -- to escape from the shadow of the master -- pointing out where they have falsely claimed priority in discovering one or another concept within psychoanalysis. It's ironic that Freud regularly claims these initial discoveries for himself.

History is a quick and easy read, contains a number of valuable nuggets of information, but is by and large a superficial account of the movement.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Food Wars / Walden Bello -- London: Verso, 2009.

From 2006 to 2008 food prices around the world rose drastically. Oxford economist Paul Collier argued that this had a three-fold cause: (1) an increase in demand from a more prosperous Asia, (2) the European ban on genetically modified foods, and (3) North American production of Ethanol instead of food. In The Food Wars, Walden Bello argues that the rise in food prices is "a manifestation of what may be the lat stage of the displacement of peasant agriculture by capitalist agriculture."

While Bello offers his as an alternative account to Collier's account, the two are not without some commonalities. What distinguishes them is that while Collier must surely find the rise in food prices unfortunate for the world's poor, he does not criticize the forces behind the price increase. Bello is, on the other hand, deeply critical of them. He points to the global, neo-liberal commodification of food and the significant subsidies for food production by the United States and Europe. Neo-liberalism opened markets in Asia, Africa, and South America to European and American agribusinesses, while subsidies allowed these agribusinesses to flood markets with food that is cheaper than what can be grown locally. Overproduction resulted in dumping which damaged local farmers.

The recent rise in food prices was merely the result of the global financial collapse which caused agribusinesses to withdraw from their developing world markets. Without strong, local peasant production of food, prices rose sharply.

While passionately presented, key inferences in Bello's argument seem weak. He provides a good deal of support for claims that capitalist food production has undermined peasant food production, but he does not demonstrate that there has been a decline in food exports causing a supply crisis. Indeed, his work would have been better had he not introduced it with a discussion of the rise in food prices. After all, his aims are larger than explaining a recent price fluctuation. The Food Wars seeks to compare two modes of food production: the international capitalist model and the local peasant model. The former offers profits for agribusiness, while the latter offers food security for people in developing countries. That much seems true and well supported by Bello's book.

After introducing the two models, Bello offers us four chapters on how capitalism has undermined peasant farming in Mexico, the Philippines, Africa, and China. Each tells a slightly different story, but contributes to the theme of the conflict between the two modes of production. Bello discusses the dangers of agrofuels, both for the planet and for peasant farmers in another chapter, and he concludes his work by describing what he believes is an international peasant movement (Via Campesina) that is becoming increasingly conscious of its revolutionary role. Disregarding certain framing and tangential points (e.g., the rise in food prices), Bello's work is a valuable examination of international food production and the plight of billions of people.

The primary weakness of Bello's work is his insufficient examination of the resource limits that the world is now facing. Everywhere, water resources are becoming fully exploited and annual conventional oil production is likely to begin a long decline. The former will restrict industrial growth and pit local capitalists against peasant farmers. The latter will make the North American model of petrochemical food production unsustainable. A fuller analysis of these forces would yield a much more prescient treatment of future "food wars" than what we have from Bello.

Even with these shortcomings, The Food Wars is a valuable and informative work on one of the worlds most important topics.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Missouri's War: The Civil War in Documents / Silvana R. Siddali, ed. -- Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009.

Missouri seldom gets a lot of attention in broad overviews of the Civil War. Too much happened in Virginia and in other southern states to allow for anything more than a cursory account of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon's efforts to secure Missouri. Nonetheless, early events in Missouri were likely key to heading off a longer war than actually unfolded. With a secure base in St. Louis, Grant was able to launch his successful invasion of the South, and capture Vicksburg. Had St. Louis remained contested in the early years or had it become a Southern stronghold, it is doubtful that Grant's could have attempted an invasion at all and the course of the war would have been profoundly different.

Happily, there are many specialized books detailing events in Missouri. Some are historical sketches others are replete with important documents. Missouri's War, edited by Silvana R. Siddali is a mixture of the two formats. Each of its eight chapters are composed largely of letters, newspaper articles, government reports and proclamations, with each document preceded by an introductory paragraph. Each chapter is also introduced with a few pages setting the context of the chapter's subject. These include treatments of Slavery, the popular reaction to the war, battles in Missouri, condition for Missouri residents, and issues related to emancipation.

Siddali's introductions are clear and useful. Reading only the chapter introductions amounts to reading a thorough article on the war in Missouri. Following that, one can pick out the chapters of most interest and read the documents contained therein. Perhaps the most interesting documents are personal letters describing prominent events. While newspaper accounts of the era provide explicitly partisan descriptions, private letters even more so humanize the political and social sentiments that animated the country.

Among the most illuminating aspects of Missouri's War is the extent to which the question of emancipation and equal rights for slaves was a tactical matter in winning the war. The large majority of Missourians were not slave owners and were committed to keeping the state in the Union. However, they also had little sympathy for abolitionists and resented the intrusion of wider national disputes in their affairs. Many appeared to believe that by accommodating slavery, the Union could be preserved and war could be avoided; however, once the war began, there appeared to be a steady change in public opinion. By the middle of the war, the idea that abolishing slavery would remove the bone of contention and bring peace to Missouri and possibly to the nation.

The popular understanding of the Civil War and the dispute over slavery leans toward a simplified conflict of extremes. However, reading the documents in Missouri's War Highlights how few extremists there were in the country or at least in Missouri and how nuanced was the thinking about slavery and how reluctant the population, particularly the population of the North, was to engage in war. Nonetheless, the conflict over slavery was too profound and the commitments of the Southern Radicals and the Abolitionists were to entrenched not to bring the great bulk of the population into the conflict. Missouri, even more so that other border states, illustrates this broader political dynamic.

Missouri's War is one volume in a series being published by Ohio University Press entitled The Civil War in the Great Interior. Works on Ohio and Indiana are already published with works on Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin forthcoming. If they are as good as Missouri's War, they will be well worth reading.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century / T.A. Shippey -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001

A couple weeks ago, I read The Hobbit, again. This was the first time I had done so after reading Tom Shippey's masterful work, The Road to Middle Earth. (See my review in this blog -- Aug. 22, 2009.) Shippey's analysis of Biblo Baggins rang true when I read The Road, but upon reading The Hobbit, I found it spot on. Shippey argues that Bilbo Baggins functions to connect the modern reader to the mythical, magical world of Middle Earth. Bilbo is in essence a respectable 19th century bourgeois man swept away on an adventure among a wizard, dwarves, elves, and a dragon, among other strange creatures. Without Bilbo, the modern reader would find the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, and the Lonely Mountain too alien to appreciate. It would be much like dropping into Wonderland without Alice to serve as the reader's anchor.

My appreciation for Shippey's analysis in The Road prompted me to another of his works, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, at least the section on The Hobbit. Sadly, Tolkien: Author covers very little that is not in The Road, but it was enjoyable enough that I continued beyond the chapter on The Hobbit and ended up reading the whole of the book. In retrospect, I wish I had read Shippey's two works in reverse order. Tolkien: Author provides a clearer and perhaps fuller analysis of the themes in Tolkien's main works, while The Road delves deep into the mythopoeic and philological roots of Middle Earth.

The themes Shippey explores in Tolkien: Author include Tolkien's maps, evil, eucatastrophy, allegory, and of course the way in which hobbits function to connect the reader to Middle Earth. Perhaps the most interesting insight is Shippey's application of Northrop Frye's distinctions among literary modes. Frye distinguishes five literary modes: myth, romance, high mimesis, low mimesis, and irony. Shippey identifies each mode in the Tolkien's work. This goes a long way in explaining the richness of the text and illustrating Tolkien's remarkable skill in integrating them all in a single story.

Tolkien's skill however was not born full-fledged with his first works. There is a stronge, even jarring, contrast between the irony and low mimesis of Bilbo Baggins and the romance and myth of the wood elves, Smaug the dragon, and Beorn the shape shifter in The Hobbit, while the various modes appearing in The Lord of the Rings are smoothly integrated. Notably, the lower literary modes are completely absent in Tolkien's Silmarillian works.

Shippey's chapter on Tolkien's followers and critics is among the most enjoyable chapters. Here we read criticism from the literati that so strikingly misunderstand what is at work in Tolkien's stories that it leaves you wondering if they had read anything written before the 18th century. Regarding Tolkien's followers, Shippey's account makes them all seem like dismal amateurs in comparison Tolkien's masterful understanding of the genre. Both assessments are probably close to the mark.

Forced to choose, I would recommend The Road to Middle Earth over Tolkien: Author of the Century. The former is perhaps the best work on Tolkien written. The latter is merely excellent.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, Vol. 7 / Hermann von Holst -- Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1892

From 1889 to 1892, Professor Hermann von Holst of the University of Freiburg saw the publication of an English translation of his eight volume constitutional and political history of the United States. The first seven volumes trace events from 1750 to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in March of 1861. The final volume is an index to the work. Volume seven covers just the last two years of that period and consequently provides a hoard of fascinating details describing the collapse of any hope for avoiding the secession of the several Southern states and civil war.

Horst begins his work with an account of John Brown and his raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. He indicates that the overly excited reaction to Brown revealed a deep seated fear that the South was reaching the end of its ability to maintain control of federal institutions. His account of subsequent actions by Southern politicians makes a strong case. For example, the rabid reaction against Hinton Rowan Helper's book The Impending Crisis of the South indicated how tenuous the planter class felt their political power was over non-slave owning Southern whites.

Yet most of the Horst's work describes the efforts of Northern (or conservative) Democrats to placate the Southern radicals and the machinations of politicians of every party to advance their political goals. Central to these events were Constitutional interpretations related to the right to property in slaves and the right of a state to secede. His account of James Buchanan's view on secession is especially interesting. Buchanan held that while a state had no right to secede, the federal government had no right to use force to prevent its secession. Horst properly criticizes this view as incoherent, but does not make clear what Buchanan's motivations might have been for holding the view. At times, he seems to suggest that Buchanan was quietly encouraging the South to secede, but sought to avoid war while he was in office. At other times, it seems that Buchanan honestly believed that by taking a passive position on secession, prodigal states would soon enough return to the Union without war.

Other politicians (including some Republicans) seemed equally eager to accommodate the wishes of the Southern radicals in an effort to avoid war; however, the political division within the Democratic Party was too great for them to reach agreement on how to deal with slavery. Southern radicals sought to explicitly enshrine slavery in the Constitution, while conservative Democrats supported Stephen A. Douglas's doctrine of "popular sovereignty" in which states would be free to permit or prohibit slavery as they saw fit. These disagreements played out in a series of political conventions that ultimate split the Democratic Party and led to Lincoln's election by a Republican plurality.

What is most amazing was the unending efforts by politicians to reach a compromise and the willingness of many Republicans to abandon the slavery planks of their platform to head off war. The leading Republican of the time, William Seward, engaged in private negotiations prior to joining the Lincoln administration. According to Horst, Seward offered to accept slavery to avert the war; however, the inertia leading to secession was far too advanced to be stopped.

Horst's account is detailed and convincing and makes the reader wish Horst had continued the story at least to the conclusion of the war; however, one is consoled by the knowledge that this was only volume seven and that six previous volumes are likely to be equally engaging.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Uprising of a Great People, the United States in 1861, to which is added A Word of Peace / Count Agenor de Gasparin -- NY: Charles Scribner, 1862.

Gasparin's Uprising of a Great People was written during the weeks before and after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. It was an attempt to sway public opinion in France in favor of the United States and against the southern rebellion. It was clear to Gasparin and probably clear to anyone following "the American Crisis" that if the North chose to vigorously supress the rebellion, the South's only hope lay in gaining recognition from Great Britain or France. Consequently, Gasparin's prose are stark and passionate.

Through out the argument, Gasparin asserts that he has no ill will toward the South, but that its well-being depends entirely on abolishing slavery. For Gasparin, the South's worst fate would be realized by delaying abolition, even if abolition required Civil War. Gasparin traces several scenarios for the South's future, none of which result in a flourishing Confederacy and the continuation of slavery. The crisis for the South was percipitated by the "uprising" of the people in the North against slavery, evidenced by Lincoln's election. For Gasparin, the writing was now on the wall: the North would no long tollerate the spread of slavery and without Northern assistance, the South would lose escaped slaves to the North and into the territories. Immigratants and capital would shun the South, and the power of Christian morality in American and in Europe would inevitably sap support for slavery.

With hindsight, it is easy to see that the prospects for the South were hopeless from the start, but that Gasparin could make such a strong case for this at a time when many thought the Union was doomed is a testiment to his political insight. However, a number of his assumptions seem incorrect. Most significant is his assertion that Lincoln's election was evidence of an "uprising." In fact, Lincoln was elect by only a plurality of voters and all of his main opponants tollerated or supported slavery to one degree or another. What doomed the South was not Northern impatience with the abolition of slavery, but a broad commitment to the Union and the material and human resources available to the North.

At the same time, British or French recognition of the Confederacy may well have prompted the North to accept Southern independence. Had this occured, Gasparin's predictions about the fianl fate of the South seems plausible. The security of Southern slave holders was too precarious to attract capital investment and European public opinion would likely starve the south of immigrants. According to Gasparin, these eventually would turn the South into an impoverished backwater that could not compete with other cotton producing nations. Meanwhile, the founding principle of the confederacy (the right of seccession) would result in border states rejoining the more prosperous United States, and finally the reconquest of the Gulf States by the North.

The most interesting aspect of the work is Gasparin's comments on political philosophy. Chapter X "Institutions of the United States" includes an extended criticism of democracy. Here Gasparin's French aristocratic status becomes clear. His treatment of democracy is either terribly confused or the very meaning of the term is radically different from what it is in the 21st century Anglo-American world. As a 19th century French aristocrat, Gasparin's notion of democracy likely is colored darkly by the French Revolution. Indeed, for Gasparin, "democracy" would imply nothing more than authoritarian government. However, several notable factual errors lead one to think he may simply be confused about political philosophy. It is also possible that Mary L. Booth's translation is at fault.

Regardless of the explanation of the oddities of his argument, it is fascinating to read a work that openly attempts to predict the outcome of the American Civil War at its outbreak.

Bound with The Uprising of a Great People is Gasparin's short essay, "A Word of Peace on the Difference between England and the United States." The "differnce" is the Trent affair in which Charles Wilkes, captain of the USS San Jacinto boarded the HMS Trent to seize two southern envoys to Great Britain. Gasparin councils Britain not to use the incident to abandon its neutrality and councils the United States not to resist Britain's demands for reparations. In his view, a rift between the two countries would serve neither.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Buddhist Suttas / T.W. Rhys Davids, trans. -- NY: Dover, 1968.

In 1879, the noted philologist Max Muller began publishing his massive, 50 volume series The Sacred Books of the East. Volume 11 of this series, Buddhist Suttas was published in 1881. The work contain translations of seven Buddhist suttas by T.W. Rhys Davids. Originally written in the ancient Indian language of Pali during the third and fourth centuries B.C., these suttas give us an important glimpse into the life of the Buddha and early doctrines of Buddhism. They are commonly included in what is known as the Digha Nikaya, the Anguttara Nikaya, and the Magghima Nikaya -- three of the five collections that constitute the Pali canon.

The longest and perhaps most important of the suttas in this volume is The Maha-parinibbana Suttanta or The Book of the Great Decease. This provides us with an account of the Buddha's last days, his death, and the grief of the surviving community. A central theme of the work is the transience of all things. In the course of the sutta, the Buddha explains the Four Noble Truths and exhorts his followers to master the truths that he has made known to them. These are the four earnest meditations, the fourfold struggle against sin, the four roads to sainthood, the five moral powers, the five organs of spiritual sense, the seven kinds of wisdom, and the noble eightfold path. While the sutta does not explain these truths, Rhys Davids provides a valuable note elaborating them.

Despite their pleading, the Buddha exhorts his followers to accept his impending death as the inevitable fate of all things. The varying success of his followers illustrate the degrees of success they have achieved in understanding the Buddha's message. In the end, relics of the Buddha's body are distributed among the survivors, leading one to think that mainly his message was not understood; however, it is easy to understand that veneration of the relics is not a morbid fixation on the material Buddha, but a means of reminding the faithful that enlightenment is attainable in this life.

Also included in the volume is The Dhamma-kakka-ppavattana Sutta or The Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness which concisely lists the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The importance of these make this sutta of supreme significance to the history of Buddhism.

Two suttas, The Tevigga Suttanta or On the Knowledge of the Vedas and The Akankheyya Sutta or If He Should Desire... present arguments against Vedic preistly and other methods of seeking enlightenment. The Ketokhila Sutta or Barrenness and Bondage explains the significance of zeal and determined efforts to gain freedom from barrenness and bondage. It elaborates the importance of maintaining confidence in the teacher (the Buddha), his doctrine (the Dhamma), and the Buddhist order (the Samgha) and avoiding sensuality, sloth, and craving for future life.

The Maha-Sudassana Suttanta or The Great King of Glory is a long chant-like work written in a fairytale style. It describes an opulent complex built by the Great King of Glory and his decision to renounce it and attain enlightenment. It is told in the context of the Buddha's last days and mirror's the Buddha's own decision to seek enlightenment over what had been his more likely destiny as prince of a great kingdom.

Finally, The Sabbasava Sutta or All the Asavas emphasizes that Buddhism is agnostic with regard to speculative questions like our past and future existence(s) and the existence of an individual soul. Indeed, fixation on such questions will positively inhibit one's pursuit of enlightenment.

In all, Rhys Davids's collection of suttas provide an valuable insight into the foundation of early Buddhism and its emphasis on personal salvation from suffering born of selfish desires. This translation fortunately has removed a good bit of repetition that appears in Buddhist suttas, but equally fortunately, it has retained enough repetition to convey the chant-like flavor of the original works. Reading them with patience and an open heart is most rewarding.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology / Tom Shippey -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003.

Much has been written about the roots of the mythology created by Tolkien in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Some of it is insightful -- some of it is superficial. Tom Shippey's work The Road to Middle-Earth lies on the far end of the insightful side of the spectrum. Shippey, was briefly a personal acquaintance of Tolkien. He is a medieval scholar in his own right, having held the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University (formerly held by Tolkien himself) and the Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri. His Road to Middle-Earth was first published in 1982, with a second edition in 1992, and a revised and expanded edition in 2003. The subsequent editions are informed by Tolkien's posthumous publications, particularly, the twelve volume set The History of Middle-Earth.

The most important theme in Shippey's work is how philology informed Tolkien's work. Clearly, Tolkien gave enormous attention to the words he chose in all he wrote. His work was deeply informed by his understanding of Old English, Old Norse, and other Northern European medieval languages. Shippey traces a huge number of connections between these languages and Tolkien's writing, and he provides valuable explanations of the significance of specific word choices and invented names to Tolkien's themes and ideas. Shippey's expert analysis reveals layer upon layer of meaning.

Shippey locates Tolkien's legendarium within the myths and legends of Northern Europe in the same way that a philologist might postulate unrecorded words in long dead languages. For example, based on specific observable rules for word relations between languages, the words for dwarves -- "dweorh" (Old English), "dvergr" (Old Norse), and "twerg" (High German) -- allow philologists to postulate "*dvairgs" in Gothic. They may do this despite the absence of any record of the word for dwarves in Gothic. In writing these inferred words, philologists normally precede them with an asterisk, e.g., *dvairgs, to distinguish it from a recorded word.

According to Shippey, philologist, including Tolkien, came to accept this methodology, and to infer -- not just words -- but the realities to which they were attached. He writes, "The whole of their science conditioned them to the acceptance of what one might call '*-' or 'asterisk-reality', that which no longer existed but could with 100 percent certainty be inferred." Furthermore, this methodology encouraged philologists to blur the distinction between historical discovery and creative construction.

Shippey indicates that Tolkien was particular prone to this. Applied to literature, Tolkien called this technique "Sub-Creation." The resulting story lies somewhere between historical reality and mere fiction. Sub-Creation has a depth of meaning and authenticity that reaches beyond the creative product of a single author relying on his or her individual imagination. Shippey's account does much to explain the sense that many Tolkien fans have that Middle-Earth exists on the same plane as the Garden of Eden, Gilgamesh's Cedars of Lebanon, and Asgard of the Aesir. It also explains what Tolkien meant when he wrote that he wanted to create a mythology for England. Middle-Earth is essentially the *Mythology of England.

Despite the strength of Shippey's analysis, one is sometimes left with the feeling that Shippey imputes more than was intended by Tolkien. As a medieval scholar well-equipped with the tools of philology, it would be easy for Shippey to interpret accidental elements in Tolkien's work as part of Tolkien's conscious Sub-Creation; however, even if this is true, it only indicates the extent to which Tolkien was living and breathing the combined mythologies that form the building blocks of Middle-Earth.

The Road to Middle-Earth is loaded with many more insights than I have described here. It is a tour de force of Tolkien scholarship and deserves to be read by every Tolkien fan.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Beowulf and the Critics / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Michael D.C. Drout, ed. -- Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002.

In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture to the British Academy entitled, "Beowulf: Monsters and the Critics." It completely transformed scholarship related to Beowulf. The paper, published in the following year, was based on a longer work, "Beowulf and the Critics" that would not see publication for 66 years. The volume in which we receive it includes two versions of "Beowulf and the Critics," labeled "A" and "B" by the editor Michael Drout. According to Drout, comparing both versions to Tolkien's British Academy lecture allows us "a glimpse into the workings of a great mind engaged in a struggle with a complex problem." He also notes that the differences between the versions are too great "to redact some kind of 'best text.'" Be that as it may, I chose to read only the longer B version of the work and skip Drout's copious notes that make up half the volume. Much to my loss, I'm certain, but too many other books remain unread for me to spend the time that Drout's work deserves.

Tolkien's essay (or short book) takes to task the literary critics and historians who had to that time dominated Beowulf scholarship. Literary critics criticized the poem for its disorganization, disproportion, and adolescent focus on the monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon. It was deemed to be a hodge-podge of pre-Christian folklore, with the most interesting parts mentioned, not in the main story line, but in passing and in narrative tangents. Furthermore, the integrity of the poem was seen to be compromised by the additions of Christian passages tacked on by an embarrassed Christian compiler. Historians merely neglected the poetic features of the work to focus on the clues it gave to life in the early Middle Ages in Northern Europe.

Tolkien found all of these critiques without merit. For Tolkien, the author of Beowulf was a poet of the caliber of Homer or Virgil. Beowulf provides us with one of the best literary celebrations of the Northern European medieval ethic. It is a clear expression of the Northern European hero, seeking glory in this world by vanquishing evil, with a commitment to doing so no matter the cost to himself. Critics saw the main story to be Beowulf's fight with Grendel. The fights with Grendel's mother and the dragon were merely redundant. Against this, Tolkien claims that the final contest with the dragon is an vital component of the story. Without it, the work would fail to fulfill its poetic purpose. It also serves as a necessary counter-weight to earlier struggles.

On Tolkien's view, the story begins with a young man risking all for fame and glory in a noble effort to free a beleaguered people from an devastating scourge -- Grendel. Doing so, he unexpectedly finds himself faced with the even greater task of defending his wards against an even greater terror -- Grendel's mother. That he does not flinch from his duty is an expression both of his desire for glory and his commitment to duty. The final struggle comes to Beowulf fifty years later when he is no longer the indomitable young hero of Hrothgar's hall. Nonetheless, he takes up sword and shield to face the dragon. His doom is evident, but for the hero of Northern lore, failure always eventually comes. What is important is how we behave in the face of it.

Tolkien also makes a strong case against reading the Christian passages as an alien addition to the poem. Instead, Tolkien concludes that the poem was written by a Christian during a time in which paganism was still a going concern in England and that the syncretism of pagan and Christian elements is a natural expression of the Christian author who has not yet discarded his sympathies for the pagan ethic.

Tolkien's reading of Beowulf is compelling, but what is more interesting is what this reading reveals about Tolkien. In many ways, Tolkien is describing himself when he writes of the author of Beowulf. Despite Tolkien's staunch commitment to Catholicism, he had great sympathy for the pre-Christian pagan ethic, and in all of his work, he found ways to coherently integrate both sensibilities into his work. It also is interesting to note that he would have to defend his own writing against critics in the same way that he defended the Beowulf author. He, too, would be attacked for an adolescent fascination with fantasy and monsters.

Besides Tolkien's case for the Beowulf author, "Beowulf and the Critics" is a rich vein of Tolkien's biting wit. His criticism of the critics is chocked full of laugh-out-loud put downs. Some of them probably unfair, but no less entertaining for that. Beowulf and the Critics is a fine work. Someday, I'll return to read the A version and Drout's copious notes and I'm sure it'll be equally worthwhile.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation / Seamus Heaney, tr. -- NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Reading Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf was a delight. Of course, I've never read a translation of Beowulf and not been delighted; so a more critical review of the work requires a bit more thought. This drove me to compare it to the two other translations that I have read. It's difficult to judge a translation without a good understanding of the original language -- which I certainly lack -- so I'm left to judge the work based on its translated poetry alone. On that score, Heaney's translation, for me, competes well with translations by Michael Alexander (Penguin Classics, 1973) and Francis B. Gummere (P.F. Collier & Sons, 1910). Each translation has its merits and reading them together deepens one's appreciation for each and for the poem itself.

Comparing specific stanzas in the three translations gives one a flavor of how different various translations can be. Heaney directs his readers to his translation of the opening stanza to exemplify his own approach:


So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.


We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark,
how the folk-kings flourished in former days,
how those royal athelings earned that glory.

and Gummere:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

One can immediately feel the tone that Heaney adopts: direct simple word choices, shorn of poetic pretense. In his introduction, Heaney writes: "I came to the task of translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remember the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique," and later, "I am attending as much to the grain of my original vernacular as to the content of the Anglo-Saxon lines."

What Heaney rejects is the notion that a translation of Beowulf must be guided primarily by the notion that "we must labour to be beautiful." The result is a translation that reads easily and simply, and indeed, beauty flourishes in that simply. At least this is true most of time. What is sometimes lost is the remarkable, stirring phrases that appear in more self-consciously poetic translations. Compare the various translations of one of my favorite passages (lines 2550-2558), when the aged Beowulf first challenges the dragon in his lair:


Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats
unburdened his breast and broke out
in a storm of anger. Under the grey stone
his voice challenged and resounded clearly.
Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
a human voice, the time was over
for peace and parleying. Pouring forth
in a hot battle-fume, the breath of the monster
burst from the rock. There was a rumble under ground.


Passion filled the prince of the Geats:
he allowed a cry to utter from his breast,
roared from his stout heart: as the horn clear in battle
his voice re-echoed through the vault of grey stone.
The hoard-guard recognized a human voice,
and there was no more time for talk of friendship:
hatred stirred. Straightaway
the breath of the dragon billowed from the rock
in a hissing gust; the ground boomed.

and Gummere:

Then from his breast, for he burst with rage,
the Weder-Geat prince a word outgo;
stormed the stark-heart; stern went ringing
and clear his cry 'neath the cliff-rocks gray.
The hoard-guard heard a human voice;
his rage was enkindled. No respite now
for pact of peace! The poison-breath
of that foul worm first came forth from the cave,
hot reek-of-fight: the rocks resounded.

To my ear, Heaney's version is certainly unencumbered by the "laboured poetry" of the Gummere version, but it is still stirring; however, in comparison to the Alexander version, Heaney's reads like a newspaper account. Nothing more exemplifies the difference than lines 2556-2568. Alexander's version best captures the ominous moment when Beowulf courageously faces his death: "...Straightaway / the breath of the dragon billowed from the rock / in a hissing gust. The ground boomed." Reading "the ground boomed" makes me want to put down my book and flee, lest I be cornered by the dragon. This is not to say that Heaney's directness and Gummere's laboured poetry do not outshine Alexander on other occasions, but on balance, for me, Alexander finds just the right poetic balance.

Regardless of the translation one choose to read, Beowulf is a stirring experience if one reads the poem slowly and thoughtfully -- aloud is best -- taking the time to let the words and images shape your experience and transport you to a time and place when honor and undauntable courage were prized above all. Heaney will do this for you and in an idiom that speaks directly to today's vernacular.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Prose Edda / Snorri Sturluson -- NY: American-Scandinavian Foundation and London: Humphrey Miford Oxford University Press, 1923.

In the early 13th century, Iceland's great poet Snorri Sturluson collected the stories of his culture now known as The Elder Edda and worked them into retelling now known as The Prose Edda. It is divided into three self-sufficient sections: Gylfaginning or The Beguiling of Gylfi, Skaldskaparmal or The Poesy of Skalds, and Hattatal or Enumeration of Metres. These and portions of these works have been translated into English since the first attempt in 1770; however, not until 1916 was the whole of Skaldskaparmal translated. This was done by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur for the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Brodeur's The Poesy of the Skalds appeard in the same volume with his translation of Gylfanginning. Hattatal, however, defied Brodeur's translation abilities, due to its highly technical nature. Indeed, fitting appropriate English vocabulary into the metre of the original work is likely impossible.

The Beguiling of Gylfi is the most accessible and engaging to the two translated works. It tells the story of the Norse gods, from the creation of the world to their death at the hands of the giants. While the work is certainly pagan, Snorluson introduces it by telling how the original knowledge of the Biblical story of Genesis was forgotten by the people of Northern Europe and how they constructed the Odinic myths; however, once he has established his Christian credentials, Snorluson faithfully retells the pagan stories without lacing them with foreign Christian interpolations.

The Beguiling of Gylfi recounts the exploits of Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldr, Freyja, Freyr, and other lesser Norse gods. Its stories include norns, valkyries, giants, elves, dwarves, men, shape shifters, and dragons. It provides a brief account of the story of Sigurd, Brynhild, and Gudrun. The stories are told to Gylfi by Harr of the AEsir, descendants of the Norse gods. The work provides an excellent summary of the Norse pantheon and cosmology.

The Poesy of the Skalds contains verses and some brief narratives, but is essentially a compendium of ways in which the poets of the Elder Edda referred to various gods and important subjects. Essentially, it is a handbook for poets (skalds) seeking to understand how to poetically refer to the subjects in their poems. So, for example, a young skald is directed to refer to Odin as "Allfather" and Thor as "Defender of Asgard and of Midgard" or "Smiter of Hrungnir." Baldr is "Companion of Hel" or "God of Tears." Loki is "Theif of the Giants" or "Forger of Evil;" "the Sly God" or "Contriver of Baldr's Death." Poetic references are recommended for such things as man, gold, the sky, the earth, battle, fire, etc.

The epithets for all these relate to the subject's place in Norse legends, and along with helping us understand the Norse view of the world, provide a rich summary of the poetic sensibility of the Icelandic skalds. Snorluson quotes stanzas of poetry that employ these epithets and sometimes provides us with longer narratives illustrating why the subject has received the epithet. Reading these stanzas in the context of Sturluson's poetic instruction allows us to understand why Norse poetry feels so loaded with meaning.

The Beguiling of Gylfi will reward anyone interested in the Norse mythology. Its gritty narratives are thrilling in a way that Greek and Roman mythology with all its glamour is not. The Poesy of the Skalds, on the other hand, will reward the more poetic reader, unconcerned with plots or narratives, but happy to read the isolated, but stirring, turn of phrase.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Addicted to Plastics / Ian Connacher -- Reading, PA: Bullfrong Films, 2007.

The documentary "Addicted to Plastics" (part of the 'etc.' on this blog) has the basic characteristics of a well done documentary. It is engaging and entertaining while informative. It covered some of the more widely known problems of plastics (their volume in our waste stream, the fact that they don't decompose and can only be down-cycled, not recycled) and drove home a couple of other points. One - the oceans are becoming plastic soup. Some of the most impressive scenes from the movie were of pieces of plastics large and small being removed in formidable volumes from remote parts of the earth. Two - plastics absorb chemicals that are otherwise diluted in the ocean, increasing their health hazard to marine and bird life and passing that risk up the food chain.

The documentary attempts to be optimistic by pointing to recycling efforts and new forms of less harmful plastics but doesn't offer any real call to arms to address the problems from plastic with concrete or timely measures. In fact, an overblown portrayal of life without plastic seems to suggest that the problem is too big for individual action. Although I believe that collective action holding manufacturers responsible for the lifecycle of their products is more powerful than individual efforts to reduce, the damage wreaked by plastics, as clearly outlined in the film, is too great to wait for the 'green chemistry' to save the day. Acting now to reduce the volume of plastic being produced decreases air, land, and water pollution and increases the livability of the planet we so enjoy.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr / Nancy Isenberg -- NY: Viking, 2007.

Nancy Isenberg's biography of Aaron Burr Fallen Founder will change what we think of Burr. Known primarily for three notorious acts, Burr's life has never been seriously studied by dispassionat historians -- at least this is Isenberg's plausible contention. Instead, what we believe we know about Burr has been given to us by his political enemies and has passed into history without careful scrutiny.

Isenberg's investigation of Burr's life prompts her to tell a far more sympathic story and rewrites what is thought to be known about the Election of 1800, Burr's duel with Hamilton, and Burr's alleged plot to conquer Mexico and separate the Western States from the Union. Isenberg's research into these and other events is meticulous. Her 521 page book includes 107 pages of notes, referring the reader to crucial primary sources that not only paint a different picture of Burr, cast doubt on the motives and testimony of his accusers.

It is commonly thought that during the constitutional crisis that threw the Election of 1800 into the House of Representatives, Burr worked to defeat his running mate, Thomas Jefferson, and secure the Presidency for himself. He might have been able to do this by persuading the Federalist members of Congress to join his own loyalists and win a majority of the states voting. According to Isenberg, Burr made his intentions clear: he had no desire to defeat Jefferson and that remaining a candidate for president was necessary to avoid electing the Federalist John Adams Vice President. Given Burr's youth, it seems quite plausible that he would be satisfied with serving as Vice President under Jefferson and then inherit the Presidency eight years later. However, Jefferson's animosity toward Burr would indicate that he was not able to gain Jefferson's trust, providing further circumstantial evidence in favor of a Machievelian reading of Burr.

Isenberg's description of Burr's duel with Hamilton leads one to see Hamilton as the most culpable member of the pair. Isenberg describes Hamilton's volitile and sometimes abusive personality in contrast with Burr's even genial temper. She writes that Burr was involved in only two duels in his life, while Hamilton was involved in 11 duels. Dueling was common in 1804, and given the abuse that Hamilton heaped on Burr over many years, one might not be surprised that Burr would issue the challenge. Isenberg's scholarship gives ample support to this reading.

Finally, Burr was famously tried by John Marshall and the Senate for treason. He was charged with planning an invasion of Mexico to establish himself as King and then inciting the Western United States to separate from the union to join his empire. In the course of the trial, he was also accused of plotting the assassination of Thomas Jefferson. What seems clear is that Burr intended to recruit a private army to invade Mexico. The invasion would, apparently only take place in the event that the US first declared war on Mexico. Raising private armies was, again, not unknown at the time. After two trials, one in Mississippi and one in the US Senate, Burr was cleard of the all charges against him. Isenberg persuasively argues that Burr's enemies fabricated the evidence against him and that the verdict of the courts were completely accurate.

Isenberg's rehabilitation of Burr is a splendid piece of history. Whether it is completely accurate or not is not as significant as the fact that she has opened an new field of study that will surely correct the unfair treatment that Burr has received for more than 200 years.

The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition / Anne Frank -- NY: Doubleday, 1995.

I never had a strong desire to read Anne Frank's diary. Despite its popularity, I expected that too many entries would be the mundane musing of an adolescent girl. I was moved, however, to pick up the diary after visiting the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. Simply occupying the space that once hid the Frank family and their fellow refugees made me curious about their lives.

I quickly found that the diary's reputation as a semi-sacred testament to the genocide of European jewry was overblown and that entry upon entry was markedly ordinary. I suspect that this would not come as a surprise to anyone more familiar with the work than I was. On only a few occassions did Anne write about the plight of Jews beyond her own conditions. At best, the diary is provides the tiniest glimpse into what Jews were experiencing through out Europe. Certainly, Anne's diary made it possible for people around the world to see deeply into the life of one of the millions of victims of the Nazi crimes, and to that extent, it humanized what might otherwise have been a bewildering story of unfathomable numbers and abstract horrors. Nonetheless, I was surprised at how divorced I felt from the holocaust while reading the diary.

I was, however, drawn into the work in a way that surprised me. More than a primary source for the study of the holocaust, Anne's diary is a fascinating look into the mental life of an adolescent girl struggling with her relationships with mother and father. Her entries deal largely with subjects that might preoccupy any young girl in 21st century America, though her thoughts and feelings were most likely heightened by the constant proximity of her fellow refugees. Nearly as interesting as her difficult relationship with her parents was her slowly developing romantic relationship with Peter van Dan.

In all, I was happy to have finally read a work that has come to be such an important part of the literary history of World War II, but it will remain low on my list of works to recommend for understanding the times in which Anne lived and died.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs / trans. by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris in Harvard Classics 49 -- NY: P.F. Collier and Sons, 1910.

The Icelandic sagas known as the Eddas have come down to us in two forms: the Elder Edda and the Prose Edda. The Elder Edda is composed of poems and fragments of poems that connect us to the oral tradition of ancient Norse cultures. The Prose Edda is a compilation and arrangement of many of these poems into mainly prose form. This was accomplished by Snorri Sturleson in the 13th century. While Sturleson's work was translated into English and does contain material about the Volsungs and the Niblungs, the full story did not appear in English until 1870 when a translation was published by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris.

The Magnusson-Morris translation is mainly written in prose, though some poetry is included. This translation brings the story into modern English and mainly conveys the plot. It has none of the thrilling resonance of Morris's later poetic treatment of the story in Sigurd the Volsung, but its vocabulary is generally limited to words derived from Old English. Consequently, it is able to transport the reader more or less into the ancient North.

Every treatment of "the Great Story of the North" that I have read has it strengths and weaknesses. Preferring one to another is probably a matter of taste, but in each, the remarkable story of the Volsungs, the Niblungs, and the Budlungs shines through and never fails to dazzle. Unlike the heroes of Rome and Greece, the Norse heroes have a tragic nature to them as they face their inevitable defeat. It is how they accept their defeat that makes them heroic.

It is difficult for me to discuss the Lay of the Niblungen without mentioning Tolkien. A good bit has been said about Tolkien's appropriation of names from the Eddas, particularly, Gandalf and Frodo; however, I have not read commentary that has drawn parallels between the life of Sigurd and Aragorn, Brynhild and Arwen, and Gudrun and Eowyn -- parallels that are of much greater interest.

In the Eddas, Sigurd falls in love with Brynhild the valkyrie. Before marrying her he sets off to earn her love and journeys to the house of the Niblungs. There he leads them to greatness, but is enchanted by Gudrun's mother, causing him to fall in love with Gudrun. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn falls in love with Arwen the elf, but before marrying her, heads off to join the House of Theoden (the Riders of Rohan), also leading them to greatness. Furthermore, just as the Niblungs defend themselves against the Budlungs in a bloody siege in Atli's hall, so too do the Riders of Rohan defend themselves against the forces of Sauruman at Helms Deep. Finally, in a looser parallel, just as Atli, King of the Budlungs, is married to Gudrun of the Niblungs, so too is Grima Wormtongue (Sauruman's lieutenant) seeking to marry Eowyn, daughter of Theoden.

There are, of course, dissimilarities in the story. There is no enchantress in Rohan to cause Aragorn to fall in love with Eowyn as Sigurd fell in love with Gudrun, betraying Brynhild, but the attraction between Aragorn and Eowyn surely threatens to betray Arwen. The most significant dissimilarity lies in the victory of the Riders of Rohan at Helms Deep. Where the Niblungs are defeated by the Budlungs, the Riders of Rohan are saved by what Tolkien describes in an essay as a "eucatastrophe." Out of the blue, Gandalf leads a contingent of Riders to rescue the beseiged, just as the besieged are preparing to end their lives in a paradigmatically Norse fashion, with an honorable and glorious, but completely hopeless attack on the enemy.

Clearly, Tolkien is indebted to the Lay of the Niblungen, but in his hands the story is transformed into one in which hope is triumphant, but while the valor characteristic of the ancient Norse remains undiminished.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

A couple years ago, I read in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that Tolkien had written poem that attempted "to unify the lays about the Volsungs from the Elder Edda," written in the Old Norse eight-line stanzaic metre. Having read William Morris's brilliant epic poem Sigurd the Volsung, I was delighted to think that Tolkien's poem might still exist, but pessimistic that it might ever see publication. Happily, Christopher Tolkien has found and edited the work and released it as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Rather than a single poem, the work is composed of two poems.

The first recounts the life of Sigurd, the greatest hero of Norse legend, describing his slaying of the dragon Fafnir and his acquiring Andvari's gold. Later, his romance with the beautiful valkyrie Brynhild, his alliance with the Niflung, and his tragic end. The second recounts the life of Gudrun following Sigurd's death. Sigurd had been enchanted by Gudrun's mother, causing him to fall in love with Gudrun and breaking his vow to marry Brynhild. With the death of Sigrun and Brynhild, Gudrun lived in sorrow, watching her family destroyed, and finally cast herself into the sea to drown.

The death of Gudrun in Tolkien's version is different from most treatments of the story. For example, in the Magnusson-Morris translation, Gudrun is washed ashore and eventually marries for a third time, living in sorrow and weaving a tapestry depicting the life of Sigurd. Tolkien's version is, however, not unique. William Morris's later work also ends with her death by drowning.

Tolkien's poetry, faithful to the Old Norse metre, is beautifully archaic and stirring, but nonetheless clear and intelligible to the modern reader. The story's unity seems to owe much to William Morris's work. In his letters, Tolkien notes having read and been influenced by Morris's romances, though he does not mention Sigurd the Volsung. It is unlikely that he did not read it, though.

Much of Tolkien's posthumous work has been of interest only to his die-hard readers. Happily, this work and his previously published work The Children of Hurin are more accessible and in line with the works that have made him famous. For anyone who appreciated The Lord of the Rings, these recent publications will be an exciting adventure back into Middle Earth and the legends upon which it was conceived.

A good bit has been said about Tolkien's appropriation of names from the Eddas for The Lord of the Rings, particularly, Gandalf and Frodo; however, I have not read commentary that has drawn parallels between the life of Sigurd and Aragorn, Brynhild and Arwen, and Gudrun and Eowyn -- parallels that are of much greater interest.

In the Eddas, Sigurd falls in love with Brynhild the valkyrie. Before marrying her he sets off to earn her love and journeys to the house of the Niblungs. There, he leads them to greatness, but is enchanted by Gudrun's mother, causing him to fall in love with Gudrun. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn falls in love with Arwen the elf, but before marrying her, heads off to join the House of Theoden (the Riders of Rohan), also leading them to greatness. Furthermore, just as the Niblungs defend themselves against the Budlungs in a bloody siege in Atli's hall, so too do the Riders of Rohan defend themselves against the forces of Sauruman at Helm's Deep. Finally, in a looser parallel, just as Atli, King of the Budlungs, is married to Gudrun of the Niblungs, so too is Grima Wormtongue (Sauruman's lieutenant) seeking to marry Eowyn, daughter of Theoden.

There are, of course, dissimilarities in the story. There is no enchantress in Rohan to cause Aragorn to fall in love with Eowyn as Sigurd fell in love with Gudrun, betraying Brynhild, but the attraction between Aragorn and Eowyn surely threatens to betray Arwen. The most significant dissimilarity lies in the victory of the Riders of Rohan at Helm's Deep. Where the Niblungs are defeated by the Budlungs, the Riders of Rohan are saved by what Tolkien describes in an essay as a "eucatastrophe." Just as the besieged Riders of Rohan are preparing to end their lives in a paradigmatically Norse fashion, with an honorable and glorious, but completely hopeless attack on the enemy, Gandalf arrives with a contingent of Riders to rescue the beseiged -- a "good castastrophe."

Clearly, Tolkien is indebted to the Lay of the Niblungs, but in his hands the story is transformed into one in which hope is triumphant, but while the valor characteristic of the ancient Norse remains undiminished.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union / Michael Chabon -- NY: Harper Collins, 2007.

Michael Chabon’s most recent book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is a rarity—a book that simultaneously succeeds massively on all three main levels that one often wants to read for. It is a novel of ideas, dramatizing serious sociopolitical issues concerning Israel and America’s Jewish community. It is a genre novel, in this case a noirish murder mystery. And it is funny as hell—with new and laugh-out-loud hilarious takes on classic Jewish humor tropes that would make Groucho or Woody extremely jealous. It is impossible not to greatly enjoy reading this book, and I look forward to re-reading it in the future.

Chabon is perhaps America’s best male writer at this point, leaving aside Thomas Pynchon, whose recent Against the Day was a huge disappointment. Few American writers are very intellectually ambitious these days, and Chabon is not quite up to Pynchon’s level in that category, but this is as ambitious a work as we are likely to see in the current literary culture. He is influenced by Pynchon--often not such a good thing, as in David Foster Wallace’s case—but Chabon has his own very focused visions, which rein in potential excesses (especially that of over-writing) while leaving an incredibly inventive and skilled fictional voice to provide literary craftsmanship of a very high order. He uses metaphor and simile in as inventive and creative a way as anyone, and rewards close reading with astonishing regularity.

The main conceit is a courageous one—Chabon re-imagines Israel as having failed to take hold in the Middle East after WWII, with a refuge for Jews instead having been temporarily established in Alaska. Now the US is, under a right-wing administration, kicking the Jews back out of Alaska--to what destinations it is unconcerned, though some hope that they can now try to establish Israel in the Middle East again. The hugely controversial issues of the current Israeli situation are given milder local analogues by Chabon—for example, the role of the Palestinians is now played by the local Native American Tlingit tribes, who have been forced to “make room” for the Jews. The US government is of course not really concerned about Tlingit rights, either—it is cynically playing various right-wing political cards. It is to Chabon’s credit that he (Jewish himself) does not shy away from portraying the complexity of the issues, with Jews here remaining victims but having hugely flawed features to their society, including Jewish terrorists and a Jewish Mafia. Chabon humanizes the issues, avoiding stereotypes, in clever and imaginative ways that every political ideologue of the right should be forced to read. Two wrongs never make a right here—instead they usually lead to recognition that there are a lot more than two to worry about.

The rest of the plot is classic noir: broken down alcoholic detective Meyer Landsman must solve a mysterious death, and has all odds stacked against him, both personal and societal. He is Jewish, as is almost everyone in the refuge who isn’t Tlingit—the latter including Landsman’s half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner, who provides muscle and (some) sanity to Landsman’s seemingly doomed attempts to pursue justice. The murder victim is a potential new Messiah, estranged son of a Jewish Mafioso, and Messianic solutions to problems are one of the main themes of the book—also doomed, Chabon suggests. There are lots of plot twists, all engaging and informed by the best long-suffering Jewish humor to be had in a long time. No point detailing these things—rest assured you will absolutely enjoy reading them.

Things get a bit implausible along the way, and the ending is fairly canned and pat—but one can’t really consider these minor flaws as very detrimental, for Chabon uses the noir and plot devices (and humor) only as hooks upon which to hang his greater aims—his visions of loneliness, separation, victimhood, and loss, and of how, to remain human, we must try to overcome these in humane ways no matter how insane and inhumane the world around us is becoming. These aims he accomplishes wholly successfully—by creating his own world, fairly similar to our own, but different enough to make us really think about the comparison. That’s what great writers do, and Chabon is finally approaching this status. I am currently reading his earlier, Pulitzer-winning book, Kavalier and Klay, which attempts similar things in a bit less focused and successful fashion. If his next book shows similar improvement, Chabon may be approaching a pinnacle that few American writers before him have scaled.

Against the Day / Thomas Pynchon -- NY: Penguin Press, 2006.

The most recent Thomas Pynchon novel, Against the Day (AD), is his longest and least focused. This is saying a lot, as he has several works that are as labyrinthine and extended as any in literature. Indeed, his masterpiece of the 70’s, Gravity’s Rainbow (GR), which everyone should read, set the post-modern standard for such works, much as Ulysses did for modernist works in the early 20th century. GR is a masterpiece because its tightly integrated themes and allusions are illustrated by characters who, however sprawling the canvas on which they play out their stories, “come alive” for readers in the focused way that we expect all great novelistic creations (and their internal novelistic relationships) to hold our sympathy and/or interest.

But since GR, Pynchon’s works have been increasingly less successful. Like Faulkner, Pynchon works in only one style—instantly recognizable as his own, though influencing many others, often to their detriment. This style has two main parts: one is mannered, artificial, and often pastiche-oriented, in which dry, sardonic, black comedy, rich with minutely documented social incident, dominates. (Unfortunately, his humor has grown increasingly arch—often witty, but not very funny.) Mixed and/or alternating with this is a quasi-mystical, portentous and ominous magical-realism, often verging on a vague sort of science fiction, in which his interest in larger questions of the “meaning” of life can play out. This latter part allows Pynchon to gain the force of “religious” import for his otherwise very secular imaginative world, and is largely responsible for the eerily original “voice” with which Pynchon swept the literary world in the 60’s and 70’s.

Unfortunately, both techniques have begun to wear—particularly the magical realism. Though Pynchon remains endlessly inventive, in order to be successful while no longer “original”, his style must be put to work in the service of an actual story and characters that dramatically illustrate and draw the reader into the author’s take on his larger socio-political themes. And this is what Pynchon has been increasingly unable to accomplish, to the point in AD where, frankly, the book simply became (for me) an irritating and almost endless exercise in “virtuoso” verbiage. And though Pynchon can still on occasion produce writing of tremendous skill and beauty, the verbiage is increasingly slack as well—the novel would have been better at two-thirds its size, as sentences and paragraphs have far too much useless internal “filler”.

There are literally hundreds of characters in Against the Day. We see any one (or subset) of them only at widely spaced intervals, many make only token appearances, and even the main ones wander the globe so haphazardly as to vitiate any sustained interest in them. Virtually no internal psychology is presented for them by the author, and the external incident that could possibly define them more clearly is so multifarious and bewilderingly scattershot that it, too, fails to create any lasting impressions. Segment after segment starts promisingly with characters and incidents that might develop into something—then soon disappears, as a different segment begins.

This is a shame, as Pynchon remains one of the few American novelists, especially now that William Gaddis is dead, who has a serious critique of capitalism and its role in the ongoing crumbling of American society and culture. To its credit, AD is close to unique in presenting a sympathetic take on the factors that cause terrorism—by focusing (in part) on the American–born dynamiters of the early 20th century, as mine workers fought bosses in murderous class war. Our current mainstream political/media take on terrorists has no room for such notions, and suppresses our own labor history to avoid engaging the subject. Pynchon courageously (at first) lays out conditions that might make a normal worker turn to terrorism, when the owners’ power is so repressive as to be “terrifying” in its own right.

But this promising set of themes is soon lost in a thicket of others that are unrelated; connections and implications are imposed but rarely dramatized or fleshed out; and the emotional force and weight of any critique dissipates as characterizations are thin or non-existent. Pynchon’s “erudition” remains, as always, but is itself less impressive in these days of Google and Wikepedia. He vividly portrays aspects of the world of the early 20th century, particularly swirling around technology and World War I, that readers with his socio-political take will recognize as analogously evil to our own current world. But he fails to focus sufficiently on any particular human part of that world, giving readers no reason to care about reading his own book about it. AD should be the last Pynchon book anyone reads. (Though it won’t be the last one I read, as he has another (much shorter) one coming out soon, and hope springs eternal…)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Castastrope / Gerard Prunier -- Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.

Beginning in September 1996, a massive and complex six-year war engulfed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and neighboring countries. At least seven countries were direct combatants and several others were more or less indirectly involved. At its height, the war threatened to involve nearly every African nation. Almost 4 million Africans died in the conflict.

Despite the enormity of the violence, few Americans know much at all about the war. Our ignorance is largely a product of our news media's neglect of Africa in general or its fixation on specific events in Africa. During the war in the DRC, Sudanese Darfur monopolized media attention, though as a humanitarian disaster, Darfur did not equal the war in the Congo basin. For anyone interested in learning about the war, Gerard Prunier's recent book, Africa's World War provides an excellent starting point.

Prunier concentrates his attention on political and military events, giving a detailed account of the state and non-state militias, political parties, and politicians. The story is so complex that the reader would do well to take careful notes along the way just to keep the changing alliances straight. The primary combatants were the Rwandese Patriot Army (RPA) and successive governments in Kinshasa, Zaire (later the DRC). Each side was allied with rebel groups and other local militias in the Congo basin. Other direct state actors included Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. As the conflict expanded, Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya, the Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and South Africa also became more or less involved. At various stages, the United Nations attempted to intervene, bring in troops from outside of Africa.

Prunier aptly describes how the decline and death of Zairean President Mobutu led to a power vacuum in the Congo basin, prompting opportunistic military actions by neighboring countries. The spark which ignited the war were conflicts in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. Following the conquest of Rwanda by the Rwandese Patriotic Front, the new largely Tutsi government in Kigali, Rwanda mounted assaults against the Hutu refugees that it accused of having participated in the genocide and of working to destabilize the Kigali government. These assaults led in September 1996 to the invasion of the Zairean states of North and South Kivu and to a military campaign to depose Mobutu, who was supporting the Hutu refugees.

During the war against Mobutu, nearly every African country supported Rwanda; however, once Rwanda was able to place Laurent-Desire Kabila in power in Kinshasa, alliances broke down. After a period of some confusion, Kabila broke from his Rwandese patrons and sought to drive the RPA out of his newly renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo. Angola became Kabila's main supporter along with Zimbabwe and Namibia. The Angolan government's interest in the Congo was largely related to its ongoing war against its own rebel movement, UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi. UNITA, having been allied with Mobutu, now became roughly allied with the RPA against Kabila and the Angolan government.

In the north, Uganda had worked in concert with the RPA in the assault against Mobutu and it remained allied with the RPA against Kabila; however, its primary role in the war involved struggles against its own rebel movement the Lord's Resistance Army, which was supported by Kabila and the Sudan. This battle (along with the internal Angolan battles) were played out mostly on Congolese soil.

The third and final stage of the war, began with Kabila's assassination in January of 2001. Kabila's cabinet was largely sympathetic to Angolan interests and might have arranged for an openly pro-Angolan successor, but to avoid dissent, they placed in power Kabila's 29 year old son, Joseph Kabila. Joseph Kabila turned out to be surprisingly politically astute. Without a domestic power base of his own, he cultivated international support, particularly support from outside of Africa. This provided him with just enough security to break from his Angolan cabinet and establish a relatively stable and effective government.

By now, the war's belligerents were becoming exhausted and each gradually accepted peace agreements and over the course of next three years, they withdraw from Congolese soil, though in some cases, particularly Rwanda, they continue to support various Congolese militias. As the war began in the Kivus, it wound down last in the Kivus, but in general, the DRC remains a violent theatre of conflict despite the end of all out war.

Prunier's final chapter, "Groping for Meaning," attempts to provide more than an account of the main political and military events of the war. Along with a summary of U.S. and French involvement in the war, this final chapter underscores the difficulty in understanding African conflicts within a European paradigm of state and national politics. The complexity of the conflict related in the main of the book makes this clear enough. The European state system developed over centuries on a continent with very different economic and social conditions than Africa. Consequently, it provides little to no insight into the actions of the war's belligerents.

To understand the conflict, one must comprehend cross-cutting national, tribal, religious, linguistic, economic, and social identities, all on a continent abused by imperialist exploitation and riven by the cold war. While Prunier recognizes this challenge, his work does little more than expose the difficulty of understanding the war. This does not, however, detract from his excellent political/military account of the war.

Also missing from the account are vivid accounts of the pain and suffering that came to so many combatants and non-combatants in the course of the war. Prunier occasionally mentions deprivation, massacres, rape, and the drafting of child soldiers, but his account is surprisingly antiseptic, which may be a plus for the reader in that any attempt to give a full account of the human suffering may have made the work too painful to read. Nonetheless, a chapter bearing witness to the atrocities of the war from the perspective of its victims would have given the work more than academic value.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent / Andrew Nikiforuk -- Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 2008.

While many governments and oil companies are steadfastly denying the imminent peak of world wide oil production, their words are belied by their actions. In Tar Sands, Andrew Nikiforuk describes the headlong rush to develop perhaps the most expensive and dirtiest hydrocarbon reserve on the planet: the tar sands of Alberta. Nikiforuk notes that 60% of all global oil investments are made in the these tar sands and that the consequences for the people of Alberta and the Mackenzie River Watershed are devastating.

To turn the tar sands into oil involves a mining operation that makes Appalachian mountain top removal look non-invasive. The oil (or more precisely, the bitumen) is a tar-like substance that is mixed with soil, sand, and rock. To remove it, the land is carved up and steamed using, huge quantities of water. Left behind are gigantic lakes formed inside levees. These lakes contain poisonous tailings. The size and expense of the operation defies imagination.

Beyond the environmental disaster, Nikiforuk describes that impact that this development has had on the civic epicenter of it all: the boom city of Fort McMurray. Crime, drugs, traffic deaths, inflation, and the erosion of public health are among the social disasters that accompany the development. Nikiforuk observes that Alberta and Canada in general are quickly becoming "petrostates," in which the economy is organized to export oil to the world, in particular, to the United States. Characteristic of petrostates, the government of Alberta is becoming increasingly undemocratic with decisions made without public oversight and in compliance with the wishes of oil company executives.

Tar Sands is a testament to the power of the international demand for cheap energy, and the willingness of people to sacrifice so much to cash in on that demand.  It is also worth noting that if the tar sands are fully exploited, the amount of carbon dioxide that will be released into the atmosphere and oceans will likely push global warming well beyond what is already an extremely dangerous level.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Abraham Lincoln's World: How Riverboats, Railroads, and Republicans Transformed America / Thomas Crump -- London: Continuum, 2009.

Thomas Crump distinguishes himself from the myriad other historians writing about Lincoln in the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth by noting he is probably the only such author who interviewed an eye witness to the Gettysburg Address. At the age of 80, Crump has given us a brief introduction to some of the most important currents of the first half of 19th century America.

Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln's World is uneven. At times Crump tells us the trivial, e.g., each state has two Senators. At other times, he makes quite interesting and insightful observations about the conditions in America during Lincoln's time. True to his subtitle, his treatment of steamships and railroads are quite valuable. He also provides valuable descriptions of the changing demographics of the country and internal migrations. However, his treatment of the better known aspects of the political history of the time is unremarkable. On the other hand, the chapters on the development of Illinois and California are detailed and well worth reading.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter deals with the settlement and rebellion of Texas. Contemporary interpretations of these events tend to vilify the Anglo Texas settlers. Crump treats them more sympathetically by portraying them not as pro-slavery ideologues seeking to expand slave territory, but as people seeking a better life -- not all of them sympathetic to slavery. He does a good job describing the internal chaos in Mexico that made the loss of Texas to Anglo immigration all but inevitable. The only myopia here is his cursory treatment of the Native American population.

Crump also does a good job conveying the boundaries of debate of the time regarding the issue of slavery. Today, many people view the period as a conflict between two actors: Abolitionists and the Slave Power, with a large uncommitted mass between them. Instead, Crump's political landscape is populated mostly by politicians residing between the extremes, struggling with the impossibility of a house divided against itself. This less ideological treatment of the slavery issue doesn't preclude 21st century moral judgements, but it does give real depth and texture to the description of the struggle over slavery.

Sadly, the work is also marred by numerous copy editing errors that sometimes complete reverse the meaning of Crump's statements.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What is the What / Dave Eggers -- NY: Vintage Books, 2007.

What is the What is the most extraordinary book I have read in quite a while. Dave Eggers novelizes the astonishing experiences of Valentino Achak Deng. Achak, born in a small village in southern Sudan, was made a refugee at the age of six. Torn from his family when genocidal horsemen descended on his village, he fled alone until meeting up with a group of boys led by Dut Majok, a young teacher from his village. Apparently, Dut is leading the boys to safety in Ethiopia, but in time it is revealed that he may be delivering them to the Sudan People's Liberation Army to become child soldiers.

The structure of the novel provides further interest to the story and insight into Achak's psyche. Achak narrates the story by imagining himself recounting his events to Americans he encounters once he has emigrated to Atlanta. Achak has a desperate need to tell his story, but without a venue for doing so, he recounts it to himself. We, the readers, are the beneficiaries of his reflections.

Among the most striking features of the book is the role that sheer luck played in Achak's survival. He is often placed in a situation where he must choose between two or more courses of action without any basis for knowing what is best. One path leads to survival, the other to disaster or even death. On his journey, many of his fellow travelers die of malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion. Some are attacked and eaten by lions and hyenas. At one point, Achak is running through the forest with another boy and a lion "takes" the boy. The lion comes so close to Achak that he can smell it. It's clear to the reader that survival is entirely a matter of chance.

While the novel recounts horrors and hardships, it also recounts Achak's adolescent urges, his friendships, his school-day triumphs, and romantic passions, allowing the reader to not merely feel sympathy for him, but to empathize with him. Other characters are also well constructed. His friends are multidimensional and his fellow Sudanese refugees are engagingly diverse, leaving the reader to understand that the horror of the civil war beset real people and not merely generic African victims.

More than anything, What is the What provides a clearer understanding of war and the personal cost of war than any political or military history that could be written.

The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning / Denise Patry Leidy -- Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

The Art of Buddhism is a beautiful and informative stroll through the history of Buddhist sculpture, architecture, and painting. The narrative follows a rough chronological order, but by the 6th to 8th century, the spread of Buddhism followed too many different paths to permit a single story. Consequently, Leidy begins describing the art of particular geographic regions chapter by chapter.

Leidy explains many of the subtle features in Buddhist art that help the reader (or viewer) to understand what personalities are represented in the art. She notes that continuity in the art forms across different regions roughly matches the continuity of Buddhist doctrine. For example the sinuous forms of early Indian sculpture appear in Southeast Asian sculpture just as the Theravada doctrine spread from early India to Southeast Asia. Along the way, she explains some of the difference between various schools of Buddhism.

The book is beautifully illustrated, with a photograph or diagram on nearly every page. Unfortunately, they are often too small to really display the full beauty of the art. Indeed, the book's 10" x 7" format makes even the largest images small. Nevertheless, the selection of paintings and especially sculptures are sometimes breath taking.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission / Kogen Mizuno -- Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 1982.

Buddha, like Socrates, left no writings of his own, but shortly after his death, his followers gathered to recite his sermons. The goal was to agree upon precisely what he said to preserve his teaching in an oral tradition. The language spoken by the monks of this First Buddhist Council was probably Old Magadhi. As the popularity of Buddhism grew, the desire to evangelize to speakers of other languages also grew. Consequently, the sermons of the Buddha were written down and translated into various languages of ancient India. These sermons are known as sutras. Along with the sutras, early Buddhists compiled monastic rules known as vinayas. Later, commentaries on the sutras developed, known as abhidharma. Collectively, these writings are known as the Tripitaka or the three baskets and are the canon of early Buddhism.

In centuries following the establishment of this canon, other important works were written in an effort to express the insights of Buddhism in various languages, importantly Chinese. With the addition of a number of original Chinese texts to the canon the "Pali canon" or the original canon written in Pali, was expanded into what is known as the Chinese canon. In Buddhist Sutras Kogen Mizuno recounts the origin, development, and transmission of the Pali canon through the Chinese canon. Along the way, he describes the transmission of Buddhist sutras into various other Asian languages, especially Japanese.

Mizuno's work is loaded with information about the texts, languages, and translators of the sutras and includes valuable explanation of some of the sectarian movements in the history of Buddhism and important cultural contexts. He notes that doctrinal divergences within Buddhism can often be traced to different interpretations of the teachings generated by translations into different languages. Unfortunately, the work is not well organized. While it follows a rough chronological sequence, there are many leaps forward and backward in time. Furthermore, it overlays this sequence with topical treatments of his subject that do not have a clear pattern of presentation. The effect is a rambling narrative. However, it is filled with illuminating facts and details in the history of the Buddhist canon.

Among its most valuable features is an appendix which alphabetically lists the titles of scriptures and catalogs of scriptures in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages. Each work appears in the list using each language into which it has been translated. For example, The Heart Wisdom Sutra is also listed as the Prajnaparamita-hridaya-sutra (Sanskrit) and as Pan-jo po-lo-mi-to hsin-ching (Chinese). English details about the work are given in under the title listed in the original language.