Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Short History of the Twentieth Century by John Lukacs

Do you want a Joe Friday ("Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts") history of the 20th century? Go elsewhere. Do you want to read an extended essay on the crucial events of the century by a master writer and historian? Then read this book. Do you want someone who will mouth common platitudes? Go elsewhere. Do you want the reflections and insights of a man who's studied and written about the 20th century in as much detail and with as much insight as anyone I can think of. Then read this book; in fact, you'd do well to read the rest of John Lukacs's work, too. 

Enjoying John Lukacs is the equivalent of enjoying a fine wine. Lukacs is a vineyard that keeps producing superb fare, now in his 90th year. Each new work provides a unique blend of insights. I'm a Lukacs connoisseur. But some do not care for what I consider an exquisite vintage. I read one review of this book that referred to him as "cranky", and in a charming sort of way, I can see that. Others find his opinions too harsh, dated, or limited in his perspective. I don't think so, but perfection isn't my primary concern. 

Lukacs sets forth many propositions, some of which he's stated before. For instance, his 20th century runs from 1914 to 1989 (the collapse of Communism). This is foremost a political history, and many historians will agree with the shortened scope of the century about which he writes. He centers his concerns on Europe and America. He acknowledges that he gives short shrift to Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia (Japan the primary exception). But he argues, rightly I think, that in this century, with some exception for Japan and China (near the end) has centered on Europe. The main focus of U.S. policy has centered on Europe. In the short 20th century, Europe was at the center of the action, including the horrible killing fields of the two wars. Lukacs notes that we've now reached the End of the Modern Age (the title of an earlier work, by the way), which also marks the end of the European Age. We don't yet know what follows; just as those who lived in (what we now call) the Middle Ages didn't know what would follow from the changes they saw as thheir age waned. Lukacs also states that "the twentieth century was--an? the?--American century". (2-3).

Lukacs sees Democracy as the great movement, but Democracy (as popular sovereignty) was shaped in no small part by nationalism (different from patriotism, as Lukacs has often written) and populism, which differs from classical liberalism. Given his quote of Burkhardt near the end of the book, one senses that he feels uneasy about the continued success of Democracy subject to the demands of nationalism and populism. 

Lukacs most blatantly transgresses popular dogma by contending  that some individuals still guide history. He contends that World War II was Hitler's war. No Hitler, no war. He believes that the ascension of Churchill over Halifax made the difference that allowed Britain to survive until "the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old." (Churchill). Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin play outsized roles (for good and ill) in the course of events. 

In addition to these perspectives and many others, Lukacs at the beginning and at the end of the book reflects on the project of history, knowing, and the human future. Of history as a discipline, he writes: 

     I have devoted much of my life to asserting, teaching, and writing that "objective" and "scientific" history are inadequate desiderata; but so, too, is "subjective" history. Our historical knowledge, like nearly every kind of human knowledge, is personal and participatory, since the knower and the known, while not identical, are not and cannot be entirely separate. We do not possess truth completely. Yet pursue truth we must. So many seemingly endless and incomplete truths about the history of the twentieth century are still worth pursuing, and perhaps forever. (1)
. . . .
    Historical knowledge, nay, understanding, depends on descriptions rather than on definition. It consists of words and sentences that are inseparable from "facts"; they are more than the wrapping of facts. "In the beginning was the Word," and so it will be at the end of the world. (1-2)
At the end of this book, he cites Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt, who, along with Johan Huizinga, are the predecessors who have most influenced Lukacs. Among twentieth century thinkers, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, formulators of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics, have influenced Lukacs. Lukacs writes of the uncertainty principle in human knowing: 

    The knower cannot be separated from the known. And with this is a greater and deeper meaning: that we, on our little, warm planet, are (again? anew?) at the very center of the universe. The universe was, and is, not our creation. But we human beings on this earth have invented it, and go on inventing it from time to time.
. . . . 
    Our twentieth-century recognitions, no matter how scattered and still hardly conscious, must, and will, issue not from human arrogance but from human humility. Perhaps just as important as our recognition of our central situation in the universe is our recognition that the limitations of our human knowledge do not restrict but enrich us. (212).

New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution by Colin Wilson

After writing my recent appreciation (and critique) of Colin Wilson, I found that one of my favorites books of his was available on Kindle, so I bought it and re-read it. I’m glad I did. It reminded me of what I find so valuable in Wilson (and it reminded me of some annoyances as well). This is Wilson at his best. He started the book as a biography of Abraham Maslow, with whom he met and corresponded, but it turned into more than that. In addition to it's appreciation of Maslow, it’s a history and appraisal of how psychology developed from the early moderns through the publication of the book in 1972. 

Wilson reports that when he first came upon Maslow’s work he ignored it, only to have it come back to his attention at a later time. We should be happy for that second look. Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, and continuing through a cycle of books that bore the imprint of the first, explored the contemporary human dilemma. How do we successfully engage in life? In the Outsider cycle, Wilson examined the dilemmas of modern life through extraordinary individuals, many of whom failed to find a satisfactory resolution to their problem of existence, such as Van Gogh, Nietzsche, and T.E. Lawrence, to name but three. Wilson explored the European existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, but he found their responses unsatisfactory. Wilson went on the construct a “new existentialism” that gloried in choice and will. When Wilson got around to looking at Maslow’s work, he found a kindred spirit. Maslow’s most well-known contributions to psychology, his hierarchy of needs and the reality of peak experiences, fit with Wilson’s growing belief that we ignore opportunities and abilities to summon peak experiences at will.

After some initial reflections touching on many of Wilson’s favorite themes and examples, as well as a brief introduction to Maslow’s work, Wilson begins a summary of modern psychology and philosophy starting with Hobbes and Descartes. I found this brief history valuable and instructive. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, despite their rationalist-empiricist differences, all premised their understanding of humans as essentially mechanistic with little (if any) room for free will. But there is another current of thought that blossoms later in the 19th century. It manifests in the work of Brentano and Husserl on the Continent and in America through the work of William James. Wilson quotes James a lot, and rightly so. Wilson finds James, especially in his essays, pointing in the right direction, although James doesn’t connect all the dots for Wilson. But while James was pointing in the right direction, Sigmund Freud was taking a different perspective in Vienna. 

Freud gave us depth psychology, but his “depth”, with its reference to hidden sexuality and Greek myths, overlays a deterministic and mechanistic outlook. While prying deeply into psychic injuries, Freud's theories reflected a rigid idea of how our psyche works. Freud, who had a deep personal rigidity about him, dismissed various disciples who tried to take the master’s work in different directions, like Adler, Jung, and Rank. Wilson does an excellent job of mixing biography and ideas in this section (something that he tends to do well). Each of the three apostates (Adler, Jung, and Rank) pointed psychoanalysis in new and promising directions, identifying different sources of psychic disturbance and motivation. But still, Wilson concludes, this viewpoint focused on the disturbed, unhealthy individual. 

After this informative and entertaining history of psychology and philosophy, Wilson turns to Maslow’s biography and work. I was surprised to learn that Maslow started in the rat and monkey business. Stimulus-response theory was all the rage at the time (1930’s), and Maslow worked that angle. He also came to terms with Freud and considered himself a Freudian. However, Maslow realized that Freud and his cohort focused on the sick individual, and Maslow decided to explore the psychology of the healthy. Maslow follows a path similar to Wilson’s in turning his focus from the sick to the healthy. Wilson explores and appreciates Maslow’s insights and how Maslow developed his theories. The down side of the tale is that Maslow died relatively young (bad heart) and wasn’t able to further develop his perspectives. 

In the final chapter, we get Wilson’s synthesis of his own insights, Maslow’s, and a host of others, especially those connected with “existentialist psychology”. Existential psychologists, such as Victor Frankel and Rollo May, draw upon Husserl’s intentionality and its concern with will to help put a patient back in control of his or her destiny. Meaning, intentionality, and will once again become important aspects of psychology. As Wilson does, he dances between psychology, literature, and anecdote to make his points. This trait is both delightful and frustrating, as Wilson can be. But Wilson is a man of ideas, not a scientist or academic who does the necessary grunt work of the lab or field, necessary as that is. Sometimes Wilson seems dated, as in his adherence to the right brain-left brain dichotomy or his understanding of schizophrenia, but I don’t think that these dated conceptions have much affect on his arguments. (I am interested to learn if Leah Greenfeld’s work Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Experience of Culture on Human Experience about mental illness or Ian McGilchrist’s work on the different brain functions in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World provide any vindication of Wilson’s larger perspective.) 

I’ve read about six or eight Wilson books, and other than perhaps the first two works in the Outsider cycle (The Outsider and Religion and the Outsider), this might be the best book to jump into. Wilson’s speculations—his strength and his weakness—are tempered by his commitment to Maslow’s project and by his exposition of the history of modern psychology. Thus, we get the best of Colin Wilson’s enterprise here in a balanced, informative, and thought-provoking work.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Stand by Me: Movie Review

I didn't see Stand by Me in the theater, and while I've seen the gist of it on television, as I mentioned it in my recent Stephen King On Writing book review, I decided I should see the film in full. Also, knowing the setting, I expected that King would capture the milieu of late 50's America as few can, as I'd read do so in 11.22.63 and On Writing

In doing a bit of research, I read that King claimed that this was the first satisfactory translation of one of his books into a film. Hats off to the screenwriter who remained loyal to a strong story well told. The film really captures the goofiness of adolescent boys and of the era. Boys are weird creatures, given to bizarre beliefs, strange rites, and volatile emotions. The film captures this sense. The film works because the boys range from smart-ass know-it-alls to tearful little pups in the course of one scene to the next, as boys that age would. The strange fascinations of seeing a dead body (one of their peers), gaining fame, and claiming turf are all captured. Also captured is the adolescent boy infatuation with girls and grossness (the barf scene). This isn't adolescence seen through a gauze lens, it's adolescence as a rite of passage in 1959, as the boys get ready to go into junior high. 

The end is touching because the boys know that they will be split apart by the segregation to come. Three of them see themselves as headed into endless shop class, while the young writer (the King character you could posit) will go into the college track. In our junior high they tried to hide the tracking by not putting the "A" students in section 7A, but in section 7B instead. We were fooled for about two seconds. The "F Troop" (the title of a popular TV series at the time) knew who they were. But as the narrator reflects, it meant the end of friendships and bonds that had been forged across social boundaries, of oaths and secrets that each held dear. I had friends like that, and I share that sense of loss that you don't know quite what to do with. It's awkward at a time when everything in your life can seem awkward and unwieldy.

The young actors have the look and feel of the time and their age. Credit goes to director Rob Reiner as well as the actors for those outstanding performances. It's a fine film, well deserving of the praise it received. It's not all fun and games, although that abounds with little parental supervision. It was wilder time, in some ways more innocent, and in other ways more foolish. King and these film-makers have explored it well.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Jaipur Literature Festival author Jim Crace’s Harvest fascinated me. The book never specifies its setting of time and place, but we can discern an English village around the time of the enclosure movement. (The enclosure movement in Tudor England divided lands held in common into privately owned plots and brought sheep to replace row crops and other livestock raised on the commons.) “Walter Thirsk” tells the story of what happens in his adopted village during the course of one week during harvest time. Walter is an astute and intelligent observer of village life, his insight enhanced by the fact that he’s an outsider, having come to the village as an adult. He’s known and served the local grandee for many years, but he lives in the village with the local folk. The narrator portrays a sense of a stable equilibrium of life in the village when the book opens, although not without a sense of foreboding. Then strangers appear on the edge of the village, someone sets the grandee’s dovecot on fire, and a new claimant to the land arrives who wants to bring sheep. This cluster of events begins to eat away at the ties that bind the village into a community. 

This book might have been a novel of detection: crimes are committed, but Walther Thirsk is no William of Baskerville (The Name of the Rose). He is an intelligent but plain, common man. Walter’s narrative is that of a keen observer who attempts—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to untangle mysteries and reduce wrongs, but his efforts have only limited success. Events and intentions are too great for him to manage. He’s forced into the role of observer even as he hopes to shape events as a participant. 

I heard Crace speak a couple of times at JLF, and I recall that during the panel on the “historical novel” he said that Harvest doesn’t merit that that designation. He’s both right and wrong. Right in the sense that he never specifies the time and place nor does he reference any historical figures. But he nevertheless suggests a sense of village life that compels us back into a hazy past. Part of his success in doing so comes from his well-wrought prose, rich yet not pandering. He provides a sense of the sinews of village life and how they might be cut asunder, how a village reacts to loss, blame, and change. It’s quite a treat. I might also say it’s relevant. 

The contemporary world continues to experience accelerated change, especially for smaller, agricultural communities. In many nations, such villages still exist (I think here especially of Ethiopia), but of course also in India. These villagers will experience sudden and dramatic change—economic, cultural, social, and (therefore) political—and change does not occur easily. Many of the problems become visible in the cities. We see slums and crime. We know about the culture of unattached males that roam the streets. In India, we’re especially aware of the culture of rape, the thuggery, and susceptibility to demagoguery that have arisen among these unattached village males transplanted into cities like Delhi. But even Iowa has experienced dramatic changes with economic decline. Although separated by centuries from Crace’s imaginary village, one can appreciate the sense of disorder and loss that must occur. These ongoing events and processes make me think that Crace’s book is more than a journey into the past. It also serves as an appreciation of what still happens in the world around us.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

Why indeed? How about because it’s the best piece of literature written by an American? The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might claim the title (from me anyway), but Moby-Dick stands out. This novel, which started out as just another novel about a sea-faring voyage, morphed into something much more: a meditation on the great world. 

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the award winning In the Heart of the Sea about the whaling ship Essex tragedy that affected Melville’s work, writes a brief and perceptive appreciation of this great book. Philbrick’s book works well because his brief chapters reference scenes and characters from Moby-Dick that serve as a gateway to a deeper understanding of Melville, its time (America headed unknowingly into the crucible of the Civil War), and its characters. Each character plays a role in the drama of a ship’s crew, the great oceans, and the Universe. Philbrick reminds us that Melville has packed so much into this book some think is  "about a whale". Moby-Dick, for all its profundity, is in parts quite humorous, informational, didactic, and deeply insightful about human relations and our relation to world. Philbrick’s book reminds us of this. If, like me, you’ve only listened to it once (I’ve never read it), Philbrick’s book reminds you of why you can read it again (and again) with great profit and growing appreciation. 

If you’re wondering about why people make such a fuss about Moby-Dick, or if you read it as a youth and found it a bore, then pick-up Philbrick’s book and read it to gain insights into Melville and his great book and to motivate you to go read Melville’s masterpiece.

Postscript: I’ve listened to two of the (what I consider) three of the greatest American novels. (I also listened to Gatsby. I read Huck Finn in high school.) While I intend to go back and read Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby, I value and recommend the listening experience. The performance (more than just a reading) of Moby-Dick by Frank Muller is outstanding. It got me into a book that I had started a couple of times but that I'd become bogged down in. Now I know where I’m going. For a fine appreciation of audio books, enjoy this NYT piece by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann. By the way, I, too, have memories of passages from books that I heard associated with places. My favorite venue for listening was driving my car (not so much lately), but planes and trains work. Walking serves as a fine occasion for listening, too.

Monday, February 24, 2014

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I owe Stephen King a big, fat apology. For many years, I thought him a horror hack, someone who only writes creepy stuff for the more gullible among us. Of course, doubts crept in over the years. Several movies based on his work, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile (which I saw only about a year and half ago), and Stand by Me were all movies with compelling stories. Some, like The Green Mile, incorporate a fantastic element, but all tell compelling stories about interesting people even without a fantastic element. I was intrigued when I saw that King had written 11.22.63, and I saw that it received good reviews. As you may have read, I gave it a good review, too. So, Stephen King, I’m sorry for typecasting you, which reflects poorly on me and not at all on you. (If you, reader, retain some prejudice against the fantastic in literature, then you won't count Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or say, Italo Calvino or Garcia Marquez, among your favorite authors. Well, so be it if you insist. Just know that don’t need to go the Fantasy/SF section of the bookstore to find the fantastic.)

So how is this nonfiction book of King’s? Excellent. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is a memoir of his youth and his beginnings as a writer. As someone who, like King, grew up in America in the 50’s and 60’s, I share many of his experiences and cultural references. But King had a tougher start than I did. He was raised by a single mother (dad hit to road when Stephen was about age three), and they never had much money. But Stephen and his brother were bright and inventive. Stephen got into comic books and Tom Swift (“Junior” by Victor Appleton II, like me, or the older ones? He doesn’t say). Like many a writer, illness kept him at home one year (requiring him to repeat a grade) so he read to pass the time. Later Stephen got into horror books and movies. I’m certain he would have watched the ones that I liked to watch on late Saturday nights, like Rodan, the giant Pteranodon that comes out of the mountain and blows down miniature Japanese cities. And I’m sure he’d know the one about the giant Gila monster in the American southwest created by atomic testing. The giant lizard creeps up on teenagers parked in the desert making out, when, just as they getting intimate, the monster strikes. (“That’ll teach ’em!”) Yes, I understand much of the background of Stephen’s cultural upbringing. Now I appreciate some of the sources of his inspiration.

The second section of the book deals with “The Toolbox”: vocabulary, grammar, adverbs (he hates ‘em), and so on. The third part deals with the practicalities of writing and publishing fiction. While not quite as personal or entertaining as the first part, King never loses his sense of humor (which I quite like) or his sense of perspective. King has sold about a gazillion books, but it hasn’t seemed to have gone to his head. He did develop a drug and alcohol addiction, but he made it to the other side. He married his college sweetheart, and they raised a family and now have grandkids. King knows of his good fortune and shares his wisdom freely.

If you have any inclination to read a book about writing that’s also entertaining and personal—the not Strunk and White or F.L. Lucas type of book—this is a superb choice. Educational and edifying with some great tips that most any writer can use: cut the adverbs and cut 10% of your initial draft are my two favorite take-aways.