Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred by John Lukacs

The past as a lens on our present
I first read John Lukacs’s Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (2005) in 2006 and then again in 2009. I’ve gone back to it before for some quotes (herehere & here), but for obvious reasons I’ve returned to it again this election season. Lukacs is a sage; not infallible, but certainly wise. There are comments that he makes with which I disagree, but his breadth of knowledge and depth of insight make any disagreements tolerable and call into question my suppositions; a very good thing.

Democracy as a form of rule—rule by the people, or in the name of the people—is a relatively new phenomenon, especially on the scale of the nation-state as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before this, the people could influence rule by mob actions or rebellions, but they were not granted any formal voice in affairs. Now, as Tocqueville so presciently described, we live in an age of democracy. (And Tocqueville is Lukacs’s most important source on this topic.) Along with the rise of democracy, we see the development of (classical) liberalism and conservatism (or reaction), depending on the temper of the times and individuals. With the French Revolution, we get the idea of Left and Right, which, according to Lukacs, retains more validity than do current classifications of “liberal” or “conservative.” Conservatives today in the Republican Party are those who promote (at least until this election cycle) rampant capitalism and free-market economic ideology and tend to deplore government (military functions excepted). Liberals (Democrats) favor capitalism with a welfare state; capitalism-lite, the unwanted calories being taken out by a social safety net. But with the rise of Trumpism to the national stage in the form of a demagogue with all the markings of a huckster, we have to consider populism. And here is where Lukacs excels. For populism and nationalism have become two of the most common forms of political belief of that marked the 20th century and now the 21st.

Worthy of Tocqueville, Burkhardt & Huizinga
Lukacs draws upon his vast knowledge of 20th-century history, to distinguish different political movements. The nationalist socialism of Adolf Hitler was the most important and nearly triumphed in Europe. Lukacs explains the difference between nationalism and patriotism (not at all alike) (quote), and he essays the implications of ideas about popular sovereignty, public and popular opinion, snobbery, class distinctions, and the difference between fear and hatred that allow us to appreciate these phenomena.

Here I’ll stop and let Lukacs speak. His sentences, even in the midst of paragraphs, pages, and chapters, have aphoristic quality to them that beg for consideration on a sentence-by-sentence basis:

Is democracy the rule of the people, or, more precisely: rule by the people? No: because it is, really and actually, rule in the name of the people. (5) 

[P]erspective is an inevitable component of reality; and all perspective is, at least to some extent, historical, just as all knowledge depends on memory. (7)  

The “Right,” by and large, feared and rejected the principle of popular sovereignty. The “Left” advocated or supported or at least would propose democracy. It still does. The “Right,” for a long time, was not populist. But now often it is – which is perhaps a main argument of this book. (18)  

Hitler, for one, was an idealist not a materialist: an idealist of a dreadfully German and frightfully deterministic variety, and a believer in the power of ideas over matter. These men know how to appeal to the masses – something that would have filled Maistre with horror. They knew (as did Proudhon but not Marx) that people are moved by (and at times even worship) evidences of power, rather than propositions of social contracts. (24)  

Marx and Marxism failed well before 1989 – not in 1956 and not in 1919 but in 1914. For it was then that internationalism and class consciousness melted away in the heat of nationalist emotions and beliefs. (43)  

[Marx] entirely failed to understand what nationalism (beginning to rise all around him) was. His heavy, clumsy prose droned and thundered against Capitalism and against the State. Hardly a word about the Nation; and, of course, not even the slightest inkling (true, alas, of most political scientists even now) that State and Nation are not the same things. (43)  

This brings us to what is perhaps the fundamental Marxist (and also economic; and often liberal) misreading of human nature. This is the – alas, still near-universally prevalent – belief that the world and its human beings consist of matter, and what the latter think and believe is but the superstructure of material “reality.” But the opposite is true. (45)  

What a governs the world (and especially in the Democratic age) is not the accumulation of money, or even of goods, but the accumulation of opinions. “Opinion governs the world”: a profound truth, uttered by Pascal, more than three hundred and fifty years ago, in the age of the absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV. (45)  

That opinions can be molded, formed, falsified, inflated has always been true. But it is the accumulation of opinions the governs the history of states and of nations and of democracies as well as dictatorships in the age of popular sovereignty. (46)  

Every human event has multiple causes; and the cause-effect relationship in human events does not accord with the cause-effect relations in mechanical causality. And it is really not enough to ascertain the pathogenesis of events (as, too, in the case of physical illness); we must now attempt to find something about their etiology. (78)  

[T]he history of ideas (indeed of all human thought) is inseparable from the history of words. (117)  

Freedom and freedoms; restrictions of freedoms, the wish – or appetite – for freedom, indifference to freedoms – these are difficult and problematic matters, and perhaps especially during the democratic epoch. To regard freedom simply as an emancipation from chains, as an absence of restrictions is of course insufficient. Aristotle knew that it is more difficult to be free than not to be free. That political freedom does not exhaust the meaning of freedom ought also to be obvious. (129-130)  

That there were, after all, only a small minority of communists worldwide is but one proof of the melancholy human condition: the unwillingness of most people to change their minds, even within the site of clear and definite evidence. (133)  

I put “conservatism” within quotation marks – because there was (and still is) so much in American “conservatism” that it was (and is) not conservative at all. (151)  

As the former liberal meaning of democracy devolves toward populism, the danger of tyranny by the majority arises. . .. The majority is not inherently right for having been a properly elected majority; a majority, like an aristocratic minority, or like a monarch, may be right or wrong; and when it is wrong, to change it or its consequences may be long, arduous, while seeming hopeless. (176)  

[T]he term “P.R.” has become a part of the American vocabulary – and soon a part of many other languages. Ever since then the functioning and the “measuring” of “public opinion” and of its simulation, or manufacture, began to overlap – as in more than one instance the purposes of public relations agents and the pollsters: the generating of publicness, even more than that of “opinion.” Thus the second transportation transformation of the American political system, from popularity contests to publicity contests, had begun. (187)  

In the life of man the decline of his powers in old age more often results in his reversion to infantile habits, to a weakening of physical, and sometimes mental, controls. There may be something similar in the devolution of a people. Again the wisdom of Johan Huizinga, the worthy successor of Tocqueville and of Burkhardt is telling. “Puerileism,” he wrote in the 1920s, is “the attitude of the community whose behavior is more immature than the state of its intellectual and critical faculties would warrant, which instead of making the boy into a man adopts the conduct of that of the adolescent age.” Lamentably enough this is not an imprecise description of recent American presidents – and then some. (191)  

In our times (I wrote for than 20 years ago), toward the end of the Modern Age, the difference – indeed, the increased discrepancy – between frame and honor has become so large that in the characters of presidents and in those of most public figures in all kinds of occupation, the passion for fame has just about obliterated the now remote and ancient sense of honor. (192)  

[A]ll thinking, including imagination, involves and depends on reconstruction; because perception inevitably depends on memory; because all cognition involves, and depends on, recognition. “We live forward; but we can only think backward” (Kierkegaard). (197) 
We have seen that, among other things, “conservative” and “liberal” have lost much, almost all, of their meanings. But “Right” and “Left,” in their widest and deepest sense, still remain with us, especially at their extremes. And now let me state something that may be startling. One of the fundamental differences between extremes of Right and Left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the latter. (203)  

We have seen that sometime after 1870 that came a change. Nationalism was replacing the older forms of patriotism, and it proved to be an even stronger and more lasting bond for masses people than their consciousness about the struggle of classes. It’s extreme representations and incarnations involve more than a dislike of foreigners. It included a contemptuous hatred of people within their own countries whom such nationalists saw as being insufficiently or even treasonably nonnationalist. This is no longer an aristocratic or even a conservative phenomenon but a populist one. It appeared in a great variety of nations and states; it attracted many revolutionary young; and their opponents soon clear learned to fear them. (204) 
But while hatred amounts to a moral weakness, it can be, alas, often, and at least in the short run, a source of strength. Hence the advantage of the Right over the Left – especially in an age of democratic populism. (209)  

Bernanos: “In the spirit of revolt there is a principle of hatred or contempt for mankind. I’m afraid that the rebel will never be capable of bearing as much love for those he loves as he bears hatred for those he hates.” (As true of elements of the Left is of the Right.) (209)

I’ll stop here, although there’s much more that I could add. But the better course is for you to read the book.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Caretakers of the Cosmos by Gary Lachman

Another Lachman was on deck
At the end of my review of Gary Lachman’s Beyond the Robot, I joked that I now had a conundrum to resolve: whether to read another Lachman book next or one by Wilson. As it turned out, I had Lachman’s The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World (2013) on my Kindle, so it got the nod. Upon plunging in, I realized that I’d read it before, rather hurriedly, probably right after completing A Secret History of Consciousness. I hadn’t reviewed it, and my enthusiasm spurred by an appreciation of Beyond the Robot, I dove back in. I glad that I did.

As he demonstrated in Beyond the Robot and The Secret History of Consciousness, Lachman is a master of exposition, gathering and summarizing the thinking of scientists, philosophers, artists, and occultists with an exemplary thoroughness and economy. He conveys the message of those with whom he disagrees as well as he does for those he promotes. But in addition to the admirable exposition of thinking and history that I’ve quickly come to expect from Lachman, this is not the primary value of his book. For in addition to its exposition of a variety of thinkers and thinking about our place in the cosmos, Lachman has also written a manifesto. To sum up his manifesto in a sentence, I suggest the banner: “It’s our cosmos now, and we ought to do right by it.”

Early in the book, Lachman identifies examples of thinkers whom he believes don't do right by our (human) place in the cosmos. He singles out the French biologist Jacques Monod and the British philosopher John Gray for a more thorough consideration. And later in the book he identifiesSteven Pinker, James Lovelock, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, and John Searle as those who undervalue, if not deprecate, the role of human agency.   (These are just the names that I recognized, Lachman discusses others, too.) Each of these thinkers in some manner deprecates human agency (conscious decision-making entailing meaningful choice) by emphasizing chance or causal determinism or genetics or entropy or our physical insignificance. But as Lachman points out, if we human are so puny, insignificant, and determined, why do they spend so much time and effort trying to convince us of this? Is it worth the effort? Can you rationally persuade such determined creatures? (I will say that it can be damned hard.). What Lachman is pointing at is a performative contradiction: you contend for a proposition that your actions in making the case negate. Lachman later in the books makes the same point about extreme cultural relativism: how can one argue for all cultural values being equally valid without positing a value that entails negating cultural values that say “our way the only way”? We living, breathing human beings—not chance, genes, or some scientific principle—must make value judgments and choices that affect our world. We humans, as individuals and as a society, are the most complex entities in the known universe. I agree with Lachman: I think we’re pretty damned special. (And also often quite a wreck of a species.)

In distinction from those who hold a pinched view of the role of humans in the cosmos (a term that Lachman unpacks early in the book), Lachman details many examples of those who defend humanity’s unique position. From the myth0-poetic realm, Lachman provides examples both familiar and occult. Among the better-known accounts of humanity’s crucial role in the cosmos comes from the Jewish tradition of Kabbala.  In short, creation is purposely flawed, and humans are dispatched by God to work to set it aright by tikkun, a healing function. This line of thought, this metaphor for the imperfection manifest in the world in which we humans find ourselves, is similar that that found in the Hermetic tradition dating back to the early period of Western culture. In this tradition, Man (used traditionally as including both sexes) is part material and part spiritual and must work diligently to resolve the rift that creation has allowed to occur. Healing this rift gives humankind a divine mission. But what of those who poo-poo such accounts as the stuff of children and want good, sound science and logic? Lachman attends to these as well.

Philosopher-scientists like Henri Bergson, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead, to name three of the more well known among those mentioned, all see the cosmos and the human role as alive with consciousness and possibility in distinction from their more staid peers. Whitehead, it seems, is of particular importance because of his ideas about ‘prehension’ (a measure of experience applying even to inanimate objects) and the contrast between ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal efficacy.' But perhaps of even greater value is Lachman’s reclamation of “philosophical anthropology” in the work of three now largely neglected 20th-century philosophers, Max Scheler (1874–1928), Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), and Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948). Each of these philosophers worked in a different philosophical tradition, but each them grounded the dignity of humanity in its agency (i.e., consciousness) in addition to its biological origins. What all of these thinkers have in common is their appreciation of the importance of consciousness for apprehending the human condition and project.

Two scholars merit attention because of the importance that Lachman attaches to their work. The first is Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s identification of the hierarchy of needs, ranging up from those associated with the physical survival of the organism through those of sociability and esteem, finally up to the level of self-actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy grounds an account of human life on a narrative of an upward arc that endows life with significance and rewards. Maslow’s view contrasts with those others mentioned at the beginning of Lachman’s book (and this review) who tend to ignore or downplay the role of human striving. In writing about Maslow, Lachman also addresses one critique of Maslow: that Maslow’s emphasis on “self-actualization” comes at the expense of concern for society. On one hand, the criticism can be quickly dismissed to the extent that it assumes that self-actualization comes at the expense for regard for others; quite the contrary. Those self-actualized have a greater capacity for helping others. But a stickier problem presents itself: not everyone reaches the panicle of self-actualization. Why not? Many are called; few are chosen. To some, this is an affront to their conviction that all men [sic] are created equal and that inequality arises solely as a result of social and political failure. Lachman slights this perspective. A more nuanced approach is appropriate. Both Plato and Marx are right. Social and political injustices outside of their immediate control play a role in people’s lives. And gifts of genetic endowment and their early environment allow some individuals to climb higher on the ladder of self-actualization and to attain even spiritual heights that most people, even the wealthiest, just don’t aspire to. Lachman reports how Maslow struggled with this issue (which I’d not been aware of before), and Lachman does so as well. The conflict is a real one, especially in a time of rampant demagoguery (you know of whom I speak). The resentment, anxiety, and fear that fuels the lurch toward easy, populist policies is irrelevant—and often detrimental—to traveling the steep road of deepening and expanding consciousness. (Such policies and candidates also are almost always short-sighted if not utterly foolish.) The problem of inequality is one that goes back to Plato (and probably well before), and that does not admit to a fool-proof solution. (For recognizing and exploring the complicated relationship between social-political injustice and individual frailty (sin), I find no better guide that Reinhold Niebuhr.)

The other guide that receives (and deserves) particular attention from Lachman is Iain McGilchrist, the literature professor turned psychiatrist, and author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World. In McGilchrist’s work Lachman has a scientist who explores the cultural attitudes that allow us to fall into what Colin Wilson described as “the fallacy of insignificance.” McGilchrist’s scientific background allows him to identify and explain the structural and functional differences in the brain that endow humans with two very different modes of perceiving the world and that can easily come into conflict. Indeed, the humanist side of McGilchrist demonstrates how the history of Western civilization can be seen as a contest between these two perspectives that, when balanced, can provide explosions of artistic inventiveness and human consciousness, but when out of balance, cause suffering and dislocation. Alas, all too much of the 20th century, on into the 21st, has been marked by an imbalance that encourages the fallacy of insignificance and promotes intellectual defeatism and widespread anxiety. Thus, while McGilchrist doesn’t speak directly to the cosmic significance of the human project as do other thinkers discussed by Lachman in this book, McGilchrist’s grounding in science gives his work a unique value when looking at the most immediate realm of current life.

Finally, while realizing I’m leaving out a great deal of the figures and topics that Lachman addresses in this combination of exploration and manifesto, I want to note Lachman’s reference to the work of Owen Barfield. Lachman is no new-comer to Barfield, as I mentioned in my review of A Secret History of Consciousness, Lachman gave Barfield a lot of attention in that earlier work. In this book, Barfield’s ideas about “participation” receive attention. Barfield believes that humans have undergone—are undergoing—an “evolution of consciousness.” Early humans, arising out of the natural world, went from a sense of “direct participation” in the greater environment to the perspective of a detached observer. Now, Barfield suggests that humanity is in a position to obtain “final participation,” which reunites human consciousness with the phenomenal world. This can all seem so abstract, but in using language or in attempting to appreciate history, we find that if we cultivate our awareness of an environment and allow it to sink in, the greater the sense of the situation that we’re contemplating and participating in. John Lukacs's essay, “Putting Man Before Descartes,” uses ideas expounded by his friend Owen Barfield, and he draws upon both history and 20th-century physics, arguing that knowledge can never be “objective” or its converse, “subjective,” but it  is always “personal” and “participant.” Lukacs writes:

Knowledge, which is neither objective nor subjective, is always personal. Not individual: personal. The concept of the individual has been one of the essential misconceptions of political liberalism. Every human being is unique, but he does not exist alone. He is dependent on others (a human baby for much longer than the offspring of other animals); his existence is inseparable from his relations with other human beings.

But there is more to that. Our knowledge is not only personal; it is also participant. There is—yet there cannot be—a separation of the knower from the known. We must see further than this. It is not enough to recognize the impossibility (perhaps even the absurdity) of the ideal of their antiseptic, objective separation. What concerns—or should concern—us is something more than the inseparability; it is the involvement of the knower with the known. That this is so when it comes to the reading, researching, writing, and thinking of history should be rather obvious. Detachment from one’s passions and memories is often commendable. But detachment, too, is something different from separation; it involves the ability (issuing from one’s willingness) to achieve a stance of a longer or higher perspective. The choice for such a stance does not necessarily mean a reduction of one’s personal interest, of participation—perhaps even the contrary.

Indeed, Lukacs goes on:
And now a last step: We must recognize, contrary to all accepted ideas, that we and our earth are at the center of our universe. We did not create the universe, but the universe is our invention, and it is, as are all human and mental inventions, time-bound, relative, and potentially fallible.
Because of this recognition of the human limitations of theories, indeed, of knowledge, this assertion of our centrality—in other words, of a new, rather than renewed, anthropocentric and geocentric view of the universe—is not arrogant or stupid. To the contrary: it is anxious and modest. . . .

The known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness. The universe is such as it is because in the center of it there exist conscious and participant human beings who can see it, explore it, study it. (For those readers who believe in God: the world and this earth were created by Him for the existence and consciousness of human beings.) This insistence on the centrality and uniqueness of human beings is a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.

(Some good news: Lukacs has a new book scheduled for release next month, We Are at the Center of the Universe, which, judging by its title and the publisher’s website, will further develop his thoughts on this topic.)

Thus, through the musings of another great thinker, Barfield’s insights gain new credence and application.

In the end, as a formal matter, I take the position of agnostic on the issue of the ultimate or cosmic significance of my life and that of my fellow humans,  past, present, and future. Such an ultimate conclusion, like some of the greatest issues confronting human existence, may be unknowable, at least to a limited, fallible, and spiritually myopic person such as me. However, drawing on Pascal and William James, I shan’t let this stop me. From Pascal, I’ll take the idea of a wager; not on the existence or non-existence of God or of heaven and hell, but on a more immediate issue: the value of a significant versus an insignificant life. Is a life informed by a sense of significance, whether emanating from the love of family and friends and community—even without cosmic significance—better than a life without significance and meaning? I can’t have read and attempted to digest so much of Gary Lachman or Colin Wilson—to name just two immediate culprits—not to answer with a resounding, affirmative “Yes!” And from William James, I take the will to believe. James, in the midst of a disabling ennui, chose to believe in free will and in his ability to make choices and improve—and he did. Thus, we can opt to say “Yes” to life, to meaning and significance even without an assurance of an ultimate guaranty. We can endow life—even the quotidian affairs of daily life—with meaning and significance that will give us the ability to carry on, and perhaps find even more meaning and significance emerge in our lives. The emergence of meaning and significance is the story of humankind (which Lachman addresses and I’ve shortchanged here). Humans have become more significant, more free, and more vital over the course of human civilization. Progress? In some measure, certainly; guaranteed? Not in the least. But in the end, I think Lukacs is right: we humans—frail, sinful, ignorant (chose your term) are at the center of the world, even the Universe, and we should get to it. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Beyond the Robot: The Life & Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman

Lachman on Wilson: a perfect fit
In my reflections about Colin Wilson written at the time I learned of his death in 2013, I remarked on the extent of Wilson’s publications and how I wished that someone would make a compendium of his work, sorting out what I referred to as “the junk” it included. (A description that I now regret.) When I reviewed Gary Lachman’s The Secret History of Consciousness, I described how both Lachman and I had encountered and appreciated the works of Colin Wilson, and I how believed the Lachman would inherit the mantle of leadership from his friend Colin Wilson in the field of exploration of human consciousness. Now, with the publication of Lachman’s biography of Wilson, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016), my conjectures and wishes are in large measure fulfilled. While Lachman has not edited a compendium of Wilson’s writings (other have done this), he’s used his formidable powers to survey Wilson’s life and work, thereby making Wilson’s life-long project accessible in one volume. It is a task that Lachman is supremely qualified to perform, and one that he succeeds in wonderfully.

For those unfamiliar with Colin Wilson, in 1956 this young Brit from a working class family burst onto the British literary scene with his book, The Outsiders. Without benefit of a college education (or as he might put it, with the benefit of no college education), Wilson wrote and published a work that discussed famous individuals, such as T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, Nijinsky, and others, who did not fit into society. The book became a sensation and brought Wilson into association (involuntarily) with a collection of young British writers dubbed “The Angry Young Men.” But by having flown too high too soon—and perhaps also based on British class snobbery—Wilson fell just as quickly from favor. Ove the course of his career, Wilson would suffer a roller coaster ride of acclaim and derision (although outside of Britain, particularly in the Middle East and Japan, he gained wide, continued popularity). But while castigations in the public eye were discouraging, Wilson was a man on a mission, a mission that continued to keep him working until a stroke finally deprived him of his ability to write until a couple of years before his death at age 82.

What Wilson wrote about seemed to be “everything,” at least to the casual observer. But, as Lachman demonstrates, a thread of concerns and interests runs throughout Wilson’s writings. That interest centers around human consciousness and how we can make our consciousness work for our benefit and not to our detriment. As someone who has read 11 of his books (as best as I can recollect), I knew about this thread, but since he’d published over 100 books (yes, you read that correctly), I thought that the others went off on a different track. I was interested in philosophy and psychology, while Wilson also wrote literary criticism, biographies, about crime (especially murder), unusual sexual practices, the occult and paranormal, and lost civilizations. Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and so on; I’m all in. But poltergeists, Atlantis, and grisly murders? No thanks.  But here is where Lachman’s work proved especially worthwhile for me. For while Wilson, who loved to spend his money on books, classical recordings, and wine (not a bad way to blow through money), was forced to write to keep ahead of this banker, he nevertheless always chose subjects that centered on important issues of human consciousness and intentions. His works would always find a way to explore further the mind involved in human conduct and thinking. Wilson was first and foremost a thinker, a man of ideas, and that was always the impetus behind his investigations.

I had a copy of The Occult, Wilson’s first foray into the paranormal, that remained unread on my bookshelf until it was dispatched in the great pruning before left to live abroad. On such topics, along with those concerning extraterrestrials and lost civilizations, I considered myself an open-minded skeptic. But perhaps the aptest description of my attitude was that of a prototypical American as described by William James: I just couldn’t see the cash value of such topics. Wilson, even with his extensive investigations into these topics—and his eventual acceptance of the reality of some of the phenomena—saw the limits of its usefulness. As Lachman explains:

[Wilson] was not entirely skeptical, but he felt that people get interested in the occult for the wrong reasons, a sadly true reflection. He had spoken with many spiritualists and while he believed in their sincerity, it was the triviality of their interest in life after death, as well as the kind of life that was supposed to be, that repelled him. Compared to the concerns of philosophy or science it was, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “all too human,” too personal and small. A look at most spiritualist literature can, I think, confirm this. Wilson knew that “our life can offer a reality and an intensity” in this world now, compared to which most religious or supernatural solutions to its mysteries seem irrelevant.23 It was this belief that had led to his new existentialism. Saying that the answer to the mystery of existence is that we in some way survive bodily death seemed to miss the point.

Gary Lachman, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, loc. 4145

And as Lachman writes of himself:

My own feeling is that, taken in isolation, some of the claims made about advanced prehistoric civilizations may not be convincing—some are outright unbelievable—but as with the paranormal, when added up they do seem persuasive and I see nothing wrong in accepting the strong possibility that something along these lines is the case.

Gary Lachman, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, loc. 8201

After reading these and other comments, I was encouraged that Lachman and Wilson both hold a healthy degree of skepticism about such topics, along with an appreciation of the limited usefulness of such knowledge. I hold a better opinion of Wilson’s efforts along these and many other diverse lines of inquiry. As Lachman notes, Wilson was much more like a journalist than a scientific investigator when writing about unusual phenomena. He was not a scholar or a scientist, but an original thinker who was very effective at researching via books and interviews, but not in culling results up to scholarly or legal standards. The mind and its workings are what interested Wilson.

Indeed, Wilson’s work as a philosophic and psychological thinker remains of the greatest value. Someone who’s lived a modicum of life and who has an inquiring mind fertilized—usually by reading—by other thoughtful minds and who can write (as Wilson did fluently) can think philosophically and psychologically. But sound scholarship and scientific investigations require more specialized and rigorous training that Wilson did not have. Thus, readers have to sort through a lot of information that may not be reliable—and topics such as the paranormal or ancient civilizations reveal only disconnected bits of evidence—therefore making speculations—mostly ungrounded—run rampant. Wilson seemed to have known this and appreciated the limitation, but accounts about these topics allowed him to speculate, which is what he did well.

Lachman has deftly melded Wilson’ life into his thought, which is fitting for a man so intoxicated with attempting to resolve life’s greatest challenges. Wilson’s most significant work was done on the page, so the events of his life, especially after he published his first book, become secondary to his thoughts. Also, Wilson provided accounts of his life in several of this books, so that the tale of his early years was a familiar one and comparatively easy for a biographer. Lachman also has the advantage of having morphed from an admirer to a friend to a fellow writer. Lachman obviously admired, liked, and learned from his subject, a trajectory that no doubt helped sustain him through the challenge of writing this book. Even Lachman, now an experienced and capable writer, obviously had to toil long and mightily to publish such a thorough study of such a prolific and wide-ranging author.

There are two compliments that I can make about this book provide some measure of its success in telling the story of Colin Wilson. First, if someone told me that they wanted to know about Colin Wilson and his thought, and asked: “What book should I read first?” I might suggest instead that she read Lachman’s biography first, and then she could jump into whichever of Wilson’s works that most seemed to capture her fancy. Lachman pretty much has it all covered.

My second compliment comes by way of a conundrum. What should I read next, a book by Colin Wilson or one by Gary Lachman? A delightful conundrum to contemplate!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Venting: Polls, Voters, & Demcracy

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” --Winston Churchill

I have to admit that that Churchill's witticism strikes me as especially pertinent as I read about Trump closing on Hillary Clinton's lead in the polls. The thought of it spirals me into a despondent mood. 

How could voters be so foolish and fickle? (And thus by this statement I signal my intention never to run for public office.) 

What has changed since Clinton held a wide lead over Trump? Trump has reduced the number of offensive statements that he makes, but his lies (e.g., about the support of the Iraq War), demonstrably poor judgment (Putin as a role model for an American president), and policy howlers keep pouring forth from his mouth and Twitter account. Clinton, on the other hand, did make a traditional gaffe in saying that half of Trump supporters were a "basket of deplorables," a statement that is certainly in some measure true, even if the mathematical qualifier may not be exact--if anything it may be too low. Politicians aren't supposed to utter such comments regardless of their veracity. Ask Mitt Romney. Trump, on the other hand, has issued so many insults that by dint of sheer volume many people, including the media, no longer consider them. 

Clinton also suffered the misfortune of becoming ill from an infectious disease at a time when right-wing rumor machines were touting speculations about her ill-health. That Secretary Clinton is a private person not eager to expose her entire life to public scrutiny is understandable, but it's terribly difficult in an age where voyeurism is confused (in some measure purposefully) with transparency. Trump, in terms that reflect his usual braggadocio, claims to be in excellent health. Of greatest concern about him, of course, is his brain function. His seeming inability to focus, to form complex sentences, and to read challenging material--all handy attributes for a president--should alarm us far more than a case of viral pneumonia. 

Clinton has also suffered from the peripheral or non-issues of her email account and the Clinton Foundation. An incredible amount of digging has turned up nothing of merit or disqualification. Meanwhile, Trump's business and "charitable" (really, the quotes are necessary) activities raise the gravest of questions about his character, not to mention their legality. And then there are his tax returns. What a fakir! 

So what does all of this amount to? In short, Donald Trump has become no more qualified to become president than he ever was--and he began at unqualified. And Hillary Clinton has become no less qualified. (President Obama is right: her resume of qualifications is second to none, including his and Bill's). So what is going on here? 

This is where I must reference the quote above, and I must venture my thoughts about the value of democracy. The demos, the vox populi, "the people," are once again demonstrating their inability to make complex, justified political decisions. The Founders of the American constitutional regime feared pure democracy and hoped to be able to create a viable republic (see Madison's Federalist No. 10 for details). Their fear of democracy arose from deep reflection on classical, Renaissance, and English history. Perhaps it's time to begin thinking about the drawbacks again. In fact, in choosing presidents, a mass vote of those Americans who bother to vote (consistently less than 65% of those eligible) treat the exercise as they would a beauty contest, with the appearance of congeniality and the ability to strike poses as the defining features upon which to base their choice. (Thank goodness we don't have to see Donald Trump in a swimsuit!) Policy is a preached, but of real concern to only a few. Given this state of affairs, it's no wonder that we have the most grossly unqualified candidate for president nominated by a major party in the 20th century. (Sorry, Warren G. Harding.) 

But I still retain the hope that a majority of American voters will emerge from this mix of adolescent tantrum and romantic infatuation to make a mature choice. And let me be clear: I'm not a Pollyanna claiming that everything is just fine; it's not. Voters have real reasons for concerns and dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. But things could become much, much worse with such a loose cannon as Trump in the White House. And with wiser policies--many of which Clinton advocates--we can improve our nation. 

But my faith in mass electoral democracy is deeply shaken. This pattern of foolish radicalism is becoming apparent throughout the world. Poor electoral choices could trigger a massive system crisis that could plunge most of the world into a crisis, either acute or smoldering. Improving our democratic system, even if requires making it ostensibly less democratic, may be necessary to protect it. It's something that we all ought to be thinking about. 
A final thought from the master

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." --Winston Churchill in 1947, not too long after having been voted out of office near the conclusion of the Second World War. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Deluge: The Great War, America & the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze

Published 2014, 518 pages of text
Just a century ago, Europe was reeling from the destruction of the First World War. In the summer of 1916, the British initiated with Battle of the Somme with great aspirations and an immense artillery barrage. The results of their efforts included an astronomical number of casualties and no strategic gain. The course and eventual outcome of the war remained in doubt, but one thing no longer remained in question: neither of the two conflicting sides could maintain the level of dedication of manpower and resources to the conflict without threatening the very basis of their state and society. From this point forward, the states and maps of Eurasia would change, and a new, non-Eurasian power—the United States—would step into the forefront of leading world powers.

The story of these changes have been told before, of course, but Tooze’s book does an outstanding job of tracking the shifting players and constraints upon those players. As the war eventually came to a stop—I think that “conclusion” would prove too strong a word—the parties had to establish a new world order while in the midst of political and social revolutions, extremes of inflation and deflation, and continuing security concerns. Students of international relations will find evidence for every theory of IR, including realism, balance-of-power, institutionalism, geopolitics, political economy, and domestic effects. That many policies were tried and failed seems easier to understand when one has a survey of all of the conflicting demands and considerations placed on policy-makers during this period.

The U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia/Soviet Union, China, and Japan are the major players in this drama. Each of these nation-states was affected by a variety of ideologies, perceptions, and needs. The U.S., under Woodrow Wilson, wanted to stay out of the fray and reap the eventual rewards of having done so, but events—German U-boat attacks—dragged the U.S. into the war. But before that time the U.S. had already become a major actor by financing much of the Allied war effort. With the coming of the Armistice, Wilson’s mix of liberal internationalism and self-righteousness made for significant changes in everything except direct U.S. participation in the new order. The British saw their financial leadership slip away while they fretted over the viability of their Empire, especially given events in Ireland and India. France came out of the war deeply crippled by physical destruction and with an unresolved concern of its security vis-a-vi Germany. Germany, meanwhile, suffered threats of violent revolution and civil war, with Communists and Hitler’s efforts first after the war, only to survive these and then enter into an economic roller-coaster. Russia in the form of the Romanov dynasty collapsed, and out of it came the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union. The new regime led by Lenin had to sue for peace and attempt to establish internal order and secure borders while establishing and maintaining a working government and ideology. China hoped to gain freedom from Western domination and a place at the table while it still lacked a viable national government. And Japan teetered back and forth between liberal internationalists and military imperialists.

 I could go on; my list is a sample, but it should give some sense of the complexity and magnitude of change in which governments were operating. Tooze’s account, a chronological narrative, sometimes seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, but that’s how events unfolded. Imagine the problems perceived by decision-makers operating in real time!

You have no doubt noted that the nations that I mentioned above and upon which Tooze’s account focuses, are still the predominant players on the world stage today. This is all the more fascinating given the forces of change that are yet to come after Tooze’s account ends in 1931. Of course, the relative power and influence of the players have changed, Britain declining and China sharply rising, but we know that there will no longer be a British or Hapsburg empire. (Russian? There are certainly some aspirations there.)

In reading the 518 pages of Tooze’s account, I felt a bit like I was reading a potboiler, with a new plot twist arising with the turn of each page. But that’s the way the world was. And although I had some familiarity with the events, I certainly learned a lot and gained a much deeper knowledge and understanding of how events unfolded. For instance, Wilson’s problems in the U.S. were not so much a matter of isolationism as it was a more nationalistic sense of its proper international role held by those such as Henry Cabot Lodge. Also, the peace treaties and arms limitations agreements negotiated during the 1920s were not just wishful thinking. Also, Tooze, an economic historian by training, mixes realities of political economy with diplomatic negotiations to provide a more comprehensive sense of the dynamics behind the political maneuvering.

Tooze: Not your tweedy professor
This is an excellent book for understanding the effort to construct a new international order in the wake of the First World War. It ultimately failed with the dislocation caused by the Great Depression (leaders take note!) and the rise of aggressive dictatorships based on lethal cocktails of nationalism, militarism, and racism, which led to an even greater, wider conflagration. If history ever needed to establish its cash value (which it shouldn’t have to do), this work would provide a compelling exhibit to help prove the proposition of history’s value. Any leader in a major nation-state would benefit from appreciating the experiences of these leaders who tried to shape the contemporary world. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The journey concluded
Upon finishing The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor, I felt both a sense of accomplishment for having finished a trilogy of books, but also a sense of loss, for having completed this reading journey. I would be losing a delightful traveling companion. The trip was a joy; the parting, wistful.

But all readers of Fermor’s trilogy should be thankful that we have a final volume. For after publishing the second installment, Fermor was unable to write this final volume. Perhaps the Saturnalian drags of aging, such as the death of his spouse, declining energy and memory, and homesickness robbed him of the necessary vitality to complete his task. However, a fortuitous event allowed this project to go forward, with the participation of Fermor before he died in 2011 at age 96. In short, Fermor began writing about his journey in the 1960s, but he set aside this initial account that focused on the final leg of this journey. The discovery of this manuscript, along with the recovery of some of his diaries, allowed this book to be completed. The editors, Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron, detail how the book came to publication in their Introduction. We are fortunate to have this volume, although the circumstances of its coming into existence distinguish it from its two predecessors, making it different in intriguing ways.

The account of the last leg of Paddy’s journey is different from the first two because this work is not completed by Fermor. The prose in this work isn’t as highly polished as that in the first two installments. But this lack of polish isn’t at all detrimental to the work. The narrative moves more quickly, and one gets a stronger sense of Fermor’s first impressions. For writers and curious readers, the comparison of this work with its two predecessors provides intriguing insights into Fermor’s meticulous writing, which results—when fully polished—into exquisite, almost Baroque prose. Yet this less polished gem has stands well on its own.

Of special interest to me was the fact that a great deal of this volume recounting the final leg of Fermor’s journey involves Romania and Bucharest, in particular. I was delighted to learn of Fermor’s great time in Bucharest because I am finding it a very amiable and beautiful city. Bucharest in the 1930s was lively and prosperous, and Fermor makes the most of it. He befriends both prostitutes and diplomats, deploying his usual charm and displaying his admirable ability to move easily between social classes. Of course, descriptions of Calea Victoriei (a main thoroughfare in the Bucharest), just a block away from our apartment, furthered my enjoyment of his account.

After leaving Bucharest, Paddy once again heads south across the Danube into Bulgaria, where new adventures await him. Here he recounts some of the tough times that he had, unlike most of the account  of his journey. For instance, he describes a scuffle with a friend that seems to rise out of nowhere, and he describes becoming lost and hurt as night falls along the Black Sea coastline. These unexpected dangers remind us that while Fermor enjoyed great fun and adventures along the way, his trip was not without its challenges.

Fermor’s account stops midsentence just a few days from his eventual arrival in Istanbul (or Constantinople as he insisted on calling it). The editors provide some account of his time there by use of his diary, but I feel a bit let down not having the benefit of Fermor’s full account of his initial entry and observations of this great city. But while Istanbul gets shortchanged, the reader is in for one final treat.

The editors include entries from Paddy’s diary of his trip to Mount Athos, the holy land of Greece filled with Orthodox monasteries and where no women are allowed. Fermor went there after about two weeks in Istanbul. The use of Paddy’s diary provides a less mature reflection on his surroundings and even less polish in his prose. But the sense of immediacy compensates for the reduction in reflection and polish. We only get the 20-year-old Paddy in this account, not the mature Fermor. We experience first-draft observations about the monastic traditions, icons, and people that Paddy encounters, as well as his descriptions of the natural beauty of the stony, forested land and the shining Aegean Sea. We experience Paddy’s growing comfortable in the monastic routine. I only wish he had been more forthcoming about what he thought of these cloistered men and the lives that they lead. We also learn that Paddy traveled there after famed British travel writer Robert Byron and Byron’s friend David Talbot Rice had done so in the 1920s.  Paddy notes having received a gift of Byron’s The Stations: Travels to the Holy Mountain, about Byron’s visit, given to Paddy by one of the monks described in the book and who’d received this inscribed copy from Byron. Paddy’s description of his enjoyment of Byron’s book makes me want to read it, as well.

So it ends. We might well have been stranded at the end of Between the Woods and Water, but through some good fortune and the efforts of Cooper and Thubron, we have a satisfying—surprisingly satisfying—conclusion of this marvelous journey. It has been a pleasure.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Every Nation For Itself by Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World (2012/2013 new preface) shows why even seasoned observers of international politics and trends might have a hard time in the book publishing business. (I bought my copy at a remainder store). Events outrun the ability of their books to keep up. History, in contrast, deals with the past and allows reality to create the future. But for prognosticators like Bremmer, attempting to discern how current circumstances will affect tomorrow’s headlines is a very iffy business.

But having said this, Bremmer’s primary point, that we have no one single nation currently dominant on the world stage, is undoubtedly true and will remain so for some time in the future. The U.S. remains the single most powerful nation, but its position is no longer as predominant as it was at the end of the Cold War.  Bremmer doesn’t posit this as a matter of absolute decline but as a matter of the realization of limits generated by internal political realities (a sharply polarized electorate and elites) and concerns about spending limits. In recognizing America’s relative decline, he sounds much like Fareed Zakaria in The Post-American World: Release 2.0 (International Edition) (2011), who emphasizes changing circumstances and not an absolute decline of the U.S. But here’s where I think that Bremmer’s analysis shows signs of instant aging. His emphasis on debt—remember he first publishes around 2012—seems much less imperative today. Of course, the U.S. must mind its financial house and avoid mounting indebtedness, but (relatively) strong economic growth has at least taken the edge off of financial limits to American power. What I hope is a more important reason for increasing American hesitation is a sense of the dangers of imperial (or hegemonic, if you prefer) overreach. President Obama’s sense of limits and attempts to avoid unnecessary or entangling engagements are the embodiment of what may be a coming of age of American sensibilities (whatever the merits of any one decision, such as Syria). Of course, part of a growing American forbearance is a general fatigue and reluctance on the part of the voting public to go deeper into foreign engagements, especially military. The negative flip side of this attitude, however, is a growing willingness to walk away from trade agreements and other forms of international cooperation. These factors, much more than debt, seem to me to drive current U.S. reluctance and limits concerning international leadership.

The other factor that Bremmer identifies---and that remains important—is the limited ability of any other nation to step up as a dominant leader. China continues to grow in power and prestige, but the leadership’s concern with internal issues and a lingering Chinese reluctance to venture too far abroad remain substantial impediments to China taking a more aggressive leadership role on the international stage. Russia, on the other hand, seeks a restoration of its past role, but Putin’s aggressive stances are now constrained by weak oil prices and a sagging economy, not to mention a limited popular appeal (Donald Trump, excepted, of course). The Soviet Union was able to gain some traction on the world stage as the embodiment of a utopian ideal, although that patina faded as the truth came out over the drip of time. But Putin’s Russia holds no allure as a model, except for aspiring dictators. The EU, another possible player, remains reeling from its failure to recover from the 2008 economic crash, the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, Islamic terrorism, and now Brexit. The EU was never much of a coherent foreign affairs presence (outside of trade considerations), but now it must focus all of its energy on attempting to retain internal coherence.

Bremmer also notes that some regional powers, like Brazil and Turkey, might step up to prestige and power, but this shows the perils of his endeavor. Since publication, both nations have encountered serious political instability and retain a strong potential for unrest. Brazil has just impeached their president. After having survived a coup attempt, President Erdogan of Turkey has taken the opportunity to consolidate his power, to the long-term detriment of Turkey.

Another area that Bremmer failed to foresee is the uptick in terrorism in Europe, and how that will affect the political balance there. The increasing votes that right-wing parties are garnering reflect anxieties arising from economic stagnation, immigration worries, and terrorism. Of course, some threats, like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, bring nations together (e.g., Allied Powers, NATO), but others, such a trade and immigration, can pull them apart. All of these factors are important in the U.S., too. Who wants to make any prediction about the future course of U.S. policy and conduct if (Heaven forbid!) Donald Trump is elected president?

What Bremmer has produced here, as others like him do, is a snapshot of our current state of affairs, and a fairly accurate one, I think. But imagine a snapshot of the world taken in 1909 (and perhaps Norman Angell’s The Grand Illusion might serve as such a snapshot). Then look at the world after the gunshot in Sarajevo fired on 28 June 1914. That one, almost random event, turned the Eurasian landmass (and beyond) into a great battlefield between 1914 and 1945 (with no real resolution until 1989). Of course, some predicted war, in contrast to Angell, but they may have been more lucky than prescient. (If “lucky” is an appropriate about such a macabre topic.) Society—the everyday world in which we live—is a complex system in which seemingly random, Black Swan events, even those of seemingly little consequence, can send the world careening into an abyss of violence. The snapshot is useful, but to make decisions, it’s best to consult the long panorama of history. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Those who’ve read my blog or who’ve been around me, know of my enthusiasm for the writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor, especially his most famous work, A Time of Gifts. After learning about this author and his work at JLF (Jaipur Literature Festival), I read A Time of Gifts. After our second visit to JLF, where I heard his biographer, Artemis Cooper and her husband, Antony Beevor, both speak about Fermor, I bought the remaining two books of this trilogy for my Kindle.

But I didn’t read them. Why not?

          For some time, if you’d have asked me I would have attributed this to my fickle reading habits—so many books, so little time—I’m like a kid in a candy shop. Plus, one enthusiasm gives way to another with changing circumstances and then I’m off down another path. All of this is true, but I don’t think it quite captures the deeper motive for my procrastination. After all, am I not too old to suffer the comparison to a kid in a candy shop? (Well, not really.) But after further reflection, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I was savoring the anticipation of the next installment, Between the Woods and the Water. I needed the right occasion, as one does for the enjoyment of a fine wine kept for years in the cellar. (Or, as our modest circumstances dictate, a pretty good wine for a couple of months in the cupboard.) I needed the right occasion to partake once again of Fermor’s enchanting—and may I say? —intoxicating prose. And this summer the right occasion arrived.

          The occasion arrived because we were moving t0 Bucharest, Romania. Not long after arriving in Bucharest, we traveled to Budapest, Hungary, returning to Bucharest by train through Transylvania, an itinerary that roughly matched that of Fermor (although he doesn’t visit Bucharest until the third and final volume of his account). The perfect occasion presented itself, and I once again could savor the superb vintage of Fermor’s prose. 

Passport photo of the dashing young vagabond
          For those that don’t know the backstory, young Patrick Leigh Fermor—Paddy to his friends—set off at age 18 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as he insisted on calling Istanbul). In 1977 he published the first installment of his account of that adventure, A Time of Gifts, and in 1986 he published this, the second installment, Between the Woods and the Water. (The third and final volume stalled and was published posthumously through the efforts of Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron.) In each volume he recounts his walk, taking his time along his and the reader’s way to elucidate about the countryside, the history, and the people with whom he inevitably makes an easy but lasting bond. Paddy sleeps in elegant Budapest homes, in gypsy camps, and in old Transylvanian estate houses; in other words, with those at the pinnacle of society and those at the bottom. Paddy’s fabled charm and easygoing manner allow him to bond at every level.

The man of memory & imagination
          For us to have just recently visited the grand environs of Budapest and the dark forests and sunny valleys of Transylvania adds a unique—but not necessary—vividness to his tales. With Fermor’s graceful and vivid prose, transports the reader to his remote and enchanted world via the written word. Between the Woods and the Water is not a diary—although he kept diaries and drew upon what he had available to him so many years later—and so we have the perspective of both the young Fermor and the mature, reflective Fermor in these pages. A double treat, a two-for-the-price-of-one.

          Fermor can describe nature scenes as few others can; for instance, watching an eagle preen itself takes the better part of a page. He also details the history and architecture of the regions, cities, villages, and estates that he visits. And not least among his skills are his descriptions of the gypsies, shepherds, aristocrats, bon vivants, and beautiful women that he befriends, and his adventures with them. His powers of observation, imagination, and memory are astonishing. Perhaps his power of invention is most impressive of the three, as one doubt that anyone’s memory could be so fine as his, but no matter—the beauty of his prose patches all into one seamless cloth of beauty that disarms any quibbling about the veracity of memory.

          Except for riding horseback across the Hungarian plain and motoring around Transylvania as a part of a clandestine threesome, Paddy walked the full journey.

          Fermor also delights in language, picking up bits of Hungarian and some Romanian along his way after having earlier mastered some German. (I believe he came pre-loaded with French and Latin. The Latin, by the way, came in handy in a later adventure.) He delights in the local languages as he does the local architecture and history.

          Fermor’s book is a joy to read, even more so given my recent acquaintance with some of the lands he traverses in this installment. He ends Between the Woods and the Water with “to be concluded” similar to the “to be continued” that ended A Time of Gifts, but as you’ll learn, it almost didn’t come to pass.