Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Confederation of Souls

Pereira Declares by Antonio Tabucchi
I'm nothing.     
I'll always be nothing.
I can't want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.
Windows of my room,
The room of one of the millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?)

               Álvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa)

The médecins-philosophes were a revolutionary group of French physician-philosophers who, throughout the latter half of the 18th century, sought to combine the best medical practices of the day with the prevailing philosophical thinking. Among their most well-known notions was that of the confederation of souls, the theory that every human being is comprised, not of a single discrete soul, but of numerous souls, all of which are governed by a single ruling ego.   

Pereira Declares is a brilliant short novel set in Portugal, in Lisbon in the summer of 1938, near the start of the grim, fascist regime of António Salazar, the story of a lonely, overweight journalist and widower named Dr. Pereira who is content just to keep his head down by writing a culture page for a small, conservative newspaper called Lisboa, translating an occasional short story from the French, and spending his afternoons eating and drinking at his favorite café. Never interested politics, he doesn’t want to cause trouble, he doesn’t want to make waves.

One day, while in conversation at his favorite cafe, his friend, Dr. Cardoso, introduces him to the work, the thinking, of the médecins-philosophes, explaining to him in summary that “…within us we each have numerous souls…a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego… It may be,” continues Dr. Cardoso, “that after slowly nibbling away in you some ruling ego is gaining the chieftainship of your confederation of souls, Dr. Pereira, and there’s nothing you can do about it except perhaps give it a helping hand whenever you get the chance.” It is an idea that intrigues him, but to which he gives little attention until he makes the acquaintance of a young man named Monteiro Rossi, whom he decides to recruit for the newspaper in order to create an archive of “advance obituaries on the writers of our times.” It is an encounter that marks a tuning point in his otherwise safe and apathetic life, drawing him swiftly into the heart of the politically dangerous times. While initially resistant to the call of this new ruling ego within himself, insisting to Rossi, “I am neither one of you, nor one of them, I prefer to keep to myself,” he is finally forced to commit himself, to enter the world, to act at last in the name of a matters greater, more lasting than himself. 

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Balkan Ghosts

Girl at War, Sara Nović (fiction)

The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder (not fiction)

Though we could not have known it at the time, the war and "ethnic cleansing"--that is, genocide--in Yugoslavia foreshadowed all that was to come following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The patched-together, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot Yugoslavia was itself the creature of another empire's implosion--the Austro-Hungarian, which was, in turn, the mid-nineteenth century remnant of the great Hapsburg Empire founded in 1279.  Large, ungainly conglomerations of people never endure; tribalism trumps cosmopolitanism; hopeful chatter about how people of different "races and religions" can "put away their differences" and "live together in peace" have proven time and again to be illusion.  The horror that erupted in the Balkans in 1991was mostly ignored in the West until the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

Timothy Snyder demonstrates with his usual clarity and enormous erudition--he reads not only the usual European languages but also Polish and Russian--that the Russia of Putin was founded, with sclerotic assistance from Boris Yeltin and the ever-naive West, as an embodiment of eternal principles, that is of idea related to the fascist's disbelief in historical change, in liberal progress, in the dialectic processes that underpin republicanism and democracy. Putin is of course the new Tsar, but, more than that, he embodies Ivan Ilyin's view that history isn't about people at all, rather it is about the recovery of Divine Will as personified by an absolute ruler--a fascist prince not unlike Mussolini, Hitler, or Putin himself.  A ruler who brooks no opposition, no compromise, no critics.

Ilyin, as Snyder shows, is the hero of the New Russia, the court philosopher and, though dead, its guiding light. Of course unquestioning obedience suits a kleptocracy perfectly, and those who worry that any democratic compromises will undercut their power are naturally drawn to the rabid thinkers like Ilyin who loathed any form of popular governance. *

Girl at War, Sara Nović's strong debut novel, answers, with great empathy, the question: "What happens to the victims of war?" We might read about unspeakable crimes--as with the Balkan war, massacres, mass graves, torture centers, rape--but don't have a clue as to how those who survive carry on with their lives. Nović's "girl," the resolute and courageous thirteen-year-old Ana Juric, watches Zagreb, her home, succumb to the Serbian Cetniks (or Chetniks), an ultra-rightest, Serbian nationalist group committed to the "ethnic cleansing" of what they considered "greater Serbia." Her own family falls victim to a Serbian militia, and she finds herself living, and fighting, with the Croatian resistance. A remarkable, yet credible set of circumstances sees Ana rescued from the fighting and sent to live in the United States with the family that has already adopted her younger sister.  

The central section of this triptych of a novel is set ten years after Ana's rescue and describes her difficulty--one can well imagine it--adjusting to a the normal life of an American college student.  We understand that overcoming memory is impossible, and that returning to Zagreb offers Ana the only hope she has of finding--what? People like to say "closure," but what does that mean? "Healing" isn't an option. I think of Ana's return to the scenes of the crimes committed against her and her family as a validation of her identify. She is no longer Croatian, nor is she American; rather she is one of the millions--a number that grows daily--of the victims of war, of forced migration and displacement, of ethnic and tribal hatreds that give the lie to the fantasy of globalism and cosmopolitanism.  

Girl at War powerfully evokes recent history in retelling Ana Juric's story, but the novel is important because its theme is universal. Victors have short memories; it is the victims who are obliged to keep the past alive for the rest of us. 

"Now I'm retired, but I'm still in a good mood to kill people," asserts Vojislav Carkic, an Orthodox priest who served with the Chetniks during the Yugoslav war.  God's work, in this priest's view, remains unfinished so long as there are non-Serbs--Muslims and Catholics--in God's Serbia.  This was what Ilyin had in mind back in the 1930's, a righteous Holy War of the Orthodox--Russians in Ilyin's case--a war to cleanse God's earth of sinners and unbelievers.  That war continues.

George Ovitt (June 3, 2018)

*I don't believe that quoting Ilyin makes Putin, or anyone else, a fascist just as, for example, quoting Heidegger doesn't make someone a Nazi. There are other grounds for thinking Putin's government is most akin to fascist governments of the past. Some of the arguments are to be found in Snyder, but others may be found in Masha Gesson's most recent book, The Future is History.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

When You Come From Water

      “Atlas” by Terisa Siagatonu

      If you open up any atlas
      and take a look at a map of the world,
      almost every single one of them
      slices the Pacific Ocean in half.
      To the human eye,
      every map centers all the land masses on Earth
      creating the illusion
      that water can handle the butchering
      and be pushed to the edges
      of the world.
      As if the Pacific Ocean isn’t the largest body
      living today, beating the loudest heart,
      the reason why land has a pulse in the first place.

      The audacity one must have to create a visual so
     violent as to assume that no one comes
      from water so no one will care
      what you do with it
      and yet,
      people came from land,
      are still coming from land,
      and look what was done to them.

      When people ask me where I’m from,
      they don’t believe me when I say water.
      So instead, I tell them that home is a machete
      and that I belong to places
      that don’t belong to themselves anymore,
      broken and butchered places that have made me
      a hyphen of a woman:
      a Samoan-American that carries the weight of both
      colonizer and colonized,
      both blade and blood.

      California                          stolen.
      Samoa                                        sliced in half                                          stolen.
      California, nestled on the western coast of the most powerful
      country on this planet.
      Samoa, an island so microscopic on a map, it’s no wonder
      people doubt its existence.
      California, a state of emergency away from having the drought
      rid it of all its water.
      Samoa, a state of emergency away from becoming a saltwater cemetery
      if the sea level doesn’t stop rising.
      When people ask me where I’m from,
      what they want is to hear me speak of land,
      what they want is to know where I go once I leave here,
      the privilege that comes with assuming that home
      is just a destination, and not the panic.
      Not the constant migration that the panic gives birth to.
      What is it like? To know that home is something
      that’s waiting for you to return to it?
      What does it mean to belong to something that isn’t sinking?
      What does it mean to belong to what is causing the flood?

      So many of us come from water
      but when you come from water
      no one believes you.
      Colonization keeps laughing.
      Global warming is grinning
      at all your grief.
      How you mourn the loss of a home
      that isn’t even gone yet.
      That no one believes you’re from.

      How everyone is beginning
      to hear more about your island
      but only in the context of
      vacations and honeymoons,
      football and military life,
      exotic women exotic fruit exotic beaches
      but never asks about the rest of its body.
      The water.
      The islands breathing in it.
      The reason why they’re sinking.
      No one visualizes islands in the Pacific
      as actually being there.
      You explain and explain and clarify
      and correct their incorrect pronunciation
      and explain

      until they remember just how vast your ocean is,
      how microscopic your islands look in it,
      how easy it is to miss when looking
      on a map of the world.

      Excuses people make
      for why they didn’t see it

      Source: Poetry (April 2018)

Special thanks to my wife, Annie Nash, for bringing this poem, this remarkable poet, to my attention.

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Coming of Age

Euphoria, by Lily King

Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle, by Lois W. Banner

 Steven Pinker's new book, Enlightenment Now, argues that the world would be a better place if everyone followed the dictates of "reason"--defined, I suppose, as linear/empirical/analytical/Western thought. If, in PInker's view, everyone abandoned magical thinking, religion, superstition, and metaphysics the excesses of religious fundamentalism, irrationality, and cruelty would give way to material progress for all.  Pinker, high atop Harvard Hill, reminds us that science and technology, leavened by the arts and humanities, have led to progress ever since the Enlightenment. E.O. Wilson, also at Harvard, has made the same point in a number of books, and corporate types like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have found much to like in this rationalist view of progress. I remain unpersuaded. For one thing, "reason" is a form of problem solving; by itself, our rational (critical, analytical, scientific) mode of thinking has no material or moral content, as Kant famously understood. At best, "reason" functions as lines on a blank page, a rubric, an outline. Living a life, building a just society, includes not only analytical thinking but also willing, desiring, believing, and--let's face it--lots of luck. 


 It is impossible, post-Freud, not to see the "primitive" peoples of Samoa as occupying a landscape of desire and will, of cultural expressions innocent of the Puritanical and patriarchal denial of the (female) body.  No analytical reasoning was discovered by Mead and Benedict and Bateson and Boas in Samoa or the Amazon basin. The peoples of the Sepik River of New Guinea possess botanical knowledge one associates with hunter-gatherers, simple technologies (these are stone-age cultures), and an intimacy with nature that Rousseau would have admired. In her dual biography, Intertwined Lives, Lois Banner does an admirable job of sketching the sexual repressions of American society in the early twentieth century and the effects of these repressions on the two most famous women anthropologists of the twentieth century.  Havelock Ellis and other sexologists, bohemians, and free spirits defied the strictures on sexuality, but the psychic price paid by unmarried heterosexuals and all homosexuals (in the language of the age) was debilitating.  In Samoa, where, in the 1930's, Christian missionaries were just beginning to spread the gospel of celibacy, a woman or a man could find a culture where sexual taboos were mild, where women had a measure of control over their reproductive lives, and where--best of all--no one was watching.


Of the many discouraging words I hear from young people, the most discouraging have to do with something that those of us brought up in the positivist tradition refer to as "human nature." Thus one can select any assumptions about human beings and ascribe them to "human nature." As in, "people are greedy; it's just human nature," or "people are violent; it's human nature."  No amount of questioning can dislodge the conviction that all of us come hard-wired with precisely the set of innate characteristics that define twenty-first century American society--greed, materialism, indifference to other people, a fascination with violence (done to others), hedonism, and a vague understanding of   the goods that comes from science and technology.  I used to argue with people about "human nature," suggesting that even in purely Darwinian terms the "struggle for life" might as easily include altruism and self-sacrifice as greed and violence. But such arguments get nowhere. After all, the evidence appears overwhelming: nobody reports the countless daily acts of kindness and selflessness that make our families, communities, and our society workable. Those who are inclined to see the world as something other than a Hobbesian struggle are far less likely to boast about their beliefs. Ordinary men and decent women seldom go into public life, appear on television,  or find themselves in the limelight.  My students know of Gordon Gecko but have never heard of Dorothy Day.


I now respond to "everyone is greedy" with the simple admonition "read some anthropology."


Do you remember how moved you felt when you read Marjorie Shostak's Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung San Woman? The book was a revelation, and while I have only taken one anthropology course in my life, Shostak, who died too young, got me to read more books like hers, first-person accounts of people whose world-view is wholly different from my own.  


Rereading Ruth Benedict's Patters of Culture in the light of Lily King's extraordinary novel Euphoria, I am reminded again of the indelible fact that "human nature," like human culture, is as varied and rich as the heavenly constellations. I am fortunate enough to live in the same region as people for whom selflessness, community, collective identity, spirituality, and life mean more than greed, individualism, materialism, and death.  If there is a single culture that practices selflessness  and altruism than the "human nature" argument is fallacious.  Marshall Sahlins's view of hunter-gatherers as the "original affluent society" and Marjorie Shostak's work on the !Kung open the door to our understanding of how so-called "primitive" societies give the lie to the notion that the apogee of human existence is found in the industrial West and in Enlightenment reason.

Lily King has taken the rudiments of the story of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and  Reo Fortune in Samoa and turned it into a philosophical novel of the highest order.  Nellie, Fen, and Bankson bring to their field work among the Tam three entirely different views of the purposes of anthropology, and, by extension, three different views of life.  Nell is generous, open-minded, fearless, empathetic, warm, and humane. Fen is harsh and judgmental, engaged with other cultures to the extent that they allow him to ignore his own demons; he is married to Nell but treats her as if she were a foreign culture, someone whose habits of mind are unworthy of his attention.  The effect that Fen has on Nell is predictable: she feels as if she is alone, a stranger in a (very) strange land,  and while her isolation helps deepen her skills as a passive observer of other cultures, it diminishes her spirit.  Bankson, who narrates most of the novel, is diffident, uncertain of his skills as a scientist, but, like Nell, he possesses patience and compassion.  How ironic that in this novel it is the least "rational" among the scientists who understands most deeply what it means to live in a world defined by custom and not laws. Bankson's shy approach to his anthropological subjects takes him far more deeply into the world of the Tam than Fen's ultimately tragic attempt to become his subjects. Lily King subtly brings Nell and Bankson together; that they will come to love one another is foreordained, but what's really beautiful is how the study of the Tam and the cautious circling of this trio of anthropologists reflect each other.  Just as Nell and Bankson use their good hearts to uncover the mysteries of a stone-age culture, so too do they gradually begin to understand one another. Fen is the odd man out. He doesn't wish to study anything--he wants to dominate those around him, he wishes to exert his will over others, and in this he serves both as the perfect model of the Westerner among "savages" and the perfect foil to Nell and Bankson.  The old dichotomy between head and heart is played out in Euphoria with delicacy and brilliance.


The practice of field anthropology is an odd one. That a Westerner could "live among" people as foreign as the Tam (a fictional tribe, but there are plenty of real-life examples) and somehow come to "understand" them seems like folly. If the observation of a physical state changes that state and makes objectivity impossible, how much more so does the physical presence of a stranger among an isolated tribal group undo any possibility of understanding?  And, worse, as Euphoria makes plain, how much damage do well-meaning scientists do when they intrude upon the intimate lives of strangers?  Euphoria does many things well--it's a love story, an adventure novel, a philosophical investigation--but above all it is a book that raises fundamental questions about the pretensions of Western reason and science.  Our brash conviction that we can understand, and by understanding control, the world feel especially hollow when that understanding and control is directed at a group of people who might prefer to be left in peace.  The notion of "picking a tribe" and, uninvited, going to live among them, studying them as one might study an exotic species of bird, feels at times more like imperialism than science.


George Ovitt (16 May 2018)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

“An Algerian Doll’s House”

A Wife For My Son by Ali Ghalem

Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why
   I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.

                                                                    Franz Fanon

How very sad it is that this novel is out of print, indeed long out of print, as it is one of the most complex, most moving explorations I have ever read of what it means to be a Muslim today, in this case an Algerian Muslim woman struggling hard to define herself amidst the competing claims of traditional Islam and those of the modern world. Originally published in 1979 as Une femme por mon fils, it is a charged, highly nuanced treatment of the twisted, often crippling ways in which men and women are taught—even fated—to relate to one another by the traditions that bind them.

Writes Doris Tentchoff (so trenchantly I must quote her at length), A Wife For My Son “underscores the observation that the personal is political and links the personal struggle to the world stage as it chronicles the story of seventeen-year-old Fatiha’s determined struggle to gain control over her life after a traditional arranged marriage to an Algerian who toils in France as a guest worker. Drawing on the multiplicity of strands that constitute the plight of this pair, Gahlem weaves a revealing portrait of working-class life in contemporary Algeria. And because he probes intimate family relationships, the books confronts the intransigent problem: how to transform structures at the core of society—the relationships between women and men. Given Ghalem’s unflinching feminist stance, the novel is remarkable for its lack of rancor, for the compassion with which its main characters are depicted. Concern is not with an abstract good and evil, but with human beings who, for historical reasons, are locked into vastly disparate and unbridgeable worlds, each predicated on different presuppositions and operating according to a different cultural logic. The yawning gap in perceptions, expectations, and aspirations between middle-aged working-class parents on the one hand, and their offspring on the other, produces spiraling rounds of misunderstanding, conflict and crisis.”

The story, with its trenchant exploration of the relationship between the personal and political, is further intensified when one considers it against the backdrop of recent Algerian history, namely that of the French colonization of Algeria, a century-long period of tyranny and exploitation that culminated in a frenzy of bloodshed and destruction in the French-Algerian war. 

 Franz Fanon

At the heart of this struggle for national self-determination, a struggle writ small in the character of Fatiha, were such philosophers and political lions as Franz Fanon and Albert Camus, who helped to flesh out the many tensions between France and Algeria that persist to this day. Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers.

 Albert Camus

Compared by one critic to Ibsen’s revolutionary play, A Doll’s House, this novel treats the condition of modern Muslim women, and of women in general, with an even greater frankness and depth. Not only does Fatiha slam the door on her husband, so to speak, but she renounces the entire patriarchal system by leaving him and his family home, determined to live by her own terms, to raise her newly born child alone. As a final act of hope she names her daughter “Noura” or “light”. 

Here, finally, is one of the few available photographs of the author:

Peter Adam Nash