Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Journey of Beauty and Love

The Bridge of Little Jeremy 

"In the epoch of Lutetia, there used to be a wooden bridge there, the only bridge that connected the Roman quarters on the Left Bank to their administrative offices on the Ile de la Cite. That bridge has been replaced several times since, but, among the dozen bridges that ornate the two isles today, the Petit Pont has always been my favorite, and I've never attempted to paint it yet." (p 52)

This is the story of a boy and his dog. But it is much more than a simple tale like that, for as the narrative grows the reader finds himself on a journey of discovery with Little Jeremy. It turns out to be a variation on the mythical journey of a hero and as it develops the sometimes dreamlike quality of the story draws the reader forward with the intensity of a mystery, the bounteous beauty of Paris, the suspense of unexpected events, and a joyousness that can only be found in the love of a boy for his mother.

The setting is Paris which underlies the beauty of the story - a beauty that is enhanced by young Jeremy, who even at his age has the budding eye of an artist:
"I see the sinuous streets and the steep staircases of Montmartre that I haven't seen for a long while, and then I see how the works of Nature and Man have come together to sculpt the beauty of our city."(p 136)

Not only is the beauty of the setting framed by the eyes of young Jeremy but the narrator limns the setting with descriptions like that of the "Jardin-des-Plantes" where Leon, Jeremy's trusted and loving dog, is seen chasing butterflies. As the story develops the intricacies of the city and its spaces add to the mysteriousness of Jeremy's journey.

Little Jeremy narrates the story, and we learn he has a  medical condition - a weakness of his heart due to a faulty valve. As a result he does not attend school and often spends his days scouring the city with Leon. His encounters with the city and the world beyond his small apartment during the arc of the story are both interesting and exciting - he becomes a hero for a time. His mother, unfortunately faces a serious financial debt due to taxes. Ultimately, Little Jeremy's desire to help his mother leads him to a discovery that with the application of his artistic skills and help from some friends may provide the funds that are essential for their survival as a family.

It is the innocence and loving nature of Little Jeremy contrasted with the realities and difficulties of living that makes this a mesmerizing story. There is great suspense leading to a denouement that demonstrates the magic of the search for an ideal. That combined with the importance of love for those that are close to you and a need to nurture the genius within you makes this a wonderful novel.

Friday, October 25, 2019

An Attitude of Humility

The Road to Serfdom 

The Road to Serfdom

“The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful tools human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from doing better.” ― Friedrich August von Hayek

This is one of the foundation books for my personal philosophy. Along with his other works, the thought of Friedrich von Hayek is basic to my own individualist world view. In this book Hayek contends that liberty is fragile, easily harmed but seldom extinguished in one fell swoop. Instead, over the years “the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” He asserts that liberty has developed from an a posteriori recognition of humans’ inherent limitations – particularly the restrictions of their knowledge and reasoning. Most importantly, no planner or group of planners, however intelligent and well resourced, can possibly obtain and process the countless bits of localized and tacit information required such that a government plan meets its objectives. Only price signals emitted in an unhampered market enable harmony and efficiency to arise spontaneously from many millions of individuals’ plans. Hence government intervention in the plans of individuals, even if undertaken by men of good will, inevitably leads to loss of liberty, economic stagnation (at best) and war and impoverishment (at worst).

While much of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom focused on correcting erroneous ideas and sloppy thinking that misled (and still mislead) many to support socialistic expansions of government power, that is not all it did. It also reiterated the case for individualism and its economic manifestation—free markets. Since convincing careful thinkers requires such an affirmative case as well as defensive debunking, the book’s diamond 75th anniversary is a propitious time to remember what only individualism provides, so that we will not continue to follow a path of “replacing what works with what sounds good,” as Thomas Sowell described it.

The essential features of…individualism…are the respect for the individual man qua man…the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere…and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.
The attitude of the liberal toward society is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.

The holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully. The successful use of competition as the principle of social organization precludes certain types of coercive interference with economic  life.  Planning and competition can be combined only by planning for competition but not…planning which is to be substituted for competition.
It is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such coordination can be adequately brought about.

Nobody can consciously balance all the considerations bearing on the decisions of so many individuals…coordination can clearly be effective only by… arrangements which convey to each agent the information he must possess in order effectively to adjust his decisions to those of others…This is precisely what the price system does under competition and what no other system even promises to accomplish. The economist's plea is for a method which effects such co-ordination without the need for an omniscient dictator. Recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends…that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions…forms the essence of the individualist position.

What are called “social ends” are…merely identical ends of many individuals…to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute…Common action is thus limited to the fields where people agree on common ends. The clash between planning and democracy arises simply from the fact that the latter is an obstacle to the suppression of freedom which the direction of economic activity requires. The more the state “plans,” the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life…it is the control of the means for all our ends. To believe that the power which is thus conferred on the state is merely transferred to it from others is erroneous. It is a power which is newly created and which in a competitive society nobody possesses. So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people.

Contrast…two types of security: the limited one, which can be achieved for all, and which is therefore no privilege but a legitimate object of desire; and absolute security, which…if it is provided for some, it becomes a privilege at the expense of others. Individualism is thus an attitude of humility…the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process.

Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom defended the individual—the only ultimate locus of choice, responsibility and morality—as the appropriate focus of efforts toward human improvement, at a time when failing to keep that focus threatened the entire world. That is a lesson we need to remember now as well, when many do not remember the horrors that can lead to, and so support constantly expanding government powers over its citizens.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Drifting Across America

American Woman 

American Woman

"And always the radio on, somehow underscoring her loneliness more than relieving it. She had plenty of distance from Dolly but still, late at night, she would turn down the radio low. In the vast nighttime hush she could play it quite softly and hear. The contrast of her life with the world outside sometimes felt too great on these nights. The radio was like a tiny porthole in her drifting balloon."(p 89) - American Woman, Susan Choi.

Susan Choi's novel is based on the real events surrounding the kidnapping of Patty Hearst in the 1970's.  She imbues her narrative with psychological depth and texture, while cleaving close to the true course of events. Instead of focusing on Patty (here named Pauline, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher), Choi turns her attention on Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese-American woman, who, fleeing the Feds after she and her boyfriend orchestrate the bombing of draft offices to protest the Vietnam War, agrees to help Pauline and her kidnappers. This protagonist is based on a real-life person, Wendy Yoshimura, who spent what's now called "the lost year" (1974, when Patty and her captors disappeared) with Patty and two of her kidnappers. In Choi's book, the four spend the time in a rented farmhouse in New York State, with Jenny running errands while Pauline and her "comrades" undergo physical training for their fight against "the pigs" and halfheartedly write a book (purportedly to eventually raise money to pay for their lifestyle).

While the author deftly handles Pauline's transformation, the bank robbery, Pauline and Jenny's cross-country trip, this was only part of the story.  More important for this reader was the more successful aspect of the novel -- the author's ability to create the atmosphere of suspense for the radicals who have segregated themselves from everyday life as most of us know it. This helps one understand the boredom and slowness of the action as the group is "lying low" out of reluctance to risk being recognized. The slowness ends in dramatic fashion in the final section of the novel with the denouement of the story. Even though you may know the basic history of the underlying events the author is able to maintain your interest.

Another important aspect is Choi's skill at getting inside the heads of her protagonists adding to the particular, unsettling appeal of the novel. What makes Jenny a radical? And what then leads her to wonder whether "perhaps they had been wrong to fight Power on its terms, instead of rejecting its terms utterly"? She presents protagonists that are often conflicted and, in doing so, Choi takes an uncompromising look at issues of race, class, war and peace. That having been said, I found the style of the author limited the effectiveness of her storytelling. This novel reminded me of Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey , a novel that succeeded both in creating an unsettling narrative (loosely based on real-life communist sympathizers in the 1940's) and demonstrating a felicitous prose style. The comparison may seem unfair but having experienced Trilling's prose I could only be disappointed by that of Susan Choi. Nevertheless this novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

American Woman by Susan Choi. Harper Perennial, 2004 (2003).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Lessons of History

Destined for War: 
Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? 

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

“Like other practicing historians, I am often asked what the “lessons of history” are. I answer that the only lesson I have learnt from studying the past is that there are no permanent winners and losers. —Ramachandra Guha” ― Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap?, discusses China's rise into the US political mainstream. After explaining the Thucydides Trap – the friction created when a rising power challenges an established power, the author presents twelve historical examples that resulted in war, and four in which war was avoided. Allison proceeds to focus on the examples he considers to be the most instructive, namely the Peloponnesian War, World War I, and the Cold War.

Allison also relays insights from the late Lee Kuan Yew in making his case that Beijing's goal is the restoration of China as a regional hegemon. He argues against the idea that China will become a 'responsible stakeholder' in the international system in which the US remains the arbiter. China seeks the expulsion of the US from Asia, and is rapidly accumulating capabilities to achieve this goal.

He translates an unfiltered Chinese view for his local audience, analogizing it to America's expansion in the Western Hemisphere under President Teddy Roosevelt. Going by Allison's ledger, the factors favouring war between the US and China are ominous: two powers with narratives of their own 'exceptionalism', China's sense of past humiliation and present restoration, incompatible cultures and political systems, and a series of entangling flash-points and alliances. On the positive side, Allison argues, is an interdependent trade relationship and stable nuclear deterrence. Allison also labels North Korea as a 'Cuban missile crisis in slow motion'.

Ironically, the weakness of Allison's book is not his warning that the US and China are at risk of falling into the Thucydides Trap – a case he makes conclusively – but rather his explanations for why war remains avoidable. First, Allison makes the common error that nuclear dynamics between the US and China work the same way as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence rests not just on capability (ensuring a retaliatory strike), but also credibility. During the Cold War, the fall of Western Europe to the Soviet Union posed such an existential threat to the US that a nuclear war could credibly be initiated to prevent it. In Asia, however, the US will not commence a full nuclear exchange with China and there is no way to convince Beijing otherwise. As such, current nuclear dynamics in Asia makes major war more likely, as mapped out in my review of the RAND study of a US-China war, a study also cited by Allison.

Finally, while carefully articulating China’s perception of the rivalry, it is surprising just how US-centric Allison’s ideas are for how conflict might be avoided. Allison suggests curtailing America’s commitment to Taiwan in exchange for concessions in the South and East China seas, or abandoning Prompt Global Strike in exchange for Beijing limiting its conventional expansion. However it seems unlikely China will agree to any of this. Why should it? Time is on Beijing's side. These kinds of deals only worked during the Cold War because each side recognized the other’s core interests while the balance of power between the US and the Soviet Union remained relatively stable. In the case of China and the US, the power shift is rapid and profound, and while Allison clearly understands this he fails to see the implications of his own conclusions. Rather than horse-trading over Taiwan and the South China Sea, Beijing might suggest the US leave Asia entirely in exchange for permanent recognition of Washington’s annexation of Hawaii!

Despite these shortcomings, this reader found Allison’s book good reading for the overview that it provides. In Destined for War, Allison calls Obama’s Asia pivot 'using an extra strength aspirin to treat cancer'. This author suggests stronger methods.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Force of Destiny



“The only hope I have left for you hangs on a great doubt - the doubt whether we are, or are not, the masters of our own destinies. It may be that mortal free-will can conquer mortal fate; and that going, as we all do, inevitably to death, we go inevitably to nothing that is before death.”  ― Wilkie Collins, Armadale

Armadale, Wilkie Collins’s longest novel and like another of his popular novels, The Moonstone, the narrative comprises a series of testimonies and accounts (such as from characters’ diaries and letters) which gradually shed light on the mystery. One interesting note: the heading of Chapter VII is "The Plot Thickens". I do not know if that was the first use of that phrase (I doubt it) but it is striking that Collins would use it for a chapter heading.

In 1832, Allan Armadale confesses on his deathbed to murder: his clerk, Fergus Ingleby, stole his name and married Jane Blanchard, the woman Allan loved. Pursuing the couple on board a ship, Allan locked Fergus in a cabin and left him to drown when the ship was wrecked. Allan later travelled to the West Indies where he married a creole woman and had a son.
After this opening the story moves to 1851, and the murderer’s son has adopted the name Ozias Midwinter, while the drowned Fergus Ingleby’s has been brought up under the name Allan Armadale – and with it, has inherited Fergus’ property, the estate of Thorpe Ambrose. Ozias learns the truth about his father’s crime – that he murdered his friend’s father – while on a sailing trip with Fergus and Jane’s son, Allan Armadale. He destroys the letter containing Allan Armadale Senior’s confession, and vows to keep the secret from his friend.

Lydia Gwilt, the former maid to Jane Blanchard (Allan’s father), sets her sights on marrying Allan for his money. Both Ozias Midwinter and Allan Armadale end up falling for Lydia, but her plan to marry Armadale is scuppered when her cynical motives are uncovered. However the resourceful Lydia, having learned the secret that Midwinter’s real name is also Allan Armadale, plans to marry him under his real name, get the other Allan Armadale out of the way, and then use the marriage certificate as legal proof of her entitlement to the Armadale estate. This complex plot continues as Lydia marries Midwinter, concealing her checkered past from him but the denouement will have to await your reading pleasure for this reader must vow not to spoil that delight.

Armadale is unusual among Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels because it demonstrates a detailed interest in human psychology, with dreams cropping up at numerous points in the novel, and Collins taking time to explore what John Sutherland, in The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, calls ‘the psychology of crime’. Granted, the dreams are used as plot devices rather than as a sort of proto-stream-of-consciousness designed to shed light on Allan Armadale’s character; but Collins’s use of the dreams, and Midwinter’s analysis of their significance as premonitions, adds another psychological layer to this complex novel. The real triumph of Armadale is Collins’s portrayal of Lydia Gwilt, whose surname suggests ‘guilt’ (and ‘gilt’, evoking her gold-digging ambitions), but also, through a twist, ‘will’, foregrounding her own independent agency and, it must be said, her perseverance and cunning. This is a great read which I would recommend to lovers of Dickens or Thackeray.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Ripples of Memory

Absalom, Absalom! 

Absalom, Absalom!

“Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm”  ― William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Memory. That is remembering the past, your family, the culture of family and place. That is in and of the essence of this memorable novel. We find it in the wisteria:

"Do you mark how the wistaria, sun-impacted on this wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though (light-unimpeded) by secret and attritive progress from mote to mote of obscurity's myriad components? That is the substance of remembering---sense, sight, and smell" (p 115)

This is a story of a man, Thomas Sutpen, and other men and women whose lives formed the history of a place and a time--a sometimes dynasty, as told by several narrators including Miss Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson (whom you may remember from The Sound and the Fury).
The memory of the events surrounding the ferociousness of Thomas Sutpen is told through fabulous stories, conjecture, discussions, and arguments. It encompasses the history of generations, the strength of women to survive, and the impact of slavery on their way of being.

Told with the poetic beauty of Faulkner's magnificent prose this is a novel to be read and reread; savored as you meditate on the meaning of these people and events and how they resemble those you may remember from Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Above all it is about Faulkner's idea of the South and that of his characters, especially Quentin, the young Harvard student who proclaims:

"'I don't hate it,' he said. I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!" (p 303)