From Today’s Onion

In order to boost available content, America Online is preparing to offer downloads of old television programs like Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico And The Man. What do you think?

Jesse Glass,
Machinist
“Ah, the memories. Nothing says ‘My parents are getting divorced’ like the Kotter theme song.”

That about sums it up.

Orwellian

The word “Orwellian” is grossly overused in public discourse, but here’s one case where no other word will do. I fully expect a videotape to be released by the White House within the next couple of days in which Scott McClellan can be clearly heard to say “I don’t think that’s accurate.” I would imagine that they’ll explain the discrepancy between the audio on their tape and that on existing tapes by saying that their microphones were better positioned (or something like that).

Members of the Bush administration should all be required (after they’ve attended their ethics seminars) to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, if only so they can stop acting it out so obviously.

Indians are the Jews of East Africa

In Dark Star Safari, his extraordinary account of a trip he made by boat, bus, and train from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux returns to Malawi, a country in which he served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. He finds the country, as he finds much of the eastern portion of Africa through which he travels, ill used by the passing decades. Throughout the course of the book, he develops a compelling condemnation of the developed nations’ treatment of Africa, which I won’t try to describe here. But in the portion of the book describing his travels in Malawi, he sketches the outlines of an odd theme: the persecution of the Indian immigrants to east Africa. He first touches on this theme when he travels through Karonga, the town he enters after crossing the border from Tanzania.

Indians had been officially hectored in the sixties. The first president, Hastings Banda, had come to Karonga in 1965 and singled them out, berated them, accusing Indian traders of taking advantage of Africans. “Africans should be running these businesses,” he howled. But many of the Indians stayed. In the 1970s the president returned to Karonga and denounced the Indians again. This time the Indians got the message: nearly all left, and those few that hesitated saw their shops burned down by Banda’s Israeli-trained Young Pioneers. Eventually, the remaining Indians either left Karonga for cities in the south or emigrated. Banda had gone to other rural towns and given the same speech, provoking the same result.

The shock to me was not that all the Indians were gone but that no one had come to take their place; that the shops were in ruins, still with the names of Ismailis and Gujaratis on them…

Reading that, I thought vaguely, “Kristallnacht…”

Later, after a thoroughly disheartening visit to the school at which he had taught, Theroux visits a friend from those days in Zomba. At a dinner party at that friend’s house, Theroux is asked about what he has seen during his visit by a former Malawi ambassador in Europe. He returns to the theme of the immigrant Indians and mentions the pointlessness of the abandoned shops in Karonga. The ambassador attempts to excuse the situation.

“We wanted Africans to be given a chance to run the shops. So that Africans could go into business. The shops were handed over. I bought one myself.”

“With what result?”

“Ha-ha! Not much! It didn’t work. They all got finished!”…

“Well, as you know, Indians are good at business,” he said. Then, laughing in dismay as if he had just dropped a slice of bread butter-side down, “What do we know about these things? We had no capital. The shops failed–almost all of them. Ha! They were abandoned, as you saw. And the rest were turned into chibuku bars.” Beer bars…

“[The Indians] sit there, you see, and they have these little pieces of paper, and have these columns of numbers.” He spoke pompously about the Indians as though describing demented obsessive children with broken toys. “And one Indian is running the calculator, and another is counting the sacks of flour and the tins of condensed milk. One two three. One two three.”…

I said, “But that’s how a shop is run. That’s normal business. You make a list of what you’ve sold, so you know what stuff to reorder.”

“Indians know no other life!” he said. “Just this rather secluded life–all numbers and money and goods on shelves. One two three.”

“Recordkeeping is the nature of small business, isn’t it?” I resented his belittling the shopkeeper, yet I kept calm so as to draw him out. “The profit margins are so small.”

“But we Africans are not raised in this way,” he said, nodding to the others for approval. “What do we care about shops and counting? We have a much freer existence. We have no interest in this–shops are not our strong point.”

“Why close the shops, then?”

Here I found myself thinking of The Merchant of Venice

Later still in his southward progress through Malawi, Theroux travelled in a dugout canoe down the Shire River to the Zambezi River and Mozambique with two native guides, Karsten and Wilson, and the theme of the immigrant Indians in east Africa makes its final, most uncanny return.

I caught a few words of a story that Karsten was telling Wilson–“Indian” and “fish” and “money”–and as we paddled across the Zambezi, our dugout pulled sideways by the power of the stream, he told me the story.

Farther up the Zambezi, on the Zambian side, he said, lived Indian traders who made a practice of abducting very young African girls from villages. The Indians killed the girls and cut out their hearts. Using the fresh hearts of these African virgins as bait on large hooks, they were able to catch certain Zambezi fish that were stuffed full of diamonds.

“That is why the Indians have so much money,” Karsten said.

And so finally, we have tales reminiscent of anti-Semitic blood libel myths

Though Theroux clearly lays out the ways in which the persecution of Indians in east Africa parallels the persecution of Jews in Europe, he never actually mentions it (unless the ironic detail that Banda’s Young Pioneers were trained in Israel is meant to be a hint). I find that puzzling. It seems impossible that he wouldn’t have recognized the parallel. Did he perhaps think it too obvious to warrant mentioning? But regardless of Theroux’s purposes, I find it surprising that the same idiosyncratic collection of slurs and calumnies directed at Jews in Europe were elsewhere attached to another ethnic group. Is there some universal subconscious cultural association between commerce and child sacrifice, and if so, why? Are still other ethnic groups thought of in this same way in other cultures?

Incivility

The specter of incivility, currently threatening so much of our media and other shared culture, seems recently to be making alarming inroads in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. Last week, there was this in Clive James’s review of Elias Canetti’s Party in the Blitz:

The translator, Michael Hofmann, has found all the right English words for the wartime detail: the V1 was not a rocket, but that mistake was probably in the original text, whose comparative brevity should be taken, I think, as its chief virtue. We are fortunate that there is no more of it, lest we start wondering whether Canetti should not have received another Nobel Prize, for being the biggest twerp of the 20th century. But a twerp must be at least partly stupid, and Canetti wasn’t even a little bit that.

Instead, he was a particularly bright egomaniac, and this book, written when his governing mechanisms were falling to bits, simply shows the limitless reserves of envy and recrimination that had always powered his aloofness. The mystery blows apart, and spatters the reader with scraps and tatters of an artificial superiority.

This week, there’s this in Bryan Burrough’s review of Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World:

Me, I hated it. I wanted to drop-kick this book across the backyard. If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.

And also this week, in P. J. O’Rourke’s review of Leslie Savan’s Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, we find this:

And Savan writes that “exactly when cool jelled into the word we know today is difficult to say.” It is not difficult to say upon looking into The Oxford English Dictionary. “Assured and unabashed in demeanor . . . calmly and deliberately audacious or impudent” dates to the 1820’s. But the O.E.D. is not in Savan’s bibliography, which contains “Jones, Gerard. ‘Honey, I’m Home!: Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream'” and “Moore, Michael. ‘Dude, Where’s My Country?'”

Though these insults are witty and well-formed (and they and quips like them make for an amusing recounting in Gawker‘s “Reading About Reading” feature the following week), they really are no more than insults. As Gawker has diligently documented, the Book Review has become more and more like a middlebrow literary exercise in Crossfire style ridicule and riposte. (See? This insult thing is contagious.) The fact that, unlike with other types of reviews, the reviewer and the reviewed often exchanged roles probably helped (a few notable feuds aside) to maintain a certain level of decorum until recently. But once the balance tipped away from decorum, things seem instead to be playing out as the annihilating denouement of a failed arrangement of mutually assured destruction (as those few feuds had already suggested was possible).

But why has this happened just now? The easy answer is that for whatever reason (the lack of mainstream blood sports, public executions, and the like; the growing disconnection between our opinions and the evidence of their consequences; or a societal affluence that grants us the leisure to indulge in such nonsense), the media audience seems to really enjoy watching people insult and degrade each other. And as a visit to most interactive forums on the Internet shows, a significant portion of that audience seems to enjoy participating whenever they get a chance. That the more popular and populist media is willing to serve that appetite isn’t surprising, but why is the New York Times Book Review succumbing to this impulse?

My guess is that it’s the indirect result of another decision the Times made. Almost two years ago, there was a shift in the editorial policy of the Book Review. The editors decided to “skew” it toward non-fiction. As Bill Keller explained, “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world. Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.” That may be true, as far as it goes, but it suggests a subtle yet significant change behind in perspective. The contention over ideas had traditionally been the purview of the op-ed page, while the Book Review had been (I naively believed) about the craft of writing. With this change, the line between the op-ed page and the Book Review has become blurred, and I can no longer spend my weekends reading the Book Review in hopes of doing something so quaint as trying to decide which books I’d like to read. Simply put, the New York Times Book Review has surrendered its aesthetic perspective, going from equanimous observer to attached participant. That seems a loss to me.

A Year of Joyce

The reading group I’m in is wrapping up its reading for this year, so at our last meeting, we had a discussion of what we’d like to read next year. Someone suggested that we spend next year reading James Joyce‘s Ulysses. Though it is a long and difficult book (if not as difficult as popularly believed), I don’t think we could spend a whole year reading it. We did, after all, manage to finish all of Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time in a single year. So what I’ve proposed instead is that we read it over nine months, after first reading Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

If we do this, it would be a new experience for me, since I will have read everything before. In past years, there may have a book or two out of the year’s dozen that I’d read before, but never the whole year’s list. I’m looking forward to how that will change the experience for me. There are a couple of very difficult sections (no more than sixty or so pages each) that, reading the book on my own and without a schedule, I just tried to get through. Now that I’ll have a month to read each of those sections and someone to discuss them with once I’ve done that, I hope to get more out of them than the barest minimum necessary to continue.

Would anyone not geographically able to participate in this reading group in person be interested in participating on-line? I’d be happy to post an entry soliciting people’s thoughts about each month’s reading before that month’s meeting (to be shared with the group at our meeting) and then to post another entry sharing the highlights of the group’s thoughts after the meeting. Would anyone be interested in that?

Bookworm

I’m becoming a fan of Michael Silverblatt‘s Bookworm podcast. His guests tend to run the gamut of writers of contemporary literary fiction, which is to say that some are more interesting than others. It’s Silverblatt himself who makes the interviews consistently interesting, regardless of the guest. He talks a lot, which usually isn’t very effective for interviewers, but the range of his references and the depth of his insights are without apparent limit and always seem valid. His guidance of the discussion can make even the dullest of subjects interesting (including Bret Easton Ellis, whom Silverblatt got to admit that by the time he, Ellis, sat down to the process of actually writing, he’s already emotionally detached from his material). At least once in every interview I’ve heard, Silverblatt has offered an insight into his guest’s work that had never occurred to the guest, but which the guest found very compelling.

Freud Freed

I’ve been reading Freud again recently (“Mass Psychology and Analysis of the ‘I”” and “The Future of an Illusion” in Mass Psychology from the Penguin series of new translations), and I’ve been thinking of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The allegory goes something like this:

Imagine prisoners who have been chained since childhood deep inside a cave. Not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains, their heads are as well so that their eyes are fixed on a wall. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way, along which men carry shapes of various animals, plants, and other things. The shapes cast shadows on the wall, which occupy the prisoners’ attention. Also, when one of the shape-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows. The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game—naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of images.

Suppose a prisoner is released and compelled to stand up and turn around. His eyes will be blinded by the firelight, and the shapes passing will appear less real than their shadows. Similarly, if he is dragged up out of the cave into the sunlight, his eyes will be so blinded that he will not be able to see anything. At first, he will be able to see darker shapes such as shadows, and only later brighter and brighter objects. The last object he would be able to see is the sun, which, in time, he would learn to see as that object which provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen…

Once thus enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would no doubt want to return to the cave to free “his fellow bondsmen”. The problem however is that they would not want to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner’s eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be inferior at the ludicrous process of identifying shapes on the wall. This would make his fellow prisoners murderous toward anyone who attempted to free them.

It occurs to me that, having gained his release through his own self analysis, Freud’s compromise in the face of this paradox was to not turn around and leave the cave. Indeed, in his published writings, he doesn’t seem to have concerned himself with what’s beyond the shadows on the wall (though Freud’s Requiem, a marvelous little book published last month, uses his letters and other secondary material to suggest that he did consider such matters outside of his published works). Instead, he sought to discover the workings of the shadows on the wall using only what could be seen and understood by the prisoners in the cave. Such efforts must inevitably point beyond the cave, but Freud resolutely refused to follow where his reasoning led.

On the one hand, this meant that Freud’s work could be used by his “fellow bondsmen,” but on the other hand, that work feels incomplete. In this sense, Freud’s work is a critique, describing only what’s wrong with the commonly held view of reality. It doesn’t really propose a fuller, more compelling view as an alternative. Consequently, Freud’s claims that things don’t work as most people think they do will always be susceptible to counterclaims that he doesn’t offer an explanation of how they do work.

Most sages, having gained their release from the chains of common delusion, have tended to venture beyond the cave, and those who have returned, have announced their return in one of two ways. Some have returned with wild-eyed and incoherent tales, as predicted in Plato’s allegory. I tend not to trust their understanding and insight. But others, from the Buddha to Wittgenstein (including Plato’s Socrates) have returned to say that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy and that though those things can’t be described, the sages can tell us how to find them for ourselves. I’m more likely to trust their insight and experiences.