Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thomas Sowell latest book — a true face of intellectuals or gross exaggeration?

The latest, full book of Thomas SowellIntellectuals and Society” will be read as the true enlightenment or as anti-intellectual tirade. Whatever you will find it — it is a book you just cannot ignore — it is absolutely essential for all who, even, occasionally, think of themselves as of „intellectuals”.

And one should, at least for the time span of the reading, forget Sowell's many controversial views and public utterances — like that about Obama speech to students. We should forget them and read carefully, because many of the examples of stupid intellectual's acts — are unfortunately true...

Sowell first defines whom he gives the name „Intellectual”. For good or for bad, he narrows the definition to those who generate or create — IDEAS — and leaves outside the scope of his interest those who contribute to the progress of science and technology, medicine etc. Of course, in many cases the groups overlap, yet what interests him are those who create or disseminate the ideas. And he is deeply critical about those he names that way! He gives many accounts of total misjudgement of the elite, mostly from XX century history. The key example is the role of French intellectuals in the aftermath of the I World War to promote unconditional pacifism in France, that almost directly led to the disaster of the II WW. With equal scrutiny he analyses the approach of many British intellectuals to Nazi Germany, matters of rearmament and disarmament and the like. One of the most striking example is that of Bertrand Russel, whose series of misjudgements, first about Hitler, later about Soviets, was particularly long...
The examples go further when he analyses the intellectual climate around cold war, and real wars of XX century, like Vietnam War.

The main reason, according to Sowell, of so many fallacies is complete lack of accountability of intellectuals. There is no „real world verifiability” that could be applied to the works of ideas, as it is with the other, more practical, activities of intellectuals. We can also find a profound ignorance of intellectuals outside their, usually narrow, area of knowledge. As the result they, quite often, create the climate of total misinformation. Instead of presenting evidence and using logic, intellectuals, according to Sowell, often indulge in „verbal virtuosity” with so many euphemisms, clever phrasing and pseudo-wise quotes.

Many will not agree with Sowell. Also, as he stands on the clearly conservative position (using US political terminology) , many will deny the value of his conclusions.

But, I will not. When I was reading the book, I could not forget about the another book about Intellectuals and their fallacies: „The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz. Even though it was written in 1953, and was probably unknown to Sowell — it provides a great support for his views and conclusions.

And — I could add so many examples from my life. I still cannot forget many teachers and university professors that openly supported communist regime in Poland and other Central European countries. Of course, there were also many intellectuals who opposed it — but the deep delusion in which so many lived and even promoted — was the key feature of my experience from the time of transformation from communist country to the free one....

So, if you think of you as of The Intellectual — read this book in earnest — and think and think and think — before you start promoting your ideas ...

BTW, here is the Sowell's incentive to read the book :-)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Maestro Górecki died ...

Mikołaj Henryk Górecki was one of the greatest composers of our time. He certainly was famous on the worldwide scene for his „Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” that was a global hit comparable only to popular music hits. But all his works, including those commissioned by Kronos Quartet place him among the giants of music like Olivier Messiaen, Charles Ives, Arvo Part, John Taverner or Giya Kancheli. He practiced something I call, by the term I coined: „rich minimalism” — where the musical language is simple but the meanings and depths are rich.

If you haven't heard about Górecki, it is also for the fact that he was very modest and private person who always shunned publicity.

Here is the Górecki's obituary published by Guardian.

Nemesis by Philip Roth

After „The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth, I knew that he is a great and deep writer.

However — his latest novel „Nemesis” is one of the best books I ever read.

It is a story of young man, the teacher of physical education and passionate javelin thrower. The story is set in 1944 during one of the worst American polio epidemics. As he could not go to the army, the hero was already discontent of himself when the plot of events related to the epidemics and the events of his personal life caused a major self oppression and the unbearable conviction of guilt.

It is a great book about insecurity a man can experience, about guilt and punishment and about human rebellion against G-d due to overwhelming sense of undeserved suffering of many...

And ultimately it is a book about the triumph of human freedom of choice...

In his short book, and in the simple words, Roth once again comes to the main theme of Job's bible book (without, of course, any direct reference to it) and to the most important problems that face humans — without pathos and sanctimonious deliberations...

THE great novel.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cri de coeur over books — The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts

I already reviewed a part of Sven Birkerts' influential book when I addressed his position on audio books. It is obvious that I was in disagreement with some of his opinions about this form of books.

Now it is a time to express my opinion about the book as a whole. It is a book about the change of our perception of literature and, in general, of books in the "electronic age" marked by shift from the deep perception of literature, experience of its meaning to the superficial, fast, „multilayered, multitrack ability to deal with the world” — characteristic to the electronic age.

The book is divided into three major parts. In the first „Reading Self” contemplates on the role of writing and reading for out inner life, our inner experience. With some autobiographical threads Birkerts main thought is the dialog between people that comes through writing:

„Every true reader, then, is a writer and every true writer is a reader, and every person engaged in the project of self-awareness is the reader and writer of himself. Writer and reader: They are the recto and verso of language, which is itself the medium of our deeper awareness.”

In the second part, „The Electronic Millennium”, Birkerts analyses the developments going on in the perception of literature and its importance in our times, and first analyses three important factors resulting from electronization of our literary experience: „The Language Erosion”, „Flattering of historical perspectives” and „The waning of the private self” giving all the factors deep explanation. One of the most important results of these factors is the danger of „societal totalism”, described as a „movement toward deindividuation, or electronic collectivization”.

Next, the author goes for the analysis of the impact of the pervasive external digital systems on our notion of wisdom and knowledge. Here the danger lies in the shift of our role in relation to knowledge:

„(...) we may choose to become the technicians of our auxiliary brains,mastering not the information but the retrieval and referencing functions” (...) „The leader of the electronic tribe would not be the person who knew most, but the one who could execute the broadest range of technical functions.”

It is hard not to agree with Birkerts — the danger is real.
Later in the same part, the author goes for analysis of audio books and hyperlinked systems. And here I came to conclusion that many his conclusions missed the true dangers and focused on some that are not really of any imminence. The first set of issues, related to audio books, I addressed before and I refer readers to that post. The second is related to hypertext. And here is where I disagree with the author very strongly. To me, he did not notice the true essence of hypertext. He focuses on potential non-linearity of reading on the web (true), on the difference on writing with the computer and a mouse, but misses the key point of the new communication enabled through hyperlinks. Some notes are good shots:

„Do we still call it reading? Or would we do better to coin a new term, something like 'texting' or 'word-piloting' ” or „Hypertext — at least the spirit of hypertext, which I see as the spirit of the times — promises to deliver me from this, to free me from the 'liberation domination' of the author”.

But generally, I must say, the Birkerts notion of hypertext is superficial and — that he also did not stress the real danger related to hypertext — the distraction it brings to frequent web readers...

The last part of the book, „Three meditations” contemplates the changes in literature and art. First, is describes the dissolution of the real audience („The isolated reader may remain, but the audience is gone and is not likely to reappear”) in the electronic era. Second, it refers to Alvin's Kernan's „Death of Literature” and analyses the eroding role of the literature and more generally, of art. The apparent reason of it, according to Birkerts, is in the ”entirely inhospitable” electronic environment to the „stuff of art”. Finally he worries about the degradation of the very role of author:

„It assumes, too, that people will, out of a vestigial craving for meaning, or out of a sinking dread at what their lives have become, turn again to writers for the news they need. If nothing like this happens, then the writer will take a place beside the scrimshow artist in the museum of hallowed but ultimately useless crafts.”

The book is concluded by a code with the significant title „The Faustian Pact”. Birkerts uses the devilish allegory and warns us about the full enodorsment of the electronic way of life:

„From deep in the heart I hear the voice that says, 'Refuse it'”

There is also an interesting author afterword, written by the author 10 years after the first edition of the book. He seems to ease his „Faustian Pact” dilemma: „It falls to us individually, one by one, to decide how we will face up to the seduction of the new — how much of it to use, how much to refuse”.

I must admit, that when I first read this book, several months ago I had a bit concerned opinion than today. Maybe it was after my reading of Nicolas Carr's "The Shadows" when I started to appreciate Birkerts "Cri de coeur" more...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Job book revisited in XXI century — „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by H. Kushner

For many reasons this very book waited very long to be reviewed on my blog. And I will abstain from the explanation: why? ....

From the superficial point of view Harold S. Kushner book „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is as the other tens if not hundreds of books of Motivation & Inspiration or Spirituality genre ... There is the something though, that adds to its solemnity — the dedication to Aaron Kushner, the author's son who died at the age of 14... Having this said, despite my compassion for the author, I must admit I was rather suspicious about the book and its message. Always, when a book devoted to the most important matters is acclaimed as a „National Bestseller” I grow suspicious...

But I was wrong. Entirely wrong. Rabbi Kushner wrote a book that can be thought of as the contemporary, and very personal — commentary to Job's Bible book.

He asks the fundamental question: „Why do the righteous suffer?” and going through typical contemporary answers, rejects them. He finally states:

„All the responses to tragedy which we have considered have at least one thing in common. They all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer. … There may be another approach. Maybe God does not cause our suffering. Maybe it happens for some reason other than the will of God.”

Then Kushner goes directly to the interpretation of the Book of Job.

The Book of Job to many is one of the most important and most mysterious books of the Bible, because it rises the question of the reason and sense of human suffering. For many, the very presence of Book of Job in K'tuvim (Writings) is a sign. And I believe it is. It is very brave and very atypical book...

Kushner's interpretation of Job is very unorthodox, although on a different level — he concludes that the fundamental message behind this important biblical narrative is:

„If God is God of justice and not of power, the He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. He can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. … We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, but to be strengthened and comforted.”

This and many other's passages and chapters of this small book, make the traditional idea of all powerful G-d less compelling to the idea of G-d Good and Just and respectful to the human freedom:

„This is what it means to be human 'in the image of God.' It means being free to make choices instead of doing whatever our instincts would tell us to do. It means knowing that some choices are good, and others are bad, and it is our job to know the difference…. But if Man is truly free to choose, if he can show himself as being virtuous by freely choosing the good when the bad is equally possible, then he has to be free to choose the bad also. If he were only free to do good, he would not really be choosing. If we are bound to do good, then we are not free to choose it."

Kushner makes a lot of historical references, also to Holocaust. His understanding of this calamity is far from „punishment” interpretation:

„When people ask 'Where was God in Auschwitz? How could he have allowed the Nazis to kill so many innocent men, women, and children?', my response is that it was not God who caused it. It was caused by human beings choosing to be cruel
to their fellow man. (...)
I have to believe that the Holocaust was at least as much of an offense to God's moral order as it is to mine, or how can I respect God as a source of moral guidance? … I have to believe that the tears and prayers of the victims aroused God's compassion, but having given Man freedom to choose, including the freedom to choose to hurt his neighbour, there was nothing God could do to prevent it.”

Can we think of all fatalities of our lives as an „exercise” ? As the trail brought on us to bring us higher? Kushners' answer is: no, we can't:

„The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because He knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. We begin to wonder how we will ever make it through all the years. But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.”

I know that Kushners' views are perhaps unorthodox, but I can tell you , my reader, the following:

Any time I visit the places in Poland like nearby Chelmno, and I feel all the horrors the innocent people came through there (and in hundreds of such places) I can not, just can not think of this loss of life of unimaginable proportions as of the punishment. Anytime an unimaginable disaster or accident happens, I have no words to utter. I only tend to think that G-d, by his own powerful choice, made the human free will really FREE. Free for Good and for Bad... Free to err and free to trace and follow G-d's message...

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Backlog of reviews ....

Despite some little success of writing 4 quite long reviews of the books I have been reading since holiday time, the backlog of reviews still has the following titles:

Sven's Birkets — „Guttenberg Elegies” (already done, see above)
Joseph Conrad — „Nostromo”
Harold Kushner — „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” (review written, see above)
Douglas Adams — „The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”

I'm not sure if I will be able to write any review of the last despity standing up and shouting „Fun, Fun, Fun !!!” :-)

As for the rest — we will see. I'm getting phyically better, so I'm not sure I will have time for more reviews soon....

Marek Halter's Saga — The Book of Abraham

I have been reading this amazing book (in paper) since June. It is a thick 800 pages tome, and the very first impression one gets is of the important physicality of books. Still important...

The Book of Abraham” is partially factual partially fictional saga of Marek Halter's family. Marek Halter is Polish born French-Jewish writer and activists. For Poles he is famous for working toward reconciliation between Jews and Poles. He was also very active anti-communist activist (the first independent radio station used by Lech Wałęsa in 1980 was smuggled by Marek Halter to Gdańsk).

The book tells the story of Jewish family with origins in Jerusalem AD 70 during the destruction of the Second Temple. The forefather of all generations is Abraham the Scribe. We follow the paths of his progeny, and on the way we learn the history of Jewish Exile that started in the beginning of the first millennium and ended in XX century. The inseparable companion of the family through the ages is the scroll where the names of the family members are written and transmitted through ages.

Fascinating, colourful plot takes the reader to Alexandria, to Hippo, Toledo, Cordova, Narbonne, Troyes, Strasbourg, Benfeld, Soncino, Salonika, Constantinopole, Amsterdam, Lublin, Żółkiew, Paris, Warsaw and Oddessa... The destiny meets the family ancestors with many important historical figures like Bishop Augustine of Hippo, famous Torah commentator Rashi (at Troyes) or Gutenberg during the time of the invention of books. The stories are told by a very good and captivating narration. If author did not announce it, the reader would not be able to discover where the fiction ends and true account starts.

One of the most important motives of „The Book of Abraham” is about importance of writing and printing and devotion to books. Books are no longer only to be read — they become important elements of family survival, they shape generation by generation, they instil the meaning of life into the hearts of descendants.

For Europeans, who are convinced about superiority of their culture and civilization it is not an easy book. Even though Marek Halter did not write martyrology of Jews, it is hard not to think of the family dole as of martyrdom. Most of the history of Jewish exile is the constant escape. Even in Poland, where the Jewish life flourished, their lives was far from safety. We witness the relatively unknown and senseless Warsaw's Pogrom, and hostility toward Jews before the war, despite their effort to form the military units (many were formed) to fight against Germans. Even though Marek's and his parents’ life was saved by brave Pole during horrors of Warsaw Ghetto, when they returned after the war to then communist, Russian subjugated Poland — they were greeted with a mixture of hostility and contempt. So it is difficult experience for Pole or European to read passages about it. Yet — it is not Halter's invention. He writes in truth... I know it also from my family and my friends families war time and post-war time stories....

I was happy that in the days and years of distraction due to Web and eBooks, in months when I was listening to many audio books, I could find days and hours to dive into this fantastic book and commit o truly deep-reading :-)

Sarah's Key — Still Small Voice ...

There are almost no European nation that did not participate in Holocaust. Ages old hatred and hostility to Jews, the eternal Others — created a situation of common acquiescence to Nazis devilish plan. Of course, the degree and the kind of the sins vary from nation to nation. It takes generations to rise publicly recognizable people, writers and artists to conduct a true nation's heart-searching and uncover, often with pain, the naked sin. Sin that has no explanation...

For me, French writer Tatiana de Rosnay's „Sarah's Key” is one of the most important books about Holocaust and the current awareness of it — in the most european of European's countries — France. While most of Nazi's horrors of Shoah happened on Polish soil, the fate of Jews in France was of specific, because it was in hands of highly coordinated French policemen of the legal French government. Such action was unusual in the WWII Europe.

The book's two parallel plots interweave the past (1942 France) and the present (2002 Paris).
In the past thread we read about operation Vel' d' Hiv' when 13000 Parisian Jews were packed into Velodrome d'Hiver (cycle track) and kept there indoor in horrible conditions, before being sent to concentration camps, first around Paris (Drancy) and then to Auschwitz.

The hero of that thread, young girl Sarah, in an attempt to save his brother, saves him from French policemen, but not from peril of death. When she escapes from a camp, and with help of French family comes back to Paris, she discovers what happened — and the event cast a shadow on all of her future life ...

In the contemporary thread, Julia, an American journalist married to a Frenchman, discovers the connection of her husband’s family has to the events of 1942...

She relentlessly goes after all possible tips to find what happened to Sarah and to understand what was the attitude of French to the Holocaust. It is good it was written by the French writer. Still Small Voice....

The book is also a very good page-turner (or ear-defender if you listen to audio), so I recommend it, even though as for war time books, it is not as deep as Zusak's „The Book Thief” ...

I read this book quite long time ago. For many reasons I could not write this review for a long time. Meanwhile I visited the place of Velodrome d'Hiver. The monument is not very easy to find. Finally my daughter found it and made the pictures of this moving monument:

You can see more monument pictures made by Jola.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Political Mind - prophetic or controversial ?

When I read first chapters of the George's LakoffThe Political Mind” during this year holidays I was almost elated. It played the tune that sounded true not only in American tuning but also in European one and in my Polish tuning as well. I found it almost prophetic and eye openning.

Having the subtitle „Why you can't understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain” the book uncovers the role of specific language and its structural forms in politics and shows that this role is much deeper than we usually think — that it goes deeply into our brains and moulds our minds...

The book starts by the recall to Anna Nicole Smith case. Of course her life and death story was not the main reason of the interest. Rather the typical "frames" and "scripts" within which her story was told, are of the author interest. The frames and scripts of Anna Nicole Smith life were mostly untrue. Yet they spread to such extent that many people identified with them, despite their almost obvious unreliability. The narrative about Anna Nicole Smith was so important that Lakoff cites David Rieff: „understanding the importance of Anna Nicol Smith will help us understand politics”. And this leads us to interesting part of the book where „conceptual frames”, „semantic fields” or „specific scripts” are used to understand a phenomenon instead of the more deeper knowledge about the phenom itself.

This is typical to politics. And in the XXI century politics with pervasive use of digital media, these frames and scripts spread even faster than before. Lakoff tries to prove that it is not self-fuelling process. Behind most important political frames and narratives of American politics stand the conscious and systematic activity of conservatives. The book lists many examples where certain popular narratives (like that about „war on terror”) were just created to serve a particular goal. When Lakoff speaks about American politics, it is clear he stands on democratic (or how he called them "progressive") positions. He sees his mission, the mission of this book in uncovering the problem:

„Conservatives have excelled at articulating their values and ideas. It is time for progressives to do the same. My job here is to unlock the cognitive unconscious, to take progressive thought off the leash and to draw an accurate picture of conservative thought for the sake of comparison.”

He first finds the source of the polarisation in the family values. By almost equating the empathy with progressive values and authority with conservatives values, Lakoff tries to explain how our family upbringing can lead us to take a specific position on the political scene. Behind this conclusion is the assumption of the deep role of specific brain structures amplified by the specific family models (like Strict Father Model or Nurturant Parent Model) so that we select empathy or authority as the ground of our certain political choices.

This way of thinking is then extended in the analysis of the role of the brain in Political Ideologies. He uncovers certain metaphors that are used by politicians (purity, rottenness, light, darkness) when speaking about morality — and shows how deep is the importance of these metaphors in the formation of political ideology. The working of these metaphors is very often unconscious and some of them have deeply „embodied” aspect.

The central part of the book shows Lakoff way of thinking in practice. He analysies the role of some traumatic metaphors like „The War on Terror” or „Privateering” or some media created stereotypes (e.g. „sons of the welfare queen”) in politics and in achieving certain political goals.

To this moment I liked his book. Certainly its main purpose, i.e. to wake up our awareness of the the role of certain brain activities, particularly — unconscious activities and their role in our political decisions — is achieved. And I'm thankful to Lakoff for that. When I looked through his eyes on my domestic, Polish politics and discovered how many frames and (invented) narratives started to live their own life and influenced politics, even if they were based on false stories. Take the metaphor of „undercover agent” almost synonymic with an evil-doer of communist times and using this metaphor against Lech Walesa by his political opponents....

But on that level, or at these kind of reasoning the value of the book ends...

Let me now list issues which I have against the book. These issues are serious and, in my opinion, they diminish the value of the book — which could be a great contribution to the current political discussion. Could be. But is not.

First, I understand George Lakoff is scientist. While there is nothing bad in scientists to have political opinions and express them openly, it is quite disturbing when the certain political views and biases put shadow on the science the scientists cultivates. As an example take the way in which Lakoff calls political oponents of the US scene. He does not call them „democrats” vs. „republicans” or even „liberals” vs. „conservatives”. He calls the first „progressives” and the later — „conservatives”. By making this delicate and almost unnoticeable shift, he puts a certain frame and certain narration into motion. He tries to amplify his own political agenda by the scientific method (brain science and linguistics) he tries to say it is objective! His „progressive” narration about Democrats is like many narrations and metaphors a bit untrue, to say the least. It ignores the fact that the first, and only one by name, Progressive Party was actually formed by a split in Republican Party! Of course, we can't call today's republicans „progressives”, but we shouldn't speak about political opponents using certain frames and labels that are not quite true... (BTW, I am, like Lakoff, on the side of Democrats :-) )

Second, I'm very sympathetic to the current progress of brain science. I'm far from the understanding of the mind as something disembodied and purely logical. But the current state of the brain science does not allow now for many conclusions that Lakoff makes. For example by literally painting the metaphors as the results of certain synaptic connections — and speaking of abstract context as of result of the another physical connections is such great oversimplification that authors conclusions (even after his acknowledgment of the oversimplification) about important political consequences of brain structures seems to be naive.

I'm not a brain scientist. I'm physicist and chemist. But I read a lot about brain science and I know the simple fact — our current science is still very far from understanding the mind and the brain — its home and cradle. The way Lakoff reduces politics to brain mechanisms is naive — to say the list.

Finally, I was shocked by the naivety of the final chapter „What if it works” where Lakoff gives quite bombastic predictions how fantastic would be the politics if we all apply his way of thinking about brain and politics. This is perhaps the worst part of the book, and in some sense it close to the bombastic parts of Neuro Evolution... I know it was typical to scientists of Enlightenment age (which, ironically, he critisises) to predict bright future if their theories worked ...

But we also know from history how it often ended, despite beautiful words and lips full of empathy. This is why I find the book controversial to the same extent as it is prophetic ....

Macrospherology of humans. Globes - volume two of Peter Sloterdijk's Spheres

I have been reading the second volume of Sloterdijk's magnum opus for a couple of months now. I still haven't found the time for a f...