Sunday, March 18, 2018

Connections: Physicist David Deutsch on the Human Career and the Fermi Paradox the summer of 2016, physicist David Deutsch was a guest on Sam Harris' engaging and thought-provoking podcast Waking Up. (The podcast was released on August 21, 2016 and can be found at the link to the right, or in platforms such as iTunes.)

Among the many fascinating topics the pair touched upon during their lively, almost two hour conversation, two in particular stood out for me, connecting with books I have read over the past few years: Deutsch’s concerns about the threats he sees to the future of humankind; and his explanation and discussion of the Fermi Paradox, and possible explanations for it.

Regarding the future of humanity, at 1:17:58 into the conversation Harris asks Deutsch:
SH: What worries you about the viability of the human career at this point? What’s on your short list of concerns?

Deutsch opens his reply with a succinct and rather pessimistic sketch of human history, before going on to identify what he feels was the key moment of transition that led to the explosion of progress of the last several centuries:
DD: Well, I see human history as a long period of complete failure. Failure, that is, to make any progress. Now our species has existed for depending on where you count it from maybe 50 thousand years, maybe 100, 200 thousand years, but, anyway, the vast majority of that time people were alive, they were thinking, they were suffering, they wanted things --- nothing ever improved.

The slow improvements that did happen, happened so that … geologists can’t distinguish the difference between the artifacts from one era to another with a resolution of like 10,000 years. So, from the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever improved. Generation upon generation upon generation of suffering and stasis.

Then there was slow improvement, then a more rapid improvement, then there were several attempts to institutionalize a tradition of criticism, which I think is the key to rapid progress in the sense that we think of it, progress discernible on the time scale of a human lifetime. And also error correction, so that regression is less likely.

That happened several times, and failed every time except once: in the European enlightenment of the 17th, 18th centuries.

Deutsch’s highlighting of the importance of the development of a tradition of criticism recalled for me a similar analysis by historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (The discussion that follows on Harari's views is adapted from my review of his book, linked to at the right; quotes from the book are referenced with the page number.)
Harari’s book centers on the idea that the key trait that differentiated Homo Sapiens from the other human species, and allowed them to therefore become the sole surviving species of humans, was the development of the ability to create imagined orders: fictions or constructs that form the basis of all of our non-biologically driven thought and action. He goes on to describe the wide variety of extraordinary ways in which this ability manifested itself during the evolution of human society and civilization.

Evoking Deutsch’s identification of the development of a tradition of criticism as the driver for the Enlightenment, Harari highlights that same moment, if in slightly different language, in pinpointing the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution some 500 years ago as the period when humankind began to acknowledge its own ignorance, and so ceased to blindly divide knowledge between that which was ordained by religious belief and that which was simply unimportant to know. Along with this change came a shift to making observation and mathematics central to improving our understanding, and a focus on turning scientific discoveries into technical advances.

Like Deutsch, Harari also sees this development as having occurred successfully only in Western Europe, and as having resulted in an unparalleled advantage for the West in its growth.   There, Harari notes, this revolution was matched by a burning desire to fill in the gaps, a “mentality of conquest” (283) that set off a frenzied search for new discoveries both in a scientific sense, and also in the searching out of news lands in parts of the globe unknown to Europeans: “As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined.” (284)

This combination of interest in science and desire for conquest resulted in a decisive edge for nations in Western Europe, Harari argues, as they reached outward. Although empires in Asia and the Western Hemisphere produced scientific discoveries on par with Western Europe, and were more powerful than countries in Western Europe as the Scientific Revolution began, “they lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.” (282)  Thus, as Western Europeans began exploring the globe, these more powerful empires stayed close to home, and found themselves unprepared to counter Europe’s expansion onto the world scene.

The deep belief and faith in progress and the future that accompanied the Scientific Revolution in Western Europe also set the stage for the development of capitalism. Harari points out that capitalism and the Scientific Revolution worked hand in hand in the West, becoming a combination of imagined orders that strengthened one another in a powerful feedback loop as investments in science led to new discoveries that led to new technologies that gave governments the power to gain control of more resources, and so provide yet more funding for further scientific advancement.

Thus, whether naming it "a tradition of criticism," per Deutsch, or an "acknowledgement of ignorance," per Harari, a critical change in thought patterns in Western Europe some half a millennium ago, provided the impetus for the rapid growth and spread of its civilization, and so utterly shaped our present world.

Returning, then, to Deutsch's comments, he goes on to express his deep concern over what he sees as the fragile nature of this tradition of criticism, and the lack of understanding among those currently benefiting from it of how to maintain that tradition, and so Western civilization.

DD: So, you asked what worries me. What worries me is that the inheritors of that little bit of progress, little bit of salutary progress, are only a small proportion of the population of the world today. It’s the culture or civilization that we call the West. Only the West really has a tradition of criticism institutionalized. And, this has manifested itself in various problems, including the problem of failed cultures, which see their failure writ large by comparison of themselves with the West, and therefore want to do something about this that doesn’t involve creativity. And that is very, very dangerous.

So, then there’s the fact that in the West, the knowledge of what it takes to maintain our civilization is not widely known. In fact, as you’ve also said, the prevailing view among people in the West, including very educated people, is of a picture of the relationship between knowledge and progress and civilization and values and so on, that’s just wrong in so many different ways.

So, although the institutions of our culture are amazingly good, that they have been able to manage stability in the face of rapid change for hundreds of years, the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable, in the face of rapidly increasing knowledge, is not very widespread, and in fact, severe misconceptions about several aspects of it are common among political leaders, educated people, and society at large. So, we’re like people on a hugely well designed submarine, which has got all sorts of life-saving devices built-in, but they don’t know they’re in a submarine, they think they’re in a motorboat, and they’re going to open all the hatches because they want to have a nicer view.’s concern regarding what he perceives as the loss among those in the West of “the knowledge of what it takes to maintain our civilization” recalled for me the thesis of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett, in his 1930 essay The Revolt of the Masses, in which he argues that there has been a loss of what he refers to as the “vital force” necessary for the maintenance and further development of civilization.  (The discussion that follows on Ortega's views is adapted from my review of his book, linked to at the right; quotes from the book are referenced with the page number.)

Although Deutsch did not elaborate in his conversation with Harris on what he considers to have been the origins of what he refers to as the "severe misconceptions about several aspects" of "the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable," Ortega makes explicitly and firmly clear his opinion of its origins already in his title: a revolt of the masses.

Early on in his essay Ortega clarifies that the revolt to which he refers is not the violent overthrow of a governing regime but rather an upending of the social order, in which the masses have inserted themselves into, and asserted their sovereignty over, all aspects of society: “the accession of the masses to complete social power.” (11)  The consequence of this has been the loss of the “vital force" necessary for maintaining civilization.  That vital force, he says, had been provided for centuries by aristocrats: scientists, philosophers, politicians and other intellectuals who took responsibility for the enrichment and governing of civilization, and guided the progress of human society in all spheres of development.

By aristocrat, Ortega refers not simply to someone with money, power or prestige, but rather to what he calls a select minority, “the man who demands more of himself than the rest”, and so is capable of supporting and advancing humankind’s social development.  This is not a class issue, Ortega claims, differentiating the select minority from the masses, "who demand nothing special of themselves, [and] for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection." (15)  Thus, the distinguishing feature of someone in the masses is an inability to recognize the efforts required by our forebearers to achieve the benefits of current day civilization, and consequently an unwillingness to struggle to improve oneself and society.

Critically, the masses had historically ceded power to these aristocrats, allowing them to determine the distribution and access to the benefits thus created.  In one of the more striking claims of Ortega's analysis, however, he argues that the very advances that have improved life for so many have also inevitably led to the accession of the masses that now threatens civilization’s future.  These newly ascendant masses, in contrast to the select minorities who labored diligently to advance civilization, have viewed the resulting benefits as a kind of outgrowth of the natural world --- essentially a birthright.

Thus, failing to recognize the effort required to maintain and grow civilization, the masses have narrowed their focus onto themselves, and have found no reason to exert effort in “pushing themselves to excel, [and] have little feeling of ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’.” (65)  A further consequence of this has been that the masses regard their thoughts and opinions as perfect, and so take on new ideas and beliefs without making any effort to develop the rationale and reasons for them. This leaves them unwilling, then, to put up with contrary opinions, because to do so would subject their own ideas to uncomfortable discussion and consideration.

Ortega goes on to describe the world as having been led by Europe from the time that an integrated global civilization developed. In his view, however, the accession of mass-man to a position of power, and their unwillingness to exert the effort required to advance, or even maintain, civilization’s complex infrastructure, have diminished Europe’s ability to maintain its leadership role in the world.

In his comments, Deutsch called the fact that "the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable ... is not very widespread" as being "very, very dangerous."  And, so although Deutsch may or may not agree with the details of Ortega's arguments for the causes that have led to this present situation, his conclusion is not so far removed from Ortega's: a vacuum in leadership has developed, one that left countries and regions of the world drifting in dangerously divergent directions, and, as a result, “Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilizations.” (11)

At about 1:39:20 point in the conversation, Harris raises the question of the Fermi Paradox with Deutsch. (Note that Deutsch corrects him to say it’s the Fermi Problem, but my review of the two terms indicates that Harris was correct, and that the Fermi Problem is actually a different concept; the Fermi Paradox could be argued to be a type of Fermi Problem, focused specifically on the existence of extra-terrestrial life. So, with the awareness that I'm correcting a world renowned physicist, I’ve reflected that in the opening words of Deutsch’s reply.)

SH: I wanted to get your opinion on the Fermi Paradox.  And, describe what the paradox is for those who don't know it, but then, tell me why our not seeing the galaxy teeming with more advanced civilizations than our own isn't a sign that there's something about gathering more knowledge that might in fact be fatal to those who gather it.
DD: The Fermi [Paradox] is: where are they? Where are the extra-terrestrials?

The idea is that the galaxy is very large, but how big it is, is trumped by how old it is. So that, if there were two civilizations anywhere in the galaxy, the chances that they had arisen less than, say, ten million years apart, are infinitesimal. So therefore, if there is another one out there, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be at least ten million years older than us, and therefore to have had ten million years more time to develop, and also in that time there’s plenty of time for them to get here, if not be space travel, then by sheer mixing of the stars in the galaxy. They only need to colonize a few nearby stars to them, so that after say a hundred million years, or a billion years, those stars will be far apart, and spread about the galaxy. So, we would be seeing evidence of them, and since we don’t see evidence of them, they’re not out there.

Well, this is a problem, but I think the problem is just that we don’t yet understand very well most of the parameters. And if you just fill in the parameters, like you know: are they likely to use radio waves; what are they likely to do by way of exploration; what are their wishes likely to be. In all these cases we make an assumption that’s kind of based on saying that they’ll be like us in that way, and that they will use technology in the same way that we do. And, we only need to be wrong in one of those assumptions for the conclusion that we should have seen them by now to be false.

Now, another possibility is that we are the first, at least we are the first in our galaxy. And I think that would be quite nice.

SH: Does that second assumption strike you as very implausible, or not?

DD: Like I say, I don’t think we know enough about all the different factors affecting this for any one idea to be very plausible or implausible. I mean, what’s implausible is that they can have a different way of creating knowledge to us. That kind of thing is implausible, because it just implies that physics is very different from the way we think it is, and if you’re going to think that, you may as well, believe in the Greek Gods.

Another possibility is that most societies don’t destroy themselves --- like I said, I think that’s fairly implausible for us and it’s very, very implausible that this generically happens. … I think what is more plausible --- although again, I must say that this is just idle speculation --- is that most societies settle down to staticity.'s comments on the Fermi Paradox reminded me of Chinese engineer and science fiction writer Liu Cixin's answer to it in his recent science fiction trilogy Remembrance of Earth's Past.  I link to my review of the first of the novels in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, at right.  Links to my reviews of the remaining two novels can also be found there.

In his trilogy, Liu postulates the universe as being what he refers to as a dark forest.  Broadly, his thesis is that given the inherent nature of the limitations in ability to communicate over large distances, and the patterns of rapid technological growth, planetary civilizations come to recognize the danger of revealing their presence to others in the galaxy, and so hide, like fearful animals in a dark forest, afraid to reveal themselves in case a more powerful animal might see them, and predisposed to attack first, if they discover some other animal.

More details on his viewpoint, and on his extremely engaging and thought-provoking trilogy, can be found in my reviews of his novels.

Returning again to Deutsch's comments, he goes on to give a more complete description of his idea of staticity:

DD: Now, our experience of staticity is conditioned by static societies in our past, which, as I said, have been unimaginably horrible from our present perspective.  But if you imagine a society who’s material welfare is say a million times better than ours, and somehow that become settled into a sort of ritualistic religion in which everybody does the same thing all the time, but nobody really suffers --- that seems to me like hell, but I can imagine that there can be societies in which, as you said, they can’t see the different ways of being.  So, it’s like you said, used the example of being near Oxford and not knowing about Africa; you could be on the top of the tallest mountain in Britain, and not know that Mount Everest exists.  And, if the height of the mountain is what measures happiness, you might be moderately happy, and no know that a better happiness is available.  And, if so, you could just stay like that.

Have you read these books, others by these authors, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: "Revenge of the Kremlin" by Gérard de Villiers

Revenge of the Kremlin (2013)
Gérard de Villiers (1929-2013)
Translated from the French by William Rodarmor
230 pages

Intelligence reports of Russia meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and possibly colluding with the Trump campaign have received heavy coverage in the American media over the last couple of years.  It can be easy for Americans to forget, however, the broader history of Russia’s re-emergence as an active presence internationally since the election of Vladimir Putin as its president.

The most prominent example of that return to the world stage has been Russian military involvement in places such as Ukraine and Syria.  Less overt, but perhaps more dramatic, have been accusations of the Kremlin orchestrating the poisoning of Russians who oppose Putin, especially if they live outside Russia.  Even as this review is published, a new such case is being investigated in London: see for example here, here, and here.

Among those the Kremlin is accused of targeting are oligarchs who became rich and powerful in the early years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and who have been opposing Putin politically. One such prominent Putin critic was Boris Berezovsky. After being asked by authorities in Russia to come in for questioning in 2000, Berezovsky was granted political asylum by England, and later convicted in absentia in Russia of fraud and embezzlement. In 2013 he was found dead in his home in London of an apparent suicide, though the coroner recorded an open verdict on the death. (These and further details can be found here.)

The earlier accusations of assassination attempts on other Russian enemies of Putin, the long-running efforts by Russia to extradite Berezovsky, and the lack of closure about the cause of his death fairly invited suspicions of foul play. Seeing the opportunity for a conspiracy involving the Russians, novelist Gérard de Villier immediately set about incorporating Berezovsky’s death into a new volume in his almost half-century long SAS series of spy novels. Wildly popular in Europe, the series follows the exploits of an Austrian operative for the CIA, Malko Linge, and is famous for de Villier’s incorporation of current events --- often just months old when the resulting novel appears. Revenge of the Kremlin became the 200th book of the series, and will be the final one, as de Villiers died shortly after it was published.

De Villiers claimed to have developed extensive contacts in intelligence agencies around the world, and so to have access to the background information necessary to allow him to build published media reports into plausible stories of international political machinations. The result for readers are novels pulled from the headlines, but offering seemingly convincing explanations for what might lie behind the news. This final book in his SAS series demonstrates how quickly he could turn around stories from the headlines, as de Villier passed away just seven months after Berezovsky’s death.

The story opens in the Kremlin as Putin sets in motion a plan to assassinate Berezovsky. The scene then shifts to London, where, in the wake of Berezovsky’s death, the CIA calls in Malko to investigate. The CIA has suspicions that the suicide may have been staged, and has concerns about the apparent unwillingness of the British government to seriously investigate the case. The death has come on the heels of a secret meeting between Putin and the British Prime Minister Cameron, and the US agency has concerns that a secret agreement may have been made between Britain and Russia that could jeopardize US-British relations.

Typical of de Villiers’ novels in the SAS series (see my review of The Madmen of Benghazi here), once the basic plot has been introduced the action quickly heats up. The unexpected involvement of the CIA has the Russians worried that what had been a neat and tidy operation --- Berezovsky’s suicide eliciting little press coverage and no comments from the British government --- may suddenly be at risk of falling apart, and so their involvement revealed. Their increasing attempts to cover their tracks and disrupt the CIA investigation force Malko to stay one step ahead of Russian hit men as he struggles to uncover clues to what actually happened in the face of the British government’s active stonewalling.

By fitting Malko’s activities within the broad outlines of actual, publicly reported events and political realities, de Villiers maintains for the reader a powerful implication of plausibility. And since the work Malko does for the CIA is by its very nature top secret, de Villiers has an implicit explanation for why lay readers will not have heard of the motivations and events detailed in the stories. It can therefore be difficult for most readers to avoid coming away from the story with the feeling that, while the particular details may be fiction, the broader conspiracy could be true.

The main attraction of the novels in this series is in fact that tight connection to reality that de Villiers maintains. As he clearly prizes speed to market to be able to catch the political moment and mood, one shouldn’t expect deep character development or literary prose in these novels; rather, these are fast-paced stories of intrigue and adventure.

And certainly that action doesn’t only take place on the streets: readers of others of de Villiers’ novels will not be surprised to learn that Malko doesn’t pass up an opportunity for sex with the women he meets in this story, whether former lovers, new contacts or simply an available escort. Most women apparently find him irresistible, and even those who make a show of playing hard to get don’t hold out long. The sex scenes are brief interludes, but generally aggressive and hardcore, with little left to the imagination.

As can be seen in the picture at the top of this review, the U.S. cover of the book manages to capture both the high-stakes political intrigue as well as the lascivious undercurrents of the story. A short Google search for an image of the original French cover of this book, such as the one at the right, or of other novels in the series for that matte, as can be seen here, makes clear that de Villiers and his editors understood perfectly well that sex helps sell, however compelling the political machinations and life-or-death action may be.

Revenge of the Kremlin is an entertaining, quick read that gives a reader the feeling of peeking behind the scenes of the political situation we find described in current news reports. With de Villiers’ death, this will be the last of his Malko Linge novels; for U.S. readers who enjoy these stories, however, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the 200 novels in the series remain to be translated into English…

Other reviews / information:

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Review: "Good Morning, Midnight" by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Good Morning, Midnight (2016)
Lily Brooks-Dalton

256 pages

In my review of Marlen Haushofer’s post-apocalyptic novel The Wall, I mention that what attracts me to such stories is not “the precipitating catastrophic event itself, but rather … the characters’ reactions to the new situation they find themselves in.” I found my conviction on that point put to the test by author Lily Brooks-Dalton in her story Good Morning, Midnight, in which something goes very wrong on Earth, but exactly what remains a mystery to both the characters and the reader.

Set perhaps a few decades into our future, the story opens at an observatory on an island in the far north of Canada, well above the Arctic Circle. There, a year after the rest of the staff were hurriedly evacuated amidst rumors that “something catastrophic was happing in the outside world” (10), an aging astronomer, Augustine, carries on his work. Cantankerous, and caring only about continuing his research, Augustine had refused to leave, despite warnings that there would be no further rescue missions coming for him.

And indeed, when Augustine tries the base’s radio just days after the evacuation, the outside world had gone silent, leaving him with no idea what might have occurred. Augustine has a more immediate concern however, one that motivated the self-proclaimed loner to fire up the radio at all: his discovery of a young girl, Iris, in one of the dormitory buildings on the base. He figures her to be about eight years old, and wonders how she could have been left behind in the evacuation, and why he has no memory of having seen her on the base before. Having spent his life looking upward to the cosmos, with barely any time left over to consider the world or people around him, he realizes that he has no idea what to do with her.
Despite having received broad renown as a scientist, Augustine has remained unsatisfied, desperate to make a discovery that will ensure his fame matches the historical giants of his field, and so extends far into the future. That single-minded focus left him with little time in his life for anything else, causing him decades earlier to leave behind his wife and young daughter, and beyond them, any other connection to the world that threatened to interfere with his goals. Now, even as he continues his work at the observatory, the sudden appearance of Iris in his life --- and the deafening silence of the outside world --- force him to confront the profoundly ephemeral nature of his fame. Marooned at the end of the Earth, he finds himself re-examining the choices he has made in life.

A second plot-line parallels events on the observatory base: far from Earth, on a spaceship beginning the return trip from exploration of the Jupiter system, the communications officer, Sully, suddenly discovers that contact with Earth has been lost. As the days pass without contact being reestablished, Sully and her five crewmates confront the reality that something more serious than a simple technical glitch may have occurred. As the silence from Earth drags on from days into weeks and then months, the crew struggle to carry on their mission; the motivation to continue the scientific work, or even to just maintain the routines necessary to get themselves safely back to Earth, begin to lose meaning. Each of them becomes lost in thoughts of what has happened to the people and world they left behind, each reacting differently to the unexpected situation.

The portion of the story set aboard the spaceship focuses on Sully, and though she is decades younger than Augustine, similarities abound between the two. Like Augustine, Sully has spent her life looking upward, beyond Earth --- in her case becoming an astronaut. She too now finds the enormity of the crisis causing her to reevaluate the suddenly enormous seeming cost of her unwavering pursuit of space: a failed relationship and lost connection with her former husband and their daughter. Contemplating what may have happened back on Earth, she comes to realize that her recognition of the impact of the sacrifices she has made has likely come too late to atone for.

The two plot lines are told in alternating chapters, and, with the cause and extent of the catastrophe on Earth left unrevealed, Brooks-Dalton keeps the focus squarely on the psychological crisis Augustine and Sully each face as they re-examine their past choices in the face of heart-rending uncertainty and loss. For the reader, the story has strong parallels to Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (my review here) which, although not a post-apocalyptic novel, leaves readers in the dark about its central, motivating reality --- as much so as the characters themselves. In both novels, this shared uncertainty with the characters helps deepen our empathy for the emotional conflicts they experience.

That shared plot device does, however, lead to a nagging concern for readers of both stories: the plausibility of the characters actually remaining so completely unaware of the truth. In Brooks-Dalton’s novel this relates, of course, to the apocalypse that has occurred. However self-absorbed and focused on work Augustine may be, can he really be expected to know nothing more than that “something catastrophic” is occurring? For those on the spaceship, one could assume that their communications were well-filtered by mission control, but can they be expected to remain so in the dark about such an apparently extensive disaster even once back to Earth orbit? Admittedly, complaining about implausibility in science fiction novels is a bit unproductive, since future technology can always serve explicitly or implicitly to explain it away, and ultimately this is a minor quibble for both of these engaging stories.

In Good Morning, Midnight, Augustine and Sully each experience the unspecified apocalypse, and the depth of the resulting isolation, as a catalyst forcing them to recognize the implications of the self-imposed seclusion they have cultivated as they have pursued their careers. When their two plot lines briefly and tenuously cross toward the end of the novel these two characters --- more similar than they know --- find a moment of solace in the connection, and in the knowledge that there may yet be hope for a future for mankind. The true poignancy of that moment is, however, left for the reader to grasp and reflect upon.

Other reviews / information:

As an Amateur Radio operator, it was fun to see that hobby make an appearance in the story.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: "Bear" by Marian Engel

Bear (Oso) (1976)
Marian Engel (1933-1985)
Translated into Spanish from the original English by Magdalena Palmer

171 pages

British actress Beatrice Stella Tanner Campbell is famously reported to have said: “It doesn’t make any difference what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”  Such broad equanimity was apparently not displayed by many readers of Marian Engel’s novel Bear: the notes on the back of the edition I read describe it as “being considered one of the best (and most controversial) novels of Canadian literature.” And, in fact, Bear is not for the easily offended.

The main character, Lou, works as an archivist at a Historical Institute in Toronto. Hidden away in a basement office, she sits quite literally buried in her work: piles of papers, books and other objects sent to the institute by people who felt there might value in them, and so couldn’t bring themselves to through away. Lou sorts through all these items, evaluating their usefulness as historical artifacts, though much of it seems to her to suspiciously resemble the detritus of daily life.

As the story opens, Toronto is in the grips of one of its long winters, a time when Lou “lives like a mole,” (9) simply passing from her apartment to her office and back. She seems to have little interest in engaging with anything beyond her home and work, preferring to remain comfortably sequestered in the constrained and muted world she has created for herself.

Then one day the her director stops by her office to say that a wealthy heiress has bequeathed a property to the institute, a house on a tiny isolated island in the northernmost waters of Lake Huron. The property had been in the heiress’ family for several generations, going back to Canada’s early history, and the director wants Lou to visit the house and catalog its contents, in the hopes of finding rare historical documents about the period of the country’s pioneers. The trip presents an opportunity for Lou to escape her underground lair and the boring sameness of the piles of archives she sifts through daily. As winter turns to spring, she packs her bags and travels north to visit the exotic acquisition.

Arriving on the island with the help of a man who owns a store at a nearby marina, and who has been charged with keeping an eye on the property, Lou is thrilled to discover a house with a distinctive architecture and a beautiful collection of furniture, as well as shelves and shelves of books and papers gathered by the generations of the family who have lived there. There is no electricity or running water however, and certainly no phone connection either (the story being written in the 1970’s, well before cell phones), so Lou is all but camping out --- albeit in a lovely house and location --- her only connection to the outside world a boat she can take to the marina on the mainland.

The island does contain one other distinctive feature: the bear of the title, chained to a stake, with a shed-like structure as a home. Lou learns from the caretaker that the bear has been on the island for decades, and that the heiress had treated it as a kind of pet.

Not surprisingly, Lou is initially wary of the bear. But she needs to feed it, and can’t help but observe its behavior from the house. Gradually her isolation on the island, and her growing comfort in the bear’s presence, lead her to begin to see it less as a wild animal, and ever more as a companion.
As spring turns into summer, Lou’s relationship with the bear transforms from caring for it as a docile, simple-minded pet, into viewing it as deeply inscrutable, almost mystically empathic confidant. In the presence of the bear she begins to open up to herself about her own deep-seated anxieties about her life, and her desire for direction and meaning. Given the depth of her spiritual pain and hunger, and, in the isolation of their life together on the island, Lou’s feelings for the bear quickly come to overpower her, becoming an irresistible attraction. As her feelings and actions become ever more intense and unpredictable, Lou struggles to make sense of what she is experiencing, and to find a way through it to solid ground.

Approaching Engel’s novel as a straight-forward narrative leaves little room for viewing it as anything other than a kind of crass bit of spectacle. And one can imagine that such a view led to the apparent controversy it generated. But such a view would be a mistake. A more sympathetic reading of the tale she has constructed is as a kind of allegory on the ability to find redemption and experience rejuvenation in nature, while acknowledging the danger of sinking so deeply into it that we can begin to lose our humanity, our sense of perspective about ourselves and our lives.

There is no question that the events and language of Engel’s erotically charged novel are graphic and shocking. But a reader able to open their mind to the intensity and depth of connection that Lou experiences can come away deeply affected by the story.

Other reviews / information:

Read a quote from the book here.
The translation from the Spanish of that quote, and the one used in the review, are mine.

I was given the book in Spanish, though the original was written in English. The translation by Magdalena Palmer seems fairly literal, with English expressions translated directly into Spanish as opposed to finding their Spanish equivalent. This surely made it easier to read for me to read, as a native English speaker, but it also seemed appropriate, because the setting --- the nature and wilds of Northern Canada --- play such a fundamental role in the story, and the language is such a critical part of that place.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: "The Simple Life" by Ernst Wiechert

The Simple Life (Das Einfache Leben) (1939)
Ernst Wiechert (1887-1950) 

336 pages

During the summer of 1938 Ernst Wiechert, the most published German author of his time, survived a short but harrowing imprisonment in the Buchenwald concentration camp at the hands of the Nazi regime. Upon his return home he set about writing a book, in part it seems to cleanse himself of the experience; the following year the novel The Simple Life (Das Einfache Leben in the original German) appeared, in which a former German naval captain, Thomas von Orla, leaves behind his wife and son, and all his other social connections and expectations, to seek out a more basic, almost ascetic, lifestyle.

As the story opens, Thomas stands at a window in his home bathed in the last light of sunset while reflecting on the meaning of a passage he has just read in his bible: “We spend our years as an idle tale that is told.” (Psalms 90:9)  A half dozen years have passed since the end of World War I, during which Thomas captained a frigate. In the wake of the horrific and seemingly pointless fighting he witnessed during the war, and without a current command in a largely demilitarized post-war Germany, he has been left adrift in an existential crisis about how to most appropriately live out his life. Arriving into the midst of his confusion the message of Psalms 90:9 --- that people tend to live their lives thoughtlessly --- becomes a clarion call for him.

Apparently well-off enough for his family to get by without his working, Thomas has bridled at his wife’s efforts to try and secure him the glamour of an active position by socializing with his naval superiors. As that sunset darkens into night, the message of the newly discovered Psalm --- and the dinner party his wife has set up with an influential admiral --- drive him out of the house for a long nighttime walk through the city to try to make sense of his agitation. By the end of his walk he has formulated the outlines of a plan for rescuing himself from his uncertainty and misery: venture out into the German countryside in search of manual labor on the land, through which to bring a clarified meaning and intention to his life.

Within days Thomas boards a train and heads east with only his bicycle and a few belongings, traveling deep into the Prussian countryside toward the border with Poland. Without a specific destination, he allows serendipity to be his guide, and eventually finds and takes up the position of fisherman for a large estate headed by an aging former General, who lives alone except for an orphaned granddaughter he is raising. Given Thomas’ military background, and his innately respectful nature heightened now by a simple desire to carry out well his assigned work, he and the General immediately develop a rapport that will come to deepen over the years.

As part of his contract, Thomas moves into a cabin on a small swell on an island in a lake that lies on the estate. Over the subsequent half dozen years Thomas settles into his new life, tending fishing nets and a small garden during the summers, and using the quiet isolation of the winter months to write books in which he examines the lessons he has taken from his experiences in the navy, and now in his new life. As the seasons pass, Thomas comes to discover deep peace and powerful meaning in a simple life of work tied tightly to the rhythms of nature, and distant from the pretensions and the hectic social complexity of the city he has left behind.

The pacing and structure of Wiechert’s writing style reinforce and enhance the novel’s themes. With little plot or action in the traditional sense, Wiechert describes Thomas’ quest for meaning through extended, almost poetic, meditations by Thomas about his new life and work in the countryside, and the people he meets there. Settling into the bucolic world of East Prussia, Thomas revels in his sudden awareness of nature, which he has never before observed with such focus and experienced with such intensity. In the life-cycles of the forests and lakes, the flowers and birds, he finds profound connections to his work and daily routines, and so validation of the more deliberate life he has sought out. Through Thomas’ impressions and reflections, Wiechert presents a paean to the idea of slowing down and seeking out a less distracted life, one more deeply connected to the natural world.

Those interactions and conversations that Thomas does have with other characters serve principally as a means of highlighting aspects of the simpler lifestyle he has chosen --- expanding on and exploring it with like-minded characters, while counterposing it with those who represent the society he has left behind. In particular, Thomas finds a kindred spirit in the General’s granddaughter, a young girl wise beyond her years, who has, in a way like Thomas himself has come to do, lived an isolated life on the huge estate with her aging grandfather, and over her short life has become deeply impacted by the natural world that is her home.

The grace of the novel’s deliberate and introspective tone becomes evident in a wonderful meditation on time set in the days just after Thomas has established himself at the estate. Wiechert opens that chapter with the observation that “the clock over the estate palace is the measure and rule for the countryside around the lake,” (70) and then goes on to explore the implications of this “measure and rule” through a rhythmic structure built around vignettes that each begin “The clock bell rings…” and proceed to describe the work being done somewhere on the farm at that moment. In a startling transition toward the end of the chapter, Wiechert shifts to the city Thomas has come from, and captures how the clock guides the vastly different urban lives and concerns of the wife and son he has left behind.

In these and other ways, Wiechert uses the depth of each character’s links to the rhythms of the natural world as an implication of their nearness to or distance from achieving a simpler, more meaningful life. Given the deeply Protestant culture of the East Prussian countryside at that time, Wiechert’s emphasis of the natural world over religious traditions introduces a tension to the story --- one particularly acute for Thomas, whose religious faith has been shaken by the horrors he experienced in the war and the devastating effects he sees among even its survivors.

Though a biblical passage gave Thomas the impetus to emerge out of his malaise, as the seasons pass on the island he comes to reconsider the meaning of the faith he grew up with. Finding profound and compelling meaning in the work and natural surroundings of his new life, he begins to question the character of God, or perhaps more precisely, the commonly accepted image of God held by his fellow countrymen. In a passage with strong parallels to the ancient messenger in Mark Twain’s The War Story (my review here), who enters a church in which a congregation feverishly prays to God for victory in war, and steps to the pulpit to tell the assembled exactly what horrors they are asking of God, Thomas declares that
...I will find a different face [of God]. Not one that is to be beseeched, and not one that is to be thanked. Not one before whom people will begin shouting: “Now thank all ye God!”, if they have just beaten to death a thousand or ten thousand men. Because then must the others clearly be shouting: “Now curse all ye God.” (241)

Beyond the religious questions that occupy Thomas’ thoughts, he also finds himself plagued by more earthly concerns. Though the book’s pacing and plot actively evoke the quiet calm of the simple life, Thomas finds himself unable to ignore the societal forces and realities arrayed so powerfully against its fulfillment. Powerful economic and social disruptions roiled Germany in the 1920's, and Wiechert acknowledges them in the story through several characters whose arrivals serve to disrupt Thomas in his sanctuary in the rural East Prussian countryside.

Through visits from Thomas’ son Joachim, for example, Wiechert depicts the frustration and restlessness of German youth of the time. Disenchanted with their elders, who they felt had acted at best ineptly and at worst cowardly during the losing German effort in the Great War, these youth set themselves in opposition to the older generation, its leaders and social order, and looked to themselves to restore German glory. Despite his love for his father, as Joachim becomes a young adult his childhood reverence for his father as a ship’s captain fades, particularly as he struggles to understand his father’s dramatic withdrawal from the social standing he had held as a naval officer. Over time Joachim comes to view Thomas as part of the faded and failed older generation, and visits to his father on the island become ever more strained.

Writing in 1938, Wiechert has certainly witnessed first-hand the significant impact this angry generation had, ultimately contributing to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. However, though the Nazi party existed during the time in which the book is set and had during the time-frame already begun its rise to power, Wiechert carefully avoids mentioning any political realities in his story. Having chosen to remain in Germany, and having just spent time in a concentration camp for what the Nazi’s felt was his questionable loyalty, he clearly had to walk a fine line. In the attitude of Joachim, however, Wiechert hints at the danger growing in the German world outside of Thomas’ personal sanctuary.

In the subplot involving the books Thomas writes about his experiences in World War I, Wiechert also touches on the constraints on public discourse in Germany at that time, and the risks and seeming futility of overstepping accepted bounds. Thomas comes to find that describing to others his search for a meaningful life, his discoveries in that process and what he has now understood about his past life in the navy, lie too far beyond the pale for comfortable discussion with anyone but his closest friends --- indeed his writings appear delusional, if not perhaps cowardly and dangerous, to many people he encounters or who read his books, including to his own son.
It seemed to him a mistake that he strove to offer his thoughts to the world. The world could be moved by thoughts, but was it not like with the pendulum that one pushes with one’s hand out past its two rest points? The clock would certainly not be affected by what happened beyond those points, but rather only by what happened between them. (256)
At various moments in history such constraints may be narrower or broader --- and the implications of violating them harsher or milder --- but they always exist, strictly, if invisibly, enforced by society.

Despite these acknowledgements of the social realities of the time, Wiechert’s book is much more circumspect about the calamitous economic situation in Germany in the 1920’s than, for example, the novel Blood Brothers (Blutsbrüder in the original German, my review here) by journalist and social worker Ernst Haffner, which had appeared just a few years earlier. Whereas Wiechert provides a philosophical tribute to leading a simpler life, and only hints at how the broader problems in Germany are undermining its realization, Haffner’s story is ripped from the headlines of the day, presenting a generation of youth who are as dispirited as Thomas but without his personal history of discipline and hard work --- or his material resources --- as they desperately fight to survive in the streets of a country in the midst of a terrible economic depression. Like Wiechert, Haffner does not explicitly mention the political situation; but Haffner was apparently still too explicit in his critique: he was summoned to the Ministry of Culture in the late 1930’s, after which all traces of him were lost.

For modern readers, aware of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime and the consequences of the war that would begin just months after the novel was published, there are chilling aspects to the story that Wiechert could most likely not have imagined. For one, the Nazi’s would come to twist the message of Wiechert’s novel, as embodied by Thomas’ pursuit of a simple life of manual work and the shedding of the complexities and constraints of the world of his time, by posting on the entrance of several concentration camps (though apparently not the Buchenwald camp where Wiechert had been interred) a sign saying “Work Sets One Free” (“Arbeit Macht Frei”). Certainly, Thomas was “set free” from his disillusionment by the hard work of a life in the countryside --- but the consequences for him could not have been farther removed from those who entered the gates under that Nazi slogan.

Similarly, reading of Thomas’ growing spiritual joy in his new life comes with a dark foreboding for those familiar with the course of the second world war. Thomas refers repeatedly to the idyll of his island world, and his desire to live out his life there, with no intention of returning to the outside world.
[Here on the island it is like] a dream … but a good and solid dream, that will still be there in the morning and over the year also, if we do what is ours to do in order to maintain it.” (143) 
Just 15 years into his future however, East Prussia would experience utter destruction from Russian forces pouring westward in pursuit of the retreating German army, and exacting a destructive revenge for what their own country had suffered in the first years of the war.

In The Simple Life, Erich Wiechert has painted a meditative and loving portrait of a man who liberates himself of his demons by traveling into the countryside and immersing himself in manual labor on the land. A contrarian might argue that Wiechert’s vision is hopelessly nostalgic and romantic, one that would mean returning to an earlier time that had its own failings, and that, if broadly implemented, would at any rate require an unimaginable depopulation of the world. But I would argue that a more appropriate and beneficial view is to read the story as a reminder of the importance of achieving what in current parlance might be called mindfulness, and through that to discover the beauty in life and the natural world, even if one doesn’t decide to give oneself over to becoming a fisherman on an isolated estate. By so doing one can perhaps realize Wiechert’s fundamental message, to be found in Thomas’ realization shorty after coming to the island that becomes his home: beautiful the world is, so beautiful that one’s chest aches. (74)

Other reviews / information:

More quotes from the book here.
The translations of the quotes used in the review from the original German are mine.

Translation and interpretation of the Psalm that plays a critical role in the book are many and varied. At Study Light, the literal translation from the Hebrew is said to be “We consume our years like a groan,” with the commentary that ‘We live a dying, whining, complaining life, and at last a groan is its termination.’ To try and capture my understanding of it, and how it applies to the novel, I have adapted the King James version by adding the word ‘idle’: “We spend our years as an idle tale that is told.” (Psalms 90:9), because I feel that the word ‘tale’, on its own, has tended to lose the implication of ‘gossip’ and so thoughtlessness that is appropriate here. Note that the original German has that implication: “Wir bringen unsere Jahre zu wie ein Geschwätz." which literally translates as “We spend our years like gossip.”

The Simple Life has interesting parallels to the novel The Wall by Australian writer Marlen Haushofer (my review here). Whereas Thomas seeks out the peaceful serenity of an isolated spot in the countryside, Haushofer’s character wakes up one morning in a mountain cabin to find herself completely isolated from the rest of the world. In both stories, however, the characters discover profound connections to nature that melt away the worries and concerns that had dominated their previous lives in the city.

Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s comment that “… to live means to have something definite to do — a mission to fulfill — and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty” (The Revolt of the Masses, 136, my review here) connects strongly to a fundamental truth at the heart of Wiechert’s novel.

The information from the first paragraph of the review comes in part from the Wiki pages on Wiechert (here) and the book (in German: here).

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf