Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review: "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)
Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)

177 pages

When considering the histories of mass movements such as the spread of Christianity, the French Revolution or the rise of Nazism, the proximate causes for these events can seem quite distinct. What commonality, after all, between conditions in the ancient Roman Empire, 18th century France and post-WWI Germany?

Quite a bit, argues Eric Hoffer in his engaging treatise The True Believer --- among the three mass movements mentioned above as well as many others. In the opening lines of his Preface, Hoffer lays out his thesis:
This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mas movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness. (xi)

As the subtitle makes clear, in this slim but cogent work Hoffer provides his, “Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” Constructed as a series of brief essays --- some just a sentence long, others a few paragraphs --- the book examines the “essential characteristics” of all mass movements, from the social conditions that set them in motion, to the personality types that swell their ranks and the overall arc of their development. Along the way, he makes clear that though there can be “Good and Bad Mass Movements,” to quote the title of one section, all share common traits, and succeed or fail for the same principal reasons.

The essays are grouped together into a handful of chapters, each covering a different aspect of the mass movement phenomenon. The first half or so of the book is perhaps the most compelling, particularly for today’s readers, given the rise over the past decade or so of nationalist, populist movements in so many Western countries.

Hoffer opens with an extended description of the fundamental characteristics of those who form the masses of such movements, already in the Preface laying out his fundamental truth: “the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements.” (xii) To be moved to action, these frustrated must in part be, Hoffer notes, “intensely discontented yet not destitute … [and] wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking.” (11) Thus, not unexpectedly, the upper classes of society show little interest in mass movements because their success gives them a strong vested interest in the status quo. Perhaps more surprisingly Hoffer notes that, at the other end of the spectrum, the abject poor have no energy to spare for such activities; their days occupied with the struggle just to stay alive, they have no hopes and dreams, no time to feel unfulfilled.

The broad middle, on the other hand, offer a rich ground for converts to a mass movement, argues Hoffer, if their frustration with their lives leaves them without hope:
One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. This attraction is particularly effective in a society imbued with the idea of progress. For in the conception of progress, “tomorrow” looms large, and the frustration resulting from having nothing to look forward to is the more poignant. (15) 
In a statement that now, almost seventy years later, feels ripped from the top stories of our day, Hoffer notes:
The present-day workingman in the Western world feels unemployment as a degradation. He sees himself disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things, and is willing to listen to those who call for a new deal. (27) 
(It’s easy to imagine that Bruce Springsteen and his producer Jon Landau could have read The True Believer on their way to writing songs such as Johnny 99, Born in the USA, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Youngstown and so many others with lyrics that capture the hopelessness of workers seeing their jobs and lifestyles disappear.)

Such feelings of frustration and failure produce, according to Hoffer, a powerful desire to subsume “the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence” (41) into a mass movement. This leads to two critical phenomena among the disaffected, “the desire for unity [with a larger cause] and readiness for self-sacrifice.” (59) Perhaps even more alarming, by submerging themselves into a unified mass of disenfranchised ready and willing to sacrifice their seemingly hopeless lives, people lose the critical discernment of individuals and develop such feelings and behaviors as “a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, credulity, [and] a readiness to attempt the impossible.” (59)

Hoffer finds, in particular, a “connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and a proneness to credulity.” (83) He argues that “the facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. … To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.” (79) Thus, critically --- and dishearteningly for anyone who looks to sober discourse to counteract a slide into radical or revolutionary change --- “the fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.” (85)

Hatred too plays a fundamental role in the realization of a mass movement. The use of hatred of the other may seem a commonly accepted means of riling up a crowd, but Hoffer’s analysis provides perhaps a new and deeper insight into how such techniques work. He notes that “even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less form a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice --- in other worlds from self-contempt.” (94) Thus, again, the heart of the matter is to be found in frustration and disenfranchisement. In a statement with strong implications today, seven decades after it was written, Hoffer claims: “Should Americans begin to hate foreigners whole-heartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.” (96)

A particularly fascinating portion of Hoffer’s analysis relates to the importance of the breakdown in compact and cohesive social structures in creating a fertile environment for the rise of a mass movement. He argues that, as a result, “the cause of revolution in a totalitarian society is usually a weakening of the totalitarian framework rather than resentment against oppression and distress.” (35)

The primacy of such general cultural disruption relative to the more apparent misery of daily life has implications in other situations as well, Hoffer points out:
The policy of an exploiting colonial power should be to encourage communal cohesion among the natives. It should foster equality and a feeling of brotherhood among them. For by how much the ruled blend and lose themselves into a compact whole, by so much is softened the poignancy of their individual futility; and the process which transmutes misery into frustration and revolt is checked at the source. The device of “divide and rule” is ineffective when it aims at a weakening of all forms of cohesion among the ruled. (39)

Of course, the difficulty of pursuing such a policy in a colony could be related to the inability to switch from using the generally successful military tactic of divide and conquer when conquering a country, to implementing a more unifying behavior when attempting to hold onto the colony.

The latter part of the book focuses more on the structural dynamics of mass movements, describing why some succeed and others fail, and how those that do succeed evolve out of the active mass movement phase. Hoffer describes how leaders in successful mass movements attempt to consolidate their gains and so create a new status quo, with goals that no longer include trying to engage the disenfranchised, who may now threaten those newly in power.

Though Hoffer doesn’t offer a specific prescription for stopping or avoiding the rise of a mass movement, his arguments make clear that the important period is before such a movement begins building. Though perhaps not always possible, the strategy would seem to be to avoid the creation of masses of hopeless and disenfranchised, and to put in place policies that slow or eliminate the dissolution of family and social structures. Of course, this is all easier said than done, and crucial recognition of the development of such destabilizing conditions can often come too late. In the context of Hoffer’s thesis, comments from historian Vincent Harding in 2011 become even more sobering (details here):
I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty…. Up to now, uncertainty was the experience of the weak, the poor, the people of color.... But now, for all kinds of political, economic reasons, for all kinds of psychological reasons, that uncertainty, and unknowingness, is permeating what was the dominant, so-called, society. That breaking apart is for me more likely the source of the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the unwillingness to give in, the need to have something that they can hold on to and say, this is the way and it's got to be our way or we will all die.

Toward the end of this remarkable work, Hoffer turns his thoughts to western democracies, noting that a painful period of chaotic change may not be avoidable once the proper conditions for the development of a mass movement present themselves. He does, however, offer a somewhat hopeful long-term view for free societies:
One cannot maintain with certitude that it would be impossible for a Hitler or a Stalin to rise in a country with an established tradition of freedom. What can be asserted with some plausibility is that in a traditionally free country a Hitler or a Stalin might not find it too difficult to gain power but extremely hard to maintain himself indefinitely. Any marked improvement in economic conditions would almost certainly activate the tradition of freedom which is a tradition of revolt. … in a traditionally free country the individual who pits himself against coercion does not feel an isolated human atom but one of a mighty race --- his rebellious ancestors. (160)

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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, April 12, 2017

Book Review: "Heat, and other stories" by Joyce Carol Oates

Heat, and other stories (1991)
Joyce Carol Oates (1938)

397 pages

Joyce Carol Oates leads her characters --- and readers --- onto dangerous and uncertain ground in her unsettling collection Heat, and other stories. The perilous situations into which she places her characters bring to the surface their deepest, most hidden insecurities and fears. As readers we squirm uncomfortably, wondering whether our own carefully suppressed idiosyncrasies could suddenly be exposed by similar cruel and unexpected twists of fate.

The twenty-five stories included in the book have been divided into three groups, labeled simply I, II and III. Though the stories share similar structures and themes, distinctions between the three sections do become apparent.

The first group of eight tend to center on individuals who stumble into situations --- from deeply unsettling to physically dangerous --- that reveal a tenuous grip on their lives, emotionally and psychologically. In the face of unexpected events, the appearance of strength and control they normally maintain for the world dissolves, and despite often having some inkling of what they could or should do, in the moment they find themselves unable to muster the will to avoid falling into destructive behaviors.

In The Boyfriend, a woman out to the bar with friends is approached by a man with a connection to her ex-boyfriend that she can’t quite recall; without much thought, she leaves the bar with him for drinks and dinner, and eventually ends up with him back her place, where she suddenly realizes she’s in over her head. Naked opens as a pack of children set upon a woman hiking alone in a suburban wildlife preserve, beating her and stripping her naked before disappearing as suddenly as they had appeared; concerned initially only with survival, as she struggles to reach safety thoughts about how being found naked could have implications to her reputation and place in her community begin to weigh ever more heavily on her.

The second group of twelve stories are not that dissimilar in theme from the first, but develop instead around two or three characters who come together in a morass of misunderstanding so fundamental that a complete and utter breakdown lies inevitably, if somehow completely unrecognized, before them.

The title story, Heat, opens this section, and provides a consummate example of Oates’ style in all the stories of this collection. In it we learn already in the opening few paragraphs that eleven year old twin sisters will be abused and die at the hands of a nineteen year old boy with the cognitive level of a six year old. The art of the story lies not in building the action to a climax, but rather in Oates’ ominous, and oppressively gradual release of details, physical and psychological. In Leila Lee, a young woman realizes already in the opening lines that she has married badly; as her attempts to build a connection to her husband’s diffident teenage son only serve to highlight her own desperate situation in the marriage.

The final set of five stories have a supernatural bent: ghost stories of a kind, or dystopian, nightmarish situations. A future fraught with economic and environmental collapse leads to a radical re-definition of familial relationships and dynamics in Family. In Ladies and Gentlemen:, a group of retires on a cruise ship in the South Pacific discover the horrifying truth behind their children having gifted them the trip.

In many of the stories the characters struggle through their lives with a deep unease they can’t --- or don’t want to --- confront or identify; it flits just outside their consciousness. The hopes and dreams of their youth have given way to the discovery that they have made compromises and mistakes, and in the process have constructed lives fraught with psychological trip wires, leaving them ever on the verge of careening out of control. Ultimately the result is a rashness of behavior that compromises their ability to react thoughtfully at critical moments.

In these stories Oates provides no tidy solutions. She generally reveals already at the beginning how a particular story will proceed, if not end, and wraps them up just as the climax in the action has occurred. Thus, many of the stories open with a quick descent into crisis, but then end without a full resolution; not unlike real life, the ultimate outcome remains uncertain, with the characters themselves having little idea what the future might hold. As her characters get caught up in events that shatter their carefully constructed worlds: what point, Oates seems to imply, in imagining how they might eventually pick up the pieces?

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Read quotes from this book

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 25, 2017

Book Review: "The Phenomenon of Man" by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The Phenomenon of Man (1955)
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

320 pages

Orthogenesis: variation of organisms in successive generations that in some especially former evolutionary theories takes place in some predestined direction resulting in progressive evolutionary trends independent of external factors.
                                                                                             Merriam-Webster Dictionary
The concept of orthogenesis was apparently first defined by the zoologist Theodor Eimer in the late 1800's, as "the general law according to which evolutionary development takes place in a noticeable direction, above all in specialized groups."  Though largely discredited today as a hypothesis, it has historically found backing from scientists and philosophers with humanist or religious backgrounds, and thus has not been tied necessarily to a spiritual force.

A particular version of the orthogenetic hypothesis is the idea that evolution not only generates ever more advanced forms of life, but that it in fact moves toward a particular goal, a principle referred to as teleology.  Precisely this belief lies at the heart of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s treatise The Phenomenon of Man.

A Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist, Teilhard makes the case that the remarkable ability of human beings to reflect on our lives represents not a fortuitous outcome of random evolutionary processes, but rather an inevitable one. He goes on to argue that, at some future point, those same evolutionary processes must needs result in mankind achieving an ultimate stage of universal consciousness.

The Phenomenon of Man consists of four sections, referred to as books, contained in a single volume over which Teilhard builds his case. He opens in Book One: Before Life Came by laying out a systematic structure of the physical world, what he refers to as the stuff of the universe. (In the following, terms in italics indicate Teilhard’s terms and phrases, often specifically defined or invented by him.)

Taking an expansive view of the scope of evolution, Teilhard considers it to include even inorganic matter, and as having begun with the smallest, most elementary, physical particles of the early universe. In a theme that will appear throughout the book, he emphasizes the importance of viewing matter not in terms of its seemingly fixed appearance at any one moment in time, but rather as part of a comprehensive and dynamic system, with duration in terms of both space and time, a “perspective [in which] the world appears like a mass in process of transformation.” (47)

Teilhard argues that, under the slow but unrelenting forward pressure of orthogenesis these particles eventually formed larger bits of matter, which in turn continued to accumulate until, in our region of space, the Solar System formed, and with it Earth. On Earth, evolution gropingly , to use Teilhard's term--- but always with a purpose --- pursued different paths until, at some still mysterious moment, inorganic matter formed what would become the building blocks of life; thereafter followed the evolutionary process as it’s more commonly understood, culminating finally in mammals, and mankind.

Teilhard claims, however, that the long chain of changes in visible, physical attributes represent only a part of the story of evolution. In a dramatic parallel to physical evolution, he makes the case for the presence of a within of things --- of consciousness in even inorganic matter. Arguing that “the apparent restriction of the phenomenon of consciousness to the higher forms of life has long served science as an excuse for eliminating it from its models of the universe,” (55) he notes that this view of consciousness suddenly appearing at some arbitrary point on the path from inorganic matter to higher life forms makes no sense. Instead, he makes the case that a kind of consciousness --- rudimentary though it may be --- exists for even the smallest bits of matter, and has served as the basis through which evolution worked to eventually provide mankind with the ability for thought and reflection.

He acknowledges that, just as science remains challenged to discern how the transition from inorganic matter to life occurred, it could be that it will be impossible to discover the ur-consciousness of physical matter. Nonetheless, the existence of this within of things, and Teilhard’s view that it has and will continue to develop through the processes of evolution, form a central part of his larger thesis. Throughout the book he draws on the existing scientific understanding of the evolution of physical characteristics to buttress his arguments for a similar evolutionary development of consciousness and thought.

In Book Two: Life, Teilhard describes the advent and expansion of life on Earth, addressing both the cryptic moment of transformation from inorganic to organic matter, as well as the process evolution took in spreading life across the Earth, and so building up the biosphere. He provides his view of the The Tree of Life, tracing the development over hundreds of millions of years of what he refers to as layers of evolution, broad stages of development out of each of which came one branch that represented a step closer to mammals and ultimately mankind. He uses this structure to reinforce the importance of the long duration of evolution, and to note the many branches that have represented dead ends, failures in evolution’s groping to achieve what he considers its pre-destined path: mankind.
Teilhard elaborates on his orthogenetic view in this second book, declaring
Science in its development --- and even, as I shall show, mankind in its march --- is marking time at this moment, because men’s minds are reluctant to recognize that evolution has a precise orientation and privileged axis. … I believe I can see a direction and a line of progress for life, a line and a direction which are in fact so well marked that I am convinced their reality will be universally admitted by the science of tomorrow. (142) 
He argues that biologists have been mistaken to focus on differentiating and categorizing life based simply on physical appearance, particularly in relation to mankind. For him, the key differentiator on the path leading to man --- and so the principal destiny of evolution --- has been the development of consciousness, and eventually thought.

He makes the case for how the evolutionary march towards thought occurred, arguing that as the physical attributes of animals have changed through evolution, these same changes have also impacted the development of their ability for thought. He uses primates as an example, arguing that --- not being particularly specialized physically as say a lion is for hunting or an herbivore for avoiding predators --- primates had to rely on their cognitive abilities. Through these processes, over millennia, evolution brought life ever closer to the brink of thought, the brain becoming the principle avenue for the evolutionary process to pursue its path forward.

Having described the appearance and spread of early life on Earth, Teilhard focuses in book three more specifically on the development of thought, and what he considers mankind’s “central phenomenon, reflection." (165)

He argues that in focusing on mankind’s anatomical similarity to primates, scientists can easily lose sight of the leap forward mankind took in gaining the ability to reflect: “no longer merely to know, but to know oneself; no longer merely to know, but to know that one knows.” (165) He describes this transformation as having represented a change of state, noting that there would have been no half-way point: one individual gained this ability to reflect where its forefathers could not, even if that initial, primitive ability was “little visible externally at its … origin.” (171) For Teilhard this event, this change of state, made mankind superior over the many animals and organisms that came before it on the tree of life, and represented an ability that arose out of the inherent direction or axis of evolution toward ever more superior states of being.

Having acknowledged that one must accept the transition to thought --- to reflection --- as lying shrouded in the ancient origins of mankind, Teilhard notes that the natural advantage this ability provided enabled it to spread throughout the world, creating what he refers to as the nooshpere, a “thinking layer” which spanned the earth. He creates this term as a compliment to the existing set of -spheres in the scientific lexicon:
[the] barysphere, central and metallic, surrounded by the rocky lithosphere that in turn is surrounded by the fluid layers of the hydrosphere and the atmosphere … [and] the living membrane composed of the fauna and flora of the globe, the biosphere. (182)

He sketches an outline of the branches of pre-hominids involved in the creation of the nooshpere. While most of these became dead ends on the orthogenetic pursuit of progressively more advanced life forms, one led eventually to Homo Sapiens, which itself branched out into a variety of groups worldwide. These initially independent groups of Homo Sapiens took the next step in the evolution of the nooshpere according to Teilhard, that of organizing into increasingly complex social groups, and eventually political and cultural societies. He conceives this development as having been as much driven by evolutionary processes as physical changes that occur --- another step forward in the biological advancement of mankind. Foreordained by orthogenesis, it in fact became the next natural step in mankind’s upward development toward a higher level of consciousness.

Teilhard points out five particular “foci of [social] attraction and organization, [that served as the] prelude and presage of some new and superior state for the noosphere”: the Mayan, Polynesian, Chinese, Indian and Egyptian-Sumerian civilizations. (209) Of these, he argues, it was the Egyptian and Sumerian that eventually coalesced into Western Civilization, “to produce that happy blend, thanks to which reason could be harnessed to facts and religion to action … [with] the mysterious Judaeo-Christian ferment which gave Europe its spiritual form.” (211) For Teilhard, social societies were the next stage in mankind’s biological progress up the Tree of Life, and Western civilization has represented the flowering of that socialization:
The proof of this lies in the fact that from one end of the world to the other, all the peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them. (212)
One can wonder if eastern cultures would accept uncritically such a definitive statement.

Teilhard concludes the section on the birth and spread of thought --- that is, the creation of the noosphere --- by describing a key transformation in that development, which began just two or three centuries ago: mankind’s comprehension of the depths of time out of which we have developed, as well as of the dynamic nature of the physical world. Building on his arguments in the earlier chapters of the book, he defines evolution as comprising not just the physical evolution of organic beings, but also the complete physical evolution of the universe, as well as the mental evolution of man, exemplified most recently, in a historic sense, by the development of societies.
What makes and classifies a ‘modern’ man (and a whole host of our contemporaries is not yet ‘modern’ in this sense) is having become capable of seeing in terms not of space and time alone, but also of duration, or --- it comes to the same thing --- of biological space-time; and above all having become incapable of seeing anything otherwise --- anything --- not even himself. (219) 
Several pages later he notes that: “Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself, to borrow Julian Huxley’s striking expression." (221)

Teilhard argues that mankind’s comprehension of evolution has led to a “modern disquiet,” a potentially debilitating mental paralysis brought on by the realization of the immense magnitude of space-time, in terms of both the past, as well as the weight of how we pursue a coherent future world. Teilhard, for his part, does not succumb to this disquiet, instead seeing the current moment as simply an intermediate point on the path to mankind reaching a pre-destined, ultimate stage of evolution, what he refers to as the Omega point. Building off the carefully constructed arguments developed over the first three books of his work, he describes his vision of this future in Book Four: Survival.

Teilhard notes that, even as humans have spread out over the earth to form the noosphere, the inherent constraint of living on a sphere has forced ever closer contact between branches of humanity that had initially existed separately. Thus, after having early on developed largely in isolation, the societies formed by these various branches inevitably came into contact and intermingled as they grew in size. In his view, these interactions will --- must --- eventually lead to mankind achieving a further step in evolution, with an ultimate consequence of arriving at an end point at which all consciousness converges into a point of <i>hyper-personalization</i>, with “each particular consciousness remaining conscious of itself [while] becoming still more itself and thus more clearly distinct from the others the closer it gets to them in Omega.” (262)

Teilhard goes on to outline his view of the attributes of this pinnacle of evolution. In particular, he describes it as a point at which mankind “escapes from entropy,” since “if by its very nature [consciousness at the Omega Point] did not escape from the time and space which it gathers together, it would not be Omega.” (271)

As he focuses more specifically on this Omega point, the breadth and depth of Teilhard’s belief in orthogenesis becomes apparent. He ascribes a powerful intent on the part of the universe to achieve a foreseen end point through the evolutionary process, a purposefulness so strong that he argues one can dismiss even the possibility of a global catastrophe that could kill off mankind:
… since the birth of thought man has been the leading shoot of the tree of life. That being so, the hopes for the future of the noosphere … are concentrated exclusively upon him as such. How then could he come to an end before his time, or stop, or deteriorate, unless the universe committed abortion upon itself, which we have already decided to be absurd?

In its present state, the world would be unintelligible and the presence in it of reflection would be incomprehensible, unless we supposed there to be a secret complicity between the infinite and the infinitesimal to warm, nourish and sustain to the very end … the consciousness that has emerged between the two. It is upon this complicity that we must depend. Man is irreplaceable. Therefore, however improbable it might seem, he must reach the goal, not necessarily, doubtless, but infallibly. (276)

Teilhard apparently left unconsidered, or dismissed, the possibility that mankind actually represents a dead end branch. He argues that the universe won’t allow a catastrophic event to wipe out mankind because the orthogenesis seeks to achieve ever greater completion of the evolutionary process, and so it would not be compatible with such a concept to have it possible that mankind world be wiped out. But, of course that assumes that it is the branch of mankind that is pre-destined to reach the Omega Point...

But, taking for granted that mankind represents the destined path, what might Teilhard’s “secret complicity between the infinite and the infinitesimal” represent? What constitutes this force that continues to actively pull mankind by means of the evolutionary process to achieve an ultimate state of hyperconsciousness (the Omega point)? Teilhard provides his answer to that question, but not before making a declaration that already gives away his subsequent hypothesis:
As I am living at the heart of the Christian world, I might be suspected of wanting to introduce an apologia by artifice. But, here again, so far as it is possible for a man to separate in himself the various planes of knowledge, it is not he convinced believer but the naturalist who is asking for a hearing. (292)

Perhaps not unexpectedly then, especially given this explicit disclaimer, in the final chapter Teilhard --- the Jesuit priest --- makes his case for a Christian-centric view of the Omega point, saying of mankind’s evolutionary assent toward consciousness:
In the impetus which guides and sustains its advance, this rising shoot implies essentially the consciousness of being in actual relationship with a spiritual and transcendent pole of universal convergence.

The palpable influence on our world of an other and supreme Someone … Is not the Christian phenomenon, which rises upwards at the heart of the social phenomenon, precisely that?” (298)
Despite his claim of having the impartiality of a scientist, and his acknowledgement of the difficulty in imagining what the coming Omega point might be, Teilhard’s personal beliefs clearly informed his conclusions. Unsurprising though that may be, the fact that this tie-in to his faith comes after nearly 300 pages of detailed scientific discussion and development of his theories can make his conclusion feel a bit too pat.

A quibble over a somewhat personal conclusion does not at all take away, however, from the grand and thought-provoking scope of Teilhard’s work. His clear and lucid writing style renders his arguments clear and comprehensible to anyone with a basic understanding of biology and related life and earth sciences. Readers not intimately familiar with the terminology of biology and anthropology will struggle at times with some of the details, a situation compounded by Teilhard’s tendency to invent words for concepts that arise out of his particular conceptions about those fields. But such challenges don’t detract from the reading, and at any rate, in the age of smartphone access to the internet definitions for unknown terms lie at one’s fingertips.

As discussed in the Introduction by evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley, Teilhard wrote this work in the 1930’s, though it did not appear in print until after his death in 1955, as he was refused permission to publish by his religious order.   One can see in this work of Teilhard's the challenging struggle of a man trying to make sense of the two worlds he occupied, that of a deeply devoted Christian, and that of a well-trained scientist.

Not surprisingly, much new has been learned in the areas of anthropology, biology and cosmology over the past seventy years. Perhaps most importantly the concept of orthogenesis --- that evolution takes place in a particular direction of increasing complexity --- has fallen out of favor, as implied in the modern dictionary definition of the term that opens this review. Nonetheless The Phenomenon of Man sparkles with insights into the nature of mankind’s consciousness and the impact that the realization --- just a few short centuries ago --- of the spatial and temporal depths of the universe has had on our understanding of ourselves, our past and our potential futures.

Other reviews / information:  

On Being, the radio program of discussions on living a spiritual life (in the broadest understanding of the word) hosted by Krista Tippett had a program dedicated to Teilhard de Chardin, linked to here.

During the time I was reading The Phenomenon of Man, I happened to listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with physicist Leonard Mlodinow in a podcast of the show On Being. (The audio of the final radio program, the transcript of the show, and the the unedited audio from their discussion can all be found here.)

As part of a wide-ranging and wonderful discussion, Tippett, a Star Trek fan (in particular of the Next Generation edition, she likes to point out), asked Mlodinow about an episode of the show that he apparently participated in as a writer. It was an episode that had touched on the meaning and moment of consciousness:
MS. TIPPETT: … it’s Commander Data, who was an Android, who was always so trying to understand what it was to be human and in a way, in his Android way, striving to be human. Where he asked Dr. Crusher what is the definition of life.

He wrote it’s just this beautiful moment, he says, I’m curious — he asks her for a definition of life. She gives him a definition of life. And he says, what about me? I do not grow. I do not reproduce. Yet I’m considered to be alive. And then he says, I’m curious as to what transpired between the moment when I was nothing more than an assemblage of parts in Dr. Soong’s laboratory and the next moment, when I became alive. What is it that endowed me with life?

DR. MLODINOW: Wow, that’s one of those eternal questions, too. I don’t remember if I worked on that or not. It just may be like the attorney story. Maybe I wrote that.


DR. MLODINOW: But the question is certainly one that I’ve thought about, and it’s a very deep question, because I think having a character like Data really underlines, underscores that, because you can argue with a biological organism what is life? Or what’s the difference between a human and a bacteria? Or a human and a grasshopper? But when you say a pile of silicon and does it become — what point does it become a sentient conscious being is a very — is a question, of course, we have no answer to. But I think that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of Data being alive because he’s not biological. And neuroscientists today are only beginning to understand consciousness. I have a friend, Christof Koch, who works on that, and we’ve had many debates. But he believes that all information processing systems are conscious to some extent. Even a thermostat. [Laughs].

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

DR. MLODINOW: Any system that takes information and integrates it, he would say is conscious, and it’s all a spectrum, from zero or epsilon, a very tiny amount, to, you know, a great amount that we have, or perhaps even a greater amount that you might find somewhere else in the universe. And, they’re trying to form mathematical scientific theories of it. But it’s really very hard. I don’t think we even have a good working definition of what consciousness is.


DR. MLODINOW: So it’s the very, very early stages. I think — I believe that science will address that question eventually. But, we’re not ready to do it yet.

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, February 25, 2017

Book Review: "Reputations" by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Reputations (2016)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973)
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

190 pages

Although most of us care about how we are viewed by others, for people in the public eye these concerns can come to dominate their lives. Desperate to hold on to the position they have achieved or the power they wield, such public figures can become extremely sensitive to anything that might raise awkward or unflattering questions about them or their actions. Given that situation, among their most hated and feared enemies must rank political cartoonists, caricaturing their appearance, personality and policies in a most public and visible manner.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s intriguing novel Reputations tells the story of just such a caricaturist, Javier Mallarino. Mallarino draws a daily political cartoon for one of the leading newspapers in Columbia. Over several decades of work, he has skewered a broad swath of people among the Columbian political and elite classes with his drawings and accompanying brief, but often pointed and potent, captions. For the common people in Columbia, he has become the conscience of the country, someone trusted to tell it like it is.

But Mallarino lives in the public eye too, and though he does not carry the weight of having to make policy, his career nonetheless rests on the tenuous and fickle foundation of public perception. He lives --- and draws --- with the knowledge that readers’ trust in him can, no matter how strong it may appear, evaporate overnight if his integrity and truthfulness suddenly come into question. The weight of this reality has led Mallarino to sacrifice everything and everyone, including friends and family, on the altar of his reputation.

As the story opens, Mallarino, in his sixties, prepares to be feted by the Columbian political and media establishment, in recognition of his many decades of work. It should be the crowning achievement of a successful career, a moment of contentment and celebration; instead he finds himself ruminating on the fame he has achieved, on both its value, as well as its personal ramifications and costs. He recalls an early 20th century Columbian caricaturist who had become the “moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half,” (7) and who had nonetheless since “been devoured, like so many other [public] figures, by the insatiable hunger of oblivion.” (6)

Mallarino’s vague doubts and uneasiness unexpectedly find concrete form the day after the celebration, when a chance meeting leads him to recall an event from early in his career --- a moment based on which he had drawn a particularly impactful political cartoon, one that had launched his career to new heights. As he looks back at his motivations for drawing that particular piece, and the dramatic consequences of its appearance in print, he comes to recognize and re-evaluate the over-riding importance that considerations of his position and legacy have played in his work, and the resulting impact on how he has lived his life. He must consider how he to move forward in the wake of his new-found awareness.

The themes in Reputations recall Vásquez’s 2013 novel The Sound of Things Falling (my review here), though this latest novel has a more deliberate pace, feeling almost claustrophobic compared to the variety of settings and drama in the earlier one. In both stories, characters reflect back on their lives, attempting to understand and come to grips with dramatic events that have had lasting impacts. While in The Sound of Things Falling these events were largely random and unpreventable, in Reputations, Mallarino comes to realize the level of complicity he has had in the outcome of critical events in his life. While he had long considered his actions and their impacts as having been largely inevitable and unavoidable, when forced to face their long-lasting consequences, he comes to realize how thoroughly he had rationalized away the control he had had over his choices and so his future.

And so, as the best stories do, Reputations becomes a tale that leads us to ask questions about our own lives and choices.

Other reviews / information:

Read quotes from this book and The Sound of Things Falling 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

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: "The Wall" ("Die Wand") by Marlen Haushofer

Die Wand (The Wall) (1963)
Marlen Haushofer (1920-1970)

314 pages

Even a casual glance through the fiction books I’ve reviewed since starting this blog reveals my penchant for post-apocalyptic novels. My interest, though, rests not with the precipitating, catastrophic event itself, but rather with the characters’ reactions to the new situation they find themselves in. How do they pick up and go on?

Precisely that dilemma presents itself to the narrator in Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s novel, The Wall (Die Wand, in the original German). Haushofer constructs the story as a report written by a woman trying to make sense of her life spent in a shockingly constricted world: Two and a half years earlier, having traveled up into the Austrian mountains for a few days of holiday with a couple who own a small hunting lodge, she had settled in for the evening while the couple walked back down to the little village below the lodge to pass some time at the local inn; the next morning, surprised the couple had not yet returned, the woman walked down toward the village to try and discover what had happened to her friends, only to encounter a wall, “a smooth, cool, resistance on a spot at which there really couldn’t be anything but air.” (14) With just that little amount of warning or fanfare, the woman finds her life unimaginably changed.

Returning to the hunting lodge, the woman holds at bay the crushing fears threatening to overwhelm her by turning her focus to her immediate survival. Initially she takes stock of what is available in the lodge, but, in the weeks that follow, as hope of rescue dims, she is forced into a broader evaluation of her options in the mountain highland she finds herself trapped in. Occasionally the woman’s thoughts do return to the wall, and speculation on its origin, but given her lack of any means to investigate it, the never-ending work to stay alive, and her barely contained fears of potentially permanent isolation, she forcibly cuts such digressions short.

Thus the story dwells hardly at all on the cause of the apocalypse, or its broader implications --- in fact, we readers are seemingly freer to speculate about that than the woman herself, as she mentally protects herself from hopelessness and depression. Deliberately avoiding any specifics of the apocalyptic event itself, Haushofer has instead created a captivating drama out of the woman’s physical and physiological fight to survive.

The tension in the story arises out of details in the woman’s recollections as she writes her report, help by notes she has kept on a calendar. She uses the act of writing to help maintain her sanity, processing the events that have transpired since the bewildering moment in which the wall radically changed her world. She does this by starting her story at the beginning, when the wall first appeared; but as she writes her report, she cannot help but foreshadow dramatic incidents that have befallen her over the two and a half years. She does this cryptically, clearly attempting to keep dark memories of certain days at bay, even as they unavoidably force themselves into her thoughts. As readers we begin to assume her dread, coming to recognize the devastating impact these hinted-at events will have on the fragile world she has constructed for herself, both physically and mentally.

The woman’s efforts to adapt and survive make up a large part of the story, but a deeper thread winds through the plot, as the woman looks back on her time before the wall, re-evaluating her former life, and more broadly life in that former world now ended by the wall, in the harsh and clarifying light of her new existence. She comes to see the shortcomings of her earlier self, and becomes increasingly dismissive of the miss-placed emphasis she sees people had unthinkingly placed on so many elements of modern life. She gradually discovers that, despite her many difficulties, she is more comfortable in this new, simpler and more natural life, than she had ever been in her old one.
Here in the woods, I am actually in my appropriate place. … how they had all plagued me with things that revolted me. I had only this one, small life, and they hadn’t allowed me to live in peace. Gas ovens, power plants and oil pipelines; now that people are no more, they finally show their true, pitiful face. And back then one had made these things into idols instead of simply useful objects. (243)

Though The Wall can be read as a straight-forward, post-apocalyptic survival novel, Haushofer weaves into the story a thoughtful meditation on the many and varied complexities mankind has created in the modern day world. These complexities have generally been allowed to develop with little thought to their impact; through her narrator, Haushofer makes evident some of what we have sacrificed in the exchange: an ever increasing separation from the natural world of our origins.

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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

“Thoughtful People” in Partisan Times

On a recent edition of the radio program On Being entitled How to Live Beyond this Election (27 October 2016), host Krista Tippett interviewed teacher and community activist Eboo Patel, and poet Natasha Trethewey.

Addressing the increasingly vitriolic and partisanship discord that has largely eliminated considered discussion and debate in the U.S., Patel recalls a key moment in his own growth as an engaged citizen --- as someone interested in developing understanding, and participating in discussion:

DR. PATEL: One of the ways my life changed in college was William Raspberry who wrote for the Washington Post.
So, when I was 19 or 20 — and I was a fire-breathing dragon at this time. You couldn’t come within 50 feet of me without getting long lectures on people of color, consciousness, and socialism. My dad damned near kicked me out of the house at one point. He said to me, “If you give me one more lecture being bourgeois, you can find some other bourgeois dad to pay your bourgeois college tuition."
DR. PATEL: William Raspberry writes a column in which he says, “The smartest people I know secretly believe both sides of the issue.” And that was so striking to me. Because I was — the way I viewed the world at that point was, “I’m the smart one. You all are the dumb ones. My job is to figure out how to make you smart.” And the definition of “smart” was you thought like me.
MS. TIPPETT: Or how to make you see things my way, which is smart.
DR. PATEL: Yeah, exactly, right? And this notion of William Raspberry, who was, generally speaking, a progressive columnist was like — look, the smartest people I know choose the pro-life side and understand that there’s something else at stake. The smartest people I know are against the death penalty and understand that people who might be in favor aren’t crazy, that there’s a set of values, something at stake there.

(Patel’s comments begin at 28:26 into the unedited version of the interview; the unedited and edited interviews can be found here, along with the transcript of the edited version.)

Patel refers to a column, Our Civil Disagreement, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist William Raspberry (1935-2012) at the close of his long career. In that essay, which appeared in The Washington Post on 19 December 2005, Raspberry used the word “thoughtful” as opposed to “smart,“ which I would say is a small, but important difference; one does not necessarily need to smart to be able to be open to carefully listening to and considering opinions that differ from one’s own. Otherwise Patel captures well the essence of Raspberry’s wonderfully stated counterpoint to our partisan times.

The entire column is worth the time to read, and can be found here; I’ve reproduced below the portion that inspired Patel’s epiphany:

…we've come to think that producing winners and losers is the essence not just of politics but also of life. It isn't.
Making this country work for everybody is, and it would be a good thing if all of us -- journalists emphatically included -- remembered that.
What has made this a little easier for me is a discovery I've mentioned before: that in virtually every public controversy, most thoughtful people secretly believe both sides. I know I do. But the fact that I am unalterably both pro-life and pro-choice keeps me from savaging thoughtful advocates of either view. (I still retain my license to savage anyone who insists on putting horror masks on people whose opinions they don't like.)
Can it be that trying to see the other guy's side simply takes too much of our time and energy? Sometimes I suspect that the desire to savage rather than convince an opponent stems from the nagging suspicion that just maybe we are on the wrong side of the logic. I mean, if you are convinced that your position is the correct one, why wouldn't you want to examine it and explain it in a way that might win a convert or two?

One wonders what Raspberry would make of the ever more disturbing depths to which public partisanship and bickering has sunk in just the few years since his death.

Other reviews / information:

For a look at the origins of modern day partisanship, see Making American Foreign Policy, by Ole R. Holsti, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Duke University. From my review of the book (linked to here):
[Holsti] demonstrates how Vietnam sundered the Cold War consensus that had existed since WW II, and from the data he demonstrates the quite divergent and highly partisan viewpoints that have developed, and how an alignment arose between domestic and foreign policy opinion on each side of that partisan divide. He also examines the trends in opinion over the past five decades, noting that even such dramatic events as the end of the Cold War and the 9-11 attaches have not led to the development of a new consensus, and that in fact the partisan and ideological divides in politics have only become deeper.

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Historian Vincent Harding Foreshadowed --- in 2011 --- Social Conditions that Escalated to Impact the 2016 Election

In a 2011 interview on the radio program On Being hosted by Krista Tippett, historian Vincent Harding (1931-2014) identified among “the white community of America” a growing “uncertainty” over their place in an economy and society undergoing a dramatic transformation away from the America of their youth --- the era of their parents and grand-parents. He described “the anxiety, the fear, the anger” that was growing out of the disintegration resulting from these changes.

The uncertainty that he described in 2011 manifested itself at the ballot box in 2016 by playing an important role in the powerful rejection by a segment of American society of the current direction of the country, a reaction that went beyond voting for or against specific policies or plans. Though the results of the election should not be simplistically reduced to any single, isolated cause, Harding’s words do seem startlingly prescient, anticipating some of the principal conclusions being drawn in the flurry of analyses that the election outcome has unleashed.

His comments, which I have reproduced below, came in response to a question from Tippett about the changing face of hope in the United States. I have included Tippett’s specific question and Harding’s response to it as lead-in to give the context to his subsequent comments on the white community in America, which come toward the end, and which I have highlighted in italics.

The interview (“Vincent Harding --- Is America Possible?” can be found at the On Being website here. Tippett’s question and Harding’s reply can be found starting at the 59:13 mark of the unedited version of the interview. The transcript on the web-site is of the edited, final version of the interview; below I have added in the parts of his comments that did not make the cut into the edited version, showing them in [brackets].

MS. TIPPETT: I was listening to the BBC in recent weeks, and they’re watching us from afar. They were interviewing a journalist about this moment in American history, which seems very tumultuous and the question was, “Is it really more violent and more despairing than it’s been before or does this happen repeatedly?” And the comparison was made with the 1960s.

They said, look, there was a lot of social turmoil then. There were assassinations, right? I mean, many assassinations. But this journalist said — and I just want to know what you think — he said that he thought the difference between the 1960s and now was that even though there was incredible tumult and violence, it was at the very same time a period of intense hope, and people could see that they were moving towards goals. And that that’s missing now. What do you think about that analysis?

DR. HARDING: Hmm. Krista, I think that that is such a complicated kind of issue that I can only pick at it and tease it out and play with it in the best sense of play. I think that what I see now is the fact that all over this country, wherever I go, and, of course, where I go tends to be sort of self-selective because I am most often going into situations where people are operating out of a sense of hope and possibility, where in their local situations, whether it be Detroit, or Atlanta, or a campus someplace, or a church community in Philadelphia, that there are women and men and young people who are operating out of hope. [That they really believe in the possibilities that come to them from their own connection to the history of hope, as it were, and to the vision that they have of who they are and who they could be.]

My sense is that, in the ‘60s, there was probably a larger kind of canopy of hope that we could see, and we could identify, and that people could name and focus on. Now, we are in particular spots, locations, sometimes seemingly isolated. But I feel that there are points, focal situations, where that is still available and where people are operating from that.

So I think that it is not simply the matter of hope or no hope.

I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty that it did not allow itself to face before. 

[Up to now, uncertainty was the experience of the weak, the poor, the people of color, that that was our realm. But now, for all kinds of political, economic reasons, for all kinds of psychological reasons, that uncertainty, and unknowingness, is permeating what was the dominant, so-called, society. That breaking apart is for me more likely the source of the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the unwillingness to give in, the need to have something that they can hold on to and say, this is the way and it's got to be our way or we will all die.]

And I think that that’s the place that we are in, and that’s even more the reason why we’ve got to figure out what was King talking about when he was seeing the possibility of a beloved community and recognized that, maybe, for some of us, that cannot come until some of us realize that we must give up what we thought was only ours [in order for all of us to find new possibilities] in the building of a beloved nation. Can there be a beloved nation? Why don’t we try and see?

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf