Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Review: "Detroit: An American Autopsy" by Charlie LeDuff

Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013)  

Charlie LeDuff (1966)

317 pages

A week ago Monday I went to Detroit with my parents; “a tour down memory lane” my dad called it, as we visited places where my parents had lived and worked some fifty years ago, before life took them first to Flint and then eventually out of state. Over the previous weekend I had read through most of Charlie LeDuff’s new book Detroit: An American Autopsy --- as had my mom --- and reading it heightened my curiosity about what we would see. I normally make it to Detroit a couple few times a year, but generally only to Hart Plaza on the riverfront, nearby Cobo Hall and the short block of Greektown; not a very representative range of stops.

For anyone living in south-eastern Michigan and paying even passing attention to the local news, the decay and corruption of Detroit that LeDuff describes in his book will not come as a surprise. One only has to glance out of the car window on the drive downtown on the expressway to catch glimpses of broken down and boarded up houses on the streets above the fast moving lanes of traffic. Whether in the news or from the car window, however, the problems seem contained in another world, parallel to and mostly outside of the “normal” lives of those not living in the midst of Detroit’s struggles. What LeDuff’s book does with great effectiveness is personalize that decay and corruption, as well as the heartbreak and helplessness that accompany it. Although he sprinkles in a few statistics to highlight the dramatic changes that have occurred in Detroit over the last 50 years, LeDuff has not written a sociological analysis of the decline of the city, but rather has provided a heartfelt look at his hometown, a hometown that has for him become a shadow of its former self. As he writes in the first few pages: “This is not a book about geopolitics or macroeconomics or global finance. And it is not a feel-good story with a happy ending. It is a book of reportage. A memoir of a reporter returning home --- only he cannot find the home he once knew.” (6)

The widely publicized corruption in Detroit’s city government that LeDuff also touches on in the book has played a key role in the deterioration of city services. But the most devastating impacts on the city seem to have come from issues more difficult to appreciate from the outside: the significant loss of jobs and the accompanying tax base, and the related reduction in the population of the city from nearly 2 million in the late 1950’s to roughly 700,000 today. The loss of jobs has led to people losing their homes, and the loss of population means that these homes generally stand empty, a double tragedy. These abandoned houses become at best boarded up eye-sores, and at worst crack houses or arsonist targets; one firefighter tells LeDuff that arsonists are essentially in it for the entertainment value, since a “fire is cheaper than a movie”(49). Families who remain in these neighborhoods, though, struggle to maintain both the value of their homes and the safety of their kids, amid the decaying buildings on nearby lots. From newspaper reports it is easy to simplify the situation in Detroit down to being a huge no man’s land from border to border. But, from LeDuff’s telling, it is more like a life-or-death obstacle course, with good people and bad, good homes and bad, crammed in next to one another.

Through LeDuff’s reporting, we learn about the struggles of the fire fighters and police officers of the city not by way of a dry examination of their budgets and workload, but by meeting individuals, hearing their stories, and witnessing their lives and losses. We meet families living in homes where they struggle to hold back the chaos of crime and drugs that have spread throughout neighborhoods decimated by unemployment as so many jobs have left the city during the past few decades. In his book a teen killed by senseless violence is not a minor character in a short newspaper column, but a student with dreams whose mother mourns the death of a second child. The many fires engulfing abandoned buildings are not statistics to be read and dismissed, but unforgettable stories of firefighters put in unnecessary danger by an act of arson, or of a neighborhood so fed up by the lack of action from the city that they burn down an empty home on their block that has turned into a crack house, preventing the fire department from entering the street to put out the fire. And these stories truly are personal for him, as he describes how his own family has been impacted by the lack of jobs and the overwhelming violence.

LeDuff captures also the incompetence and corruption of the city leadership. His interviews with city council members, and others in positions of power in the city government, reveal a cynical focus on their own careers and a fear of anyone who tries to stand in their way by pointing out the truth of their complicity in the city’s decline. What astonishes more than anything in his interviews with people in power is their seeming belief that they can sweet-talk and co-opt him to their side --- representative, I suppose, of the prideful and arrogant nature of power.

And what of our trip to Detroit last Monday? In a small way, without the drama that LeDuff has encountered regularly as a reporter in the city, we experienced the collapse of the neighborhoods that he describes. Our trip began north of the city in Warren, just off of Mound Road, where I lived for the first few years of my life. As we got out of the car and walked the streets around our old home on that cool but sunny Monday morning, we had no idea that this would be the most tranquil stop of the day.

From Warren we traveled south on Van Dyke Avenue, crossing into the city of Detroit, and the area of Hamtramck. At Seven Mile Road we headed west for a short distance before turning into a neighborhood where my mom had lived with an aunt and uncle for a few years when she first came to
Detroit in the late 1950’s. Just the night before we had used Google Map’s Street View to “look” at the house (picture on the right); it looked very much like my mom remembered it, the yard well-tended and the neighboring houses on either side also as she recalled. Jumping over to the nearby intersection on Seven Mile, the Street View image showed some boarded up stores, but also a large grocery store at the corner that was clearly still in business, with a semi-tractor trailer being unloaded in the back. The neighborhood seemed surprisingly “normal,” especially after what we had feared from the news, and from our reading of LeDuff’s book in the days before.

The reality on the ground that morning turned out to be quite different. The stretch of Seven Mile from Van Dyke had shop fronts that were mostly closed and boarded up, and it turned out that we had seen on Street View one of the few stores that still seemed to be in business. As we then turned into the neighborhood, we drove by homes in various states of decay, windows broken out or boarded up, walls sometimes charred from having burned, and these ruined homes sitting next to homes that did in fact look “normal.” As we drove on to the house my mom had lived in, we wondered what we would find, whether the Google Maps picture was older maybe, from before things had declined. But, finally arriving in front of the house, it looked just as it had in the Street View we had seen, as did the houses next to it. What we had not done in the Street View, however, was rotate the view and look across the street, where as we drove past we saw two boarded up houses standing forlornly on neglected plots (picture below left); and farther up the street stood even more boarded up and burned houses (picture below right).

Thus exactly the picture LeDuff paints in his book: families struggling to maintain their homes in neighborhoods pock-marked with the empty, deteriorating properties of those who had lost theirs. We did not stop and walk around the area, as we had up in Warren.

Continuing downtown, we encountered the same mixed reality. Seen from Hart Plaza on the riverfront, it is easy to assume that the office buildings that Monday afternoon were full of people going about their work. Up close, however, as we walked up Woodward and then later took the People Mover on a loop-tour of downtown, though some buildings were indeed full and active, others were boarded off, with windows either broken out or empty and silent. Along with vacant lots covered in gravel and fenced off, these empty buildings sap the downtown area of what life the existing businesses might give it.

LeDuff subtitles his book “An American Autopsy,” and if his examination is not precisely of a corpse, it is certainly of a patient laboring to stay alive. He wears his heart on his sleeve as he tells the story of his city, and is often barely able to contain his rage at what he sees and hears; cigarettes, stiff drinks and profanity frequently provide him support and outlet in these pages. But for all that his writing never falls into the detached feeling that can rob a book on a topic such as this of its feeling and life. Instead the reader is able to empathize with the pain LeDuff obviously feels as he reports from his hometown on the inexplicable behavior he often encounters from city council to the mayor’s office, and the devastating stories he captures of the fire fighters and police officers on the streets and the families holding on in the neighborhoods.

Detroit: An American Autopsy has arrived on the shelves at yet another potential turning point in Detroit’s history, as the governor of the State of Michigan has put in place an Emergency Financial Manager to try and rescue the city from imminent bankruptcy. Although difficult to imagine after viewing the current reality, hopefully this moment will mark the definitive turning point for Detroit, and one day LeDuff will be able to write a happier sequel about his hometown, perhaps subtitled “An American Resurrection.”

Other reviews / information:

Charlie LeDuff's website.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review: "The Return" by Roberto Bolaño

The Return (1997,2001)  

Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003)  

Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2010)

200 pages

Ghosts inhabit the thirteen short stories in The Return, a collection from the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. Though in the title story an actual ghost reports back from his first, surprising days of the afterlife, in the others the ghosts are very much alive, but are people who remain mostly invisible to us, living outside of our daily experience. Petty criminals or prostitutes narrate several of these stories, while others are told by porn stars or private detectives, which though legal professions, operate somehow outside the bounds of our normal lives. Bolaño tells stories here that poke around in the dark underbelly of society, exploring our fear that the world maybe not as rational a place as we desperately hope it to be.

The opening story in the collection, Snow, sets the tone. The narrator recalls a fellow Chilean he had met in Barcelona several years before. Visiting his friend’s apartment, he sees among the few decorations a framed picture of a pretty girl. His friend takes the picture from the shelf it’s on, and begins telling his story, a dark recollection of an unfocused life, drifting into involvement with a gangster, and beginning a dangerous but irresistible relationship with the girl. The story is one of survival, of someone accepting what life presents him and, when it is lost, moving forward carrying the loss with him but at the same time accepting it as yet one more inexplicable event in this confused and mysterious life.

In what is the most taut story of the set, Murdering Whores, a prostitute in an unnamed town in Spain has seen a young man on television celebrating the victory of his out-of-town soccer team with his friends on the steps coming out of the stadium. As he later struggles for breath before her, she tells him that “some of you raise your arms and give the Roman salute. Do you know what it means, that salute? … Under my city’s night sky you salute in the direction of the television cameras, and watching at home I see you and decide to offer you my salute, in response to yours.” Making use of the anonymity she has when she moves through the world, the objectification that means no one pays attention to her as a distinct individual, she goes to the stadium and finds this young man who she has seen on TV, luring him back to her place to carry out her avenging “salute”. Though the easy interpretation may be the revenge of the downtrodden, an alternative and deeper meaning offers itself with the reference to the “Roman salute”: though the city is not identified, several of the other stories take place in Barcelona, the capital of the Catalonia region in Spain; connecting the legendary rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona on the soccer field with the oppression of Catalan independence from Madrid during the fascist dictatorship, and a darker and more allegorical meaning emerges.

As these two examples show, the stories in this book are a mix of styles. A few, such as Murdering Whores have tight, fast-paced plots that build to a clear and dramatic climax. Many others though, like Snow, develop more slowly, often wandering for a time in one direction before gradually turning into what becomes the true narrative. In a world focused on the instant pleasure of action and adventure, it can take time to warm up to these more deliberately told stories in the collection, which form the majority actually. The effort pays off, however, as Bolaño provides us as readers with touching, if sometimes also disturbing, commentaries on the vagaries of life as the characters struggle to make sense of their passage through the world.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review: "Tragic Sense of Life" by Miguel de Unamuno

Tragic Sense of Life (1913)  

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936)

Translated from the Spanish by J. E. Crawford Flitch 

304 pages

What gives life meaning? One of the most fundamental questions we can ask ourselves, and the subject, directly or indirectly, of many shelves worth of fiction and non-fiction. In his book Tragic Sense of Life, the Spanish author and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno gives his clear and unequivocal answer: what gives life meaning is our longing to understand the “wherefore” of our destiny, and our “thirst for eternal life,” which he states is a fundamental desire we all share. To have awareness of these questions, he states, is to have a “tragic sense of life.”

Unamuno makes his argument over twelve chapters, originally written as a series of essays. These essays build on one another, each with a relatively small number of core ideas, perhaps two or three.   Unamuno addresses these ideas at length, approaching them from different angles, seeming to anticipate objections, alternative proposals or uncertainties the reader might have, and countering them with his carefully reasoned arguments. His writing style and structure give a reader the feeling that Unamuno has not so much written this work for someone to read and become convinced, but rather that he imagines himself speaking directly to the reader, and since he can not be there in person, having written down what he would have said had he been able to sit across the table from us. For the lay-reader, who may not be familiar with the many philosophers and writers he quotes, and with the details of the philosophical and theological arguments he recalls, Unamuno’s style helps to somewhat lighten the complexity and density of the reasoning; getting the gist of his argument in each chapter and for the work as a whole is fairly straightforward, even if the details of his reasoning can require a careful reading with reference works at hand.

Not having the background to adequately analyze his philosophical arguments, the following is intended to provide a sense of Unamuno’s arguments and approach. It will necessarily be selective, and should be considered as more of a sampling than a comprehensive summary.

Unamuno opens with his view that, contrary to the modern presumption, man is actually an affective (feeling) creature much more than a rational one:
Perhaps that which differentiates [man] from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly --- but then perhaps, also inwardly, the crab resolves equations of the second degree.(3) 
For him what is important is man as an individual: paramount is each individual’s life and the “wherefore” of their destiny. Thus, for example, he feels that society only has importance in so much as it furthers the life of the individual. Man being an affective being and the individual of highest importance, he then argues that a philosophy developed outside of this context, that is, as a logical, abstract theory, is senseless. What is critical is that a philosopher recognize the affective nature of man, and, conversely, that we who wish to understand a philosopher’s work, first understand the philosopher as “a man of flesh and bone.”

And the most important goal of that philosopher, that man’s work? For Unamuno the starting point for all philosophy, for all knowledge, comes from man’s “longing not to die, the hunger for personal immortality.” He states that every person longs for this immortality, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that those who say they do not are merely deceiving themselves. He finds evidence of this deep longing in the variety of cultures throughout the history of the world in which the final resting places of the dead have been more permanent than the houses they lived in while alive. He finds it also in the creation of religions, stating that “the existence of God is … deduced from the [desire for the] immortality of the soul, and not the immortality of the soul from the existence of God.” He even views attempts by people to claim their place in history through works of art, or writing, or other projects as “vain” attempts at pseudo-immortality that only reveal their hidden, passionate longing for eternal life. Of knowledge he argues that it must have an object, the seeking of knowledge for its own sake being pointless; beyond what is useful for survival, the point of gathering knowledge is to help us understand our future destiny as individuals.

Unamuno looks too at the history of Catholicism and what he describes as its transformation from the focus of the apostles on the proximate end of the world, to the views of Paul of Tarsus, who did not know Christ personally, but realized that the end of the world may not be quite so near as thought, and who transformed belief in the resurrection of Christ into a belief in personal eternal life. Unamuno discounts religions such as Protestantism, which tend to focus on one’s life on earth in the context of Christianity and God, and so less on the eternal life of the soul. This he differentiates from Catholicism, which he argues views sin as an inherited state, which in being forgiven can lead to the promise of eternal life. Religion, and more particular theology, comes up short for Unamuno however, in not giving one a basis or explanation for believing in eternal life. Thus, he goes on to examine rational arguments for immortality.

Rationality, and what he felt to be the growing domination of reason, appear to Unamuno as the bitterest enemies of the soul’s longing for eternal life. He argues that not only do rationalists counter the possibility of the immortality of the soul with reasoned and scientific arguments, but they in fact often end up at an anti-theological hate: they are bent on proving wrong anyone who does believe such things. Others among them, though not succumbing to this hate, attempt to develop reasoned arguments of the meaning of life within the context of life ending in death; thus, for example, they argue that man should live life to the fullest, giving meaning to life through how we live during our limited time on earth. For Unamuno, all of these rational arguments are simply attempts by rationalists to console themselves before their deep-seated, unconscious disappointment born of believing that beyond death is only eternal darkness.

Finding religious arguments for the eternal soul too facile, and reasoned arguments against the possibility of immortality unconvincing, Unamuno describes how he reached a point of skepticism, which he defines as occurring when reason conflicts with desire, in this case, with the desire for immortality:
Skepticism, uncertainty --- the position to which reason, by practicing its analysis upon itself, upon its own validity, at last arrives --- is the foundation upon which the heart’s despair [about the desire for immortality] must build up its hope.(94)

With this background Unamuno then spends several chapters reviewing in detail key terms that will serve as the foundation for his investigation on the immortality of the soul based on this skepticism, this intersection where reason conflicts with desire. These terms --- love, pity, faith, belief, charity --- he defines and relates to one another, and then brings to bear on his argument.

Love, he argues, begins with sexual love, based on the need to perpetuate ourselves. But this sexual love can give way to a more profound spiritual love, which he feels is born out of suffering: when two or more people suffer through a difficult situation, especially one which strikes at their deepest desires (for the lives of their children, say, or the lives of their compatriots) then a spiritual love is born between or among them. Furthermore, since love can only come from suffering, he argues that love and happiness cannot be experienced together --- to not suffer (that is, to be happy) is to not have emotion and so not to live or be alive:
The moment love becomes happy and satisfied, it no longer desires and it is no longer love. The satisfied, the happy, do no love; they fall asleep in habit, near neighbor to annihilation. To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be. Man is the more man --- that is, the more divine --- the greater his capacity for suffering, or, rather, for anguish.(181)
Unamuno goes on to claim that this spiritual love is closely tied to pity, since, through pitying someone, we open ourselves up to understanding their suffering, and so to loving them. This ability of man to pity others envelops the whole natural world for Unamuno, in that through our imagination and feeling we tend to anthropomorphize everything around us --- feeling the pain and suffering of a tree, for example, when one of its branches is cut off. That we do this more at some times and less at others demonstrates the conflict in man between the rational and the affective sides of our spirit. Charity is then the result of pity, the desire to alleviate suffering around us.

The tendency of man to anthropomorphize applies also to our image of God, in Unamuno’s opinion. Man imagines God in his own image because he cannot imagine him in any other way. For Unamuno, divinity arose out of man’s feeling that there is a consciousness in nature, a consciousness that eventually became the Divinity, God, as a personification of the natural world. He argues that even groups of gods, such as in Greek times, were really ultimately parts of a single God, or Divinity of nature.

Over time, philosophy and theology took this Divinity and, according to Unamuno, defined it, thereby idealizing it and creating the idea of God. However, he finds that these definition, or proofs, of God’s existence don’t actually get us any closer to an understanding of God.  They in fact represent at best a kind of hypothesis, an explanation that fits the “facts.” Taking one example of the difficulties that arise from this, Unamuno points out that:
… in the moral order the question arises whether falsehood, or homicide, or adultery, are wrong because [God] has so decreed it, or whether He has so decreed it because they are wrong. If the former, then God is a capricious and unreasonable god, who decrees one law when He might equally well have decreed another, or, if the latter, He obeys an intrinsic nature and essence which exists in things themselves independently of Him --- that is to say, independently of His sovereign will; and if this is the case, if He obeys the innate reason of things, this reason, if we could but know it, would suffice us without any further need of God, and since we do not know it, God explains nothing. This reason would be above God. Neither is it of any avail to say that this reason is God Himself, the supreme reason of things. A reason of this kind, a necessary reason, is not a personal something. It is will that gives personality. And it is because of this problem of the relations between God’s reason, necessarily necessary, and His will, necessarily free, that the logic and Aristotelian God will always be a contradictory God.

The scholastic theologians never succeeded in disentangling themselves from the difficulties in which they found themselves involved when they attempted to reconcile human liberty with divine prescience and with the knowledge that God possesses of the free and contingent future; and that is strictly the reason why the rational God is wholly inapplicable to the contingent, for the notion of contingency is fundamentally the same as the notion of irrationality.(144)
This passage, aside from demonstrating the difficulties of attempting to use rational means to prove God’s existence, also displays Unamuno’s style and approach in this book: he uses reason as well as imagination to argue, essentially, that neither reason nor imagination alone can succeed in satisfactorily describing the meaning of life and man’s desire for immortality.

From the development of the concept of Divinity and God, Unamuno moves on to a discussion of faith and belief. He argues that people do not have faith in an abstract concept or idea, they instead have faith in the person telling them the concept or idea. Since faith relies on believing another person, it is therefore not possible to have faith without uncertainty, without the anguish of deciding whether someone warrants that faith. To take this to a secular plane, his argument is that a person does not generally have ‘faith’ in a scientific theory --- if they have proven its validity for themselves they would simply know it is true, and so would not have to have ‘faith’ in it being true; instead they have faith in a scientist or group of scientists who have claimed (and to our satisfaction, confirmed) its validity. Thus for Unamuno, faith in God is having trust and confidence in God’s authority, and so is not something that can be rationally explained.

All of this set-up culminates in the tenth essay in the book in which Unamuno imagines what it could mean to have eternal life. He rejects the idea of the soul as simply merging with God upon the death of the body, because for him, to lose the individuality of the soul is no better than the soul dying when the body dies. Similarly he finds unacceptable the idea of a final resting place of the soul in God as an eternal happiness, since he feels that one of the key defining qualities of the individual soul as being alive is the suffering and anguish of the search for understanding the ultimate meaning of life --- if that search is suddenly met with the full answer then what point eternal life beyond that? (He notes that even hell represents an eternal life of the soul, since it is defined to be a place of eternal suffering.)

Finally, having examined and found wanting the explanations that have been put forward over the years by philosophers and theologians of what eternal life could be, he states that the longing for immortality is simply what our souls must do, however irrational or contra-rational the desire may seem to be. He considers that it may even be the striving for immortality, the passionate desire to achieve eternal life, that is the necessary requirement to warrant it:
We must needs believe in the other life, in the eternal life beyond the grave, and in an individual and personal life, in a life in which each one of us may feel his consciousness and feel that it is united, without being confounded, with all other consciousnesses in the Supreme Consciousness, in God; we must needs believe in that other life in order that we may live this life, an endure it, and give it meaning and finality. And we must needs believe in that other life, perhaps, in order that we may deserve it, in order that we may obtain it, for it may be that he neither deserve it nor will obtain it who does not passionately desire it above reason and, if need be, against reason.

And above all, we must feel and act as if an endless continuation of our earthly life awaited us after death; and if it be that nothingness is the fate that awaits us we must not … so act that it shall be a just fate.”(227)

Taking the discussion to the practical level, Unamuno considers how we might go about living on earth in a manner that demonstrates our passionate desire for immortality and so warrants our achieving it. He argues that this is accomplished by living life in a manner that makes us indispensable, and so deserving of eternal life. For Unamuno this can only come through engagement in the world with other individuals who share our same goal (of eternal life) and so should be engaging with us on the same basis. By way of contrast, he rejects wholeheartedly the concept of religious withdrawal from society, for example into a monastery or cloister, for in doing this one becomes only less involved in society and so less indispensable during one’s life. With regard to the work we do, he concludes that we should not concern ourselves with searching for the work for which we are most suited, or somehow destined to do. Rather we must focus on performing whatever work we are doing with a passion that, again, makes us indispensable, that is, in a way that impresses our life into the lives of those around us. And, he argues, so should others, in their turn, live their lives in the same way, thus becoming indispensable for us. He deplores the sad state of someone not passionate for their work, their soul “sacrificed for the sake of the livelihood.” Moving to the very concrete, he disparages in this regard labor organizations, which he says have a tendency to create an environment in which employees can and are even expected to work ‘down’ to the lost common denominator, and also employers --- “a hundred times more blameworthy” --- who discourage passionate work by focusing on paying the least possible amount for the work, instead of encouraging and paying for the best possible effort.

Unamuno concludes with an essay tying these ideas to Spain and Spanish Catholicism, using the quintessential Spanish character of Don Quixote as an embodiment for his thoughts.

Despite the sprinkling of quotes in Latin, French, Italian, German, and Spanish (with oddly only the Spanish provided with translations in the footnotes), and the references to works of philosophy and theology from ancient Greece to Unamuno’s Spain of the early 1900’s, the fundamental argument of this work is clear and simple to understand: the most important question, the most pressing concern of a person is what the destiny of their soul will be, and whether their inherent longing for eternal life will be granted. Unamuno’s book provides a fascinating look at one philosopher’s, or as he himself might prefer, one man’s answer to that question.

Read quotes from this book

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