Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

274 pages

After losing World War II, America has been occupied and split into three zones in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The Japanese rule over the west coast, and the Germans the east coast; in the center, the so-called Rocky Mountain States of America remains nominally independent, a buffer zone of little interest to either of the occupying powers.

Set in 1962, fifteen years after U.S. capitulation, Dick’s novel takes place largely in San Francisco, where the Japanese dominate life in the city. Ruling through a puppet government, they control the main economic activities and live in the nicest neighborhoods. Black slavery has been re-instated, while whites live as second class citizens, generally adopting Japanese mannerism and customs, some in hopes of ingratiating themselves into Japanese society, others simply to try and keep a low profile.

Instead of the action-adventure theme that such a set-up suggests, Dick chose to write a psychological exploration of this alternate future. Though punctuated by moments of suspense, the story focuses largely on the kind of world that the Japanese and Germans have created in the areas they control. For the Japanese, victory appears to have quelled the aggression that led them to war, and they have concentrated on imposing their cultural and social mores on the American living under their occupation. The Germans, on the other hand, have turned victory into justification to double-down on their concepts of militarism and Aryan superiority, and they have accelerated their scientific and technological development to those ends.

Through four intersecting plot lines, Dick creates a world in which the former Japanese and German allies have transformed into cold war opponents, struggling for influence and control at the borders of their respective empires. Americans, for their part, have lost the momentum and swagger of a century of manifest destiny, and either cower before the ruling elites in the occupied zones, or live quiet lives in a center of the country that has become a cultural backwater, with the uncertain threat of Japanese or German expansion ever present.

Dick convincingly conveys the extent of the white population’s mental subjugation to the ruling Japanese through the tone and language he uses in the story, both in the words and thoughts of the characters, and in his descriptions. Rather than a story about the overthrow of the occupying regimes, the dramatic moments in the story involve sudden, brief recognitions by several of the characters that things could be different, that perhaps Americans have given in too readily to the new world order the outcome of the war created, and must push back --- moments when the seeds of future rebellion are planted.

Possibly because I began this novel having just finished reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk, I found parallels in the lives of Dick’s white American characters to Du Bois’ concept of black Americans living “with a veil … [a] double-consciousness, [a] sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring ones’ soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” (My review here.) How similar this to the thoughts of one of the white Americans in Dick’s story as he tries not to lose face during a conversation with a Japanese man:
Damn them, I can’t free myself of their influence, can’t give in to impulse ….
[The Japanese man] scrutinized him, needing to say nothing; [his] very presence enough. Got my conscience snared…. Guess I’ve lived around them too long. Too late now to flee, to get back among whites and white ways. (193)

In another example of the influence exerted by Japanese cultural traditions, most of the characters in the novel --- American as well as Japanese --- turn often to the I Ching, a Chinese divination text. Through their Japanese conquerors, many Americans have developed the practice of consulting the historic text for interpretation of present events and understanding of future possibilities, no doubt in part in response to the shock and upheaval of the loss of the war, and the resulting sudden loss of the American self-confidence and superiority that had held sway for so long. In dramatic contrast to German practicality, however, the Japanese too look to the text for guidance in an uncertain world --- somehow recognizing the tenuousness of their victory and present dominance.

And it is in fact through a reading of the I Ching that the novel’s reality becomes ambiguous, in a scene toward the end that threatens to warp everything that we thought we knew, to turn a novel of alternative history into Science Fiction. In the years after the book was published, Dick acknowledged the ambiguity of the ending, and hinted at a sequel that unfortunately never materialized (discussed for example here). Thus we are left as readers to construct our own interpretation of the physical reality that Dick created in the story.

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

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

247 pages
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line. (1)
Borne out by the century of strife and struggle that followed, these prophetic opening lines from W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1903 collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk continue to resonate into the 21st century, as even a casual glance at headlines from the last few years makes clear. Although his descriptions of black lives in the late 1800’s represent a look into America’s past, the seeds of the continuing American struggles with race emerge unequivocally from each page. No matter how inevitable --- given the social, economic and political realities of the time --- one may consider to have been the failure of the aborted Reconstruction period and the white backlash that ended it, reading Du Bois’ trenchant essays cannot help but leave a heart-rending frustration over the opportunities lost in the years after the heady moment of Emancipation.

In his opening essay, Du Bois sets the tone for the book, recalling not only the slaves’ long-cherished dream of freedom, but also, newly freed, their “striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of [American] culture.” (5) He also describes how blacks have had to conceal their true selves behind a Veil in order to live in American society. And, in the impassioned but frank and sober reasoning that characterizes his writing throughout these fourteen essays, he comments that, in wishing to shed this Veil,
[the American Negro] would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would [also] not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. (5)
The social and political impediments that prevent blacks from achieving an equal partnership in the American project, and that lead to the need for blacks to hide a part of themselves behind this Veil, result in an untenable situation according to Du Bois, that must needs be resolved that America as a whole may benefit.

Du Bois goes on, in the second essay, to examine in detail the experiences and struggles of the slaves as they became free in large numbers, first as a result of military happenstance as the Civil War raged on, then through the Emancipation proclamation, and finally the nation-wide ending of slavery. He recalls the vacillating and irresolute support of the government, and society as a whole, for the suddenly freed millions, beginning with the impromptu and inconsistent actions of the military as slaves became free during the war. As the war continued, and in its immediate aftermath, the government attempted to develop --- on the fly --- a coordinated plan with sufficient funding to deal with the massive help needed, but, in a history which parallels, perhaps not surprisingly, the government’s lack of preparedness and inadequate response a century and a half later during and after the victory in Iraq, managed little sustained success.

Not surprisingly, the defeated Southern white population generally opposed and actively resisted any proposed support. Perhaps more importantly, as Du Bois points out in several of the essays, Northerners became less engaged with helping the former slaves in the years after the war, as the country’s focus turned instead to the quickly expanding economy in the post-war years of industrialization. Enthralled with what Du Bois refers to as “Mammonism” (the worship and greedy pursuit of riches) (68, 233), Northerners sought the greater perceived benefit to economic growth that conciliation with the South promised; continuing to press demands for aid to the freed blacks just got in the way. This change of heart undermined and ultimately ended the promise of Reconstruction to help integrate the freed slaves into that growing national economy, as well as into the broader American culture.

The first two essays, then, set the stage in terms of psychological and historical background for the twelve essays that make up the remainder of the book.

Of the remaining twelve, eight focus on Du Bois’ analysis of the situation of blacks in America as the 19th century comes to a close, and particularly that situation in the South, where the vast majority of blacks lived. He begins with a description of the accomodationist policies of a group of black leaders led by Booker T. Washington, outlining fundamental objections and concerns about that approach, both in its impact on blacks themselves, as well as on the future of the nation as a whole.

Du Bois then details his observations of black lives and futures as the 1800’s drew to a close. As a professor of history and sociology he traveled extensively, particularly in the American south, to experience and understand black lives in both urban and rural settings, including periods working as a teacher in tiny, isolated, rural communities. Over the course of several essays he recounts and summarizes his observations and conclusions, providing an objective analysis that makes clear the failures and shortcomings of both the American nation in helping bring the freed slaves forward, as well as those of the freedmen themselves.

In these essays he documents the lack of progress among black communities in the South, comparing what he saw in visits just after the war to what he found upon returning again a decade or so later; he describes a region in the deep south below Atlanta that he calls the “Black Belt,” a string of communities in which some blacks gathered to try and protect themselves from the hostile society that surrounded them; he recounts the many and varied ways in which former plantation owners or businessmen coming down from the North effectively re-create the bondage of slavery through merciless lending practices and draconian local laws; he looks at areas where the sons of former masters and former slaves live together in communities, but with a clear and stark separation in housing, schools, churches, and other public institutions, and the negative impact already then apparent in access to the education and development critical to integration into the growing American economy and society.

These brief hints at the various topics Du Bois examines in his essays fail to do justice to the depth and clarity of his writing on them. In clear and persuasive language, he makes evident the desperate situation the vast majority of freed slaves find themselves in late in the 19th century, and the dismal prospects for the future given their political disenfranchisement, the economic barriers they face and the widespread social segregation.

Though his passionate desire to see the situation of blacks in America improved rings clear in these essays, it does not cloud his analytical understanding of the challenges faced. Ultimately, he calls both for white Americans to recognize the psychologically impact of centuries of bondage, and for the development of a black elite (what he refers to elsewhere as the “Talented Tenth”) that must needs take active responsibility for the improvement of black lives.

The analytical, rational quality of the first ten essays gives way to a much more emotionally stirring tone in the final four. In the heart-wrenching Of the Passing of the First-Born, for example, Du Bois relates the birth, and sudden death as an infant, of his son. He describes his hopes and fears for the newborn, coming into an America that Du Bois recognizes presents deep and fundamental challenges for a black man; these concerns dissolve into despair at the death of his son due to illness. I thought to quote from the essay here, to give a hint at Du Bois’ powerful elegy, but it seems an almost unforgivable act of violence to wrench a few lines from six poetic pages that will break your heart.

The second of this final quartet of essays tells of the experiences and struggles of Alexander Crummell, whose life spanned the 1800’s. He lived as a freedman who became a priest, but confronted the pain and challenges of racism throughout his life --- in society at large as well as in the Church.

The third of these essays presents a fictional account of the life of a young, black boy, born in the Deep South in the period after the Civil War, where he grows up free and happy-go-lucky in a small town along the south-eastern coast of Georgia, while remaining largely unaware of the racial caste structure he has been born into. When he goes north to be educated, however, his eyes open to the realities of American society; returning to his hometown later to try and help educate his neighbors, he struggles with alienation from both blacks and whites. The blacks don’t know what to make of what he tries to tell them, and, as a white person told his sister when he was first sent North to school: “too bad your mother sent him off [to be educated], --- it will spoil him.” (189)

The final essay describes the background of the epigraphs that leads each of the essays of the book. These consist of some lines of poetry, as well as some bars of music from various black spirituals --- what Du Bois calls The Sorrow Songs.

Ultimately Du Bois seeks, whether through analytical reasoning in his role as a professor of sociology and history, or emotional force in his role as a potent teller of stories --- to open our eyes to both the physical and the psychological plight of the freed blacks in the decades after the Civil War. He endeavors to pull us away from our facile stereotypes and beliefs, and have us begin to realize the common humanity we all share. In so doing, he encourages us to recognize that the separation that has been created both oppresses a people, and hobbles the forward progress of our country as a whole.

In this call for understanding, Du Bois does not shy away from the challenges that several centuries of the psychological burden of slavery have created for blacks of the late 1800’s. He recognizes the integration of blacks into American cultural and economic life as a project of generations, and that an educated black elite must play a critical role in the effort. He makes clear, however, that without fundamental social and political change in the country, the required progress will lie forever beyond reach.

All this Du Bois wrote from the perspective of the late 1800’s; but, his observation that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (1) is strikingly prescient to a modern reader. This is a book that demands reading today, more than a century after it was first published, not only for the history it informs us of, but because of what it has to tell us about modern American society.

I cannot state it more clearly: if you have not yet read this book, do so. As I progressed through the early essays, a kind of incredulity struck me: how had I made it through so much schooling, and, beyond that, read so much, without having read this book, this masterpiece of history and literature?

Other reviews / information:
The radio program On Being, hosted by Krista Tippett, recently had a wonderful program on Du Bois (which led me to this book). I recommend listening to the unedited interviews she used as source material for the final, on-radio, program.  The show and related information are here.

For a powerful and engaging history of how Du Bois' "problem of the color-line" played out in 20th century,  I strongly recommend Isabel Wilkerson's work The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (my review here), which describes the migration from 1915 to 1975 of some six million blacks out of the South and into cities in the North and West .  Wilkerson builds her story largely around the personal histories of three individuals who made this migration, while using brief digressions to explain the broader outlines and statistics of the resulting transformation.  Her focus on the lives and experiences of particular people makes for a gripping account that explodes the misconceptions and miss-understandings that can so easily creep into our opinions and thinking about the history --- and current reality --- of race in America.

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, April 10, 2016

Poet Nikki Giovanni on the concept of achieving Justice

During an interview with Krista Tippett, host of the radio program “On Being”, poet Nikki Giovanni made a profound observation about the nature of pursuing justice in the face of injustice:

Giovanni: The third line in the poem [I am working on now] says, you know, “We cannot be unraped.” And I was interested because, you know, we’ve had a lot of, you know, campus rape, and then we found out that some of it isn’t quite, ah, quite accurate. But no matter what it is, we cannot ‘unrape’. And, I’m not sure, I’m having this argument with myself, I don’t know where this is going to go by the way, but I’m not sure that ‘justice’, can come from any of that. Only, only thing that come from that is revenge. And, revenge is a bad idea, I mean the Greeks learned that [long] ago.

Tippett: That justice can come from, that justice can come from any of what? Of ...?

Giovanni: That, that there’s no ju --- if you, right now, came in here and beat the living crap out of me, there is no ‘justice’; there’s no justice, I had the living crap beaten out of me. I can sue you, I can do something to try to satisfy myself, but that’s not going to be --- there’s no justice. Unless I would, tie you up and beat the living crap out of you --- and nobody wants to do that --- that’s what I’m saying. I can get revenge, but I can’t, there’s no justice. And so I’m beginning to wonder, should we change this, this, this dialogue we have. I saw the president the other day, of the United States, saying, you know, to to the the ah community the the, whoever it is that, that’s been blowing up people, you know, 'we’re going to get you’. That’s, that’s not justice. And, and, I’m sorry to say it like that --- I’m not namby-pamby --- but we’re going to have to find a way to talk to each other, and I think that, that’s what’s important.
(17 March 2016; 1:02:55 into the unedited version of the interview, available here.)
Her thoughts on justice resonate at so many levels of modern life, whether the personal wrongs we may individually face, the national discourse on race and the police, or the international efforts to respond to ISIS.  When we talking about achieving justice in response to some sort of violence --- some injustice --- what do we really mean, what do we actually wish to achieve?

One can understand Giovanni noting that "I'm having this argument with myself, [and] I don't know where this is going to go," because comments such as hers will almost unavoidably generate knee-jerk, facile retorts: 'What, shall we just let the rapist go then?  Shall we just let ISIS behead people?'  By reaching for the extremes of a literal interpretation, one need not bother to consider the deeper meaning of her words.

But clearly she does not intend to say that we should simply turn the other cheek in the face of such violence, as she reinforces with her "I'm not namby-pamby" comment toward the end of the quote above.  Instead, I would argue, her point is that we must understand what we are asking for when we ask for justice, what we accomplish --- and fail to accomplish --- in pursuing justice through a violent response.

We may need to resort to violence in some cases, whether it be incarceration (through the outcome of the judicial system), or military confrontation (against a terrorist group).  But, Giovanni seems to argue, we need to recognize that these responses do not truly achieve justice, and in reality most closely resemble revenge.  And, perhaps, if we recognize that in the end such means also represent a kind of violence, and that violence breeds violence, then maybe we will take the first steps to understanding that to truly end injustice --- for the long-term --- we have to, as she says above, "find a way to talk to each other" to stop the injustice from occurring in the first place.