Sunday, September 25, 2016

Book Review: "The Path" by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

The Path (2016) Michael Puett (1964)
and Christine Gross-Loh

204 pages

Like an invisible straitjacket, a host of deeply held but largely unexamined cultural mores constrain our assumptions and expectations for our lives according to Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, authors of the fascinating and thought-provoking book The Path. Puett and Gross-Loh argue that those of us raised in the West would do well to recognize and consciously reflect on these implicit cultural norms, and by so doing acknowledge how poorly they often serve us. As an alternative, Puett and Gross-Loh introduce and discuss the teachings found in a half-dozen texts of Chinese philosophy from the last millennium BC, contrasting the philosophies outlined in these works with established Western thinking on how to live one’s life.

Puett, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, has taught for some years now a history class on Chinse philosophy. His class has apparently become hugely popular, and in the book’s Forward, journalist Gross-Loh describes an article she wrote on Puett’s class in 2013 for Atlantic magazine, a piece that became a springboard for her to join with Puett to write The Path.

Puett and Gross-Loh open with a statement that should not be considered surprising, but that none-the-less provides a useful reminder, forewarning readers to be prepared to re-consider their assumptions as they read on: “A certain vision of history has become conventional wisdom.” (5) This “conventional wisdom,” according to the authors, represents an ossified Western view of history that serves to reinforce existing Western assumptions on how best to live life, while dismissing Eastern philosophies as antiquated and out-of-touch with modern realities. In a series of short essays, the authors then explore and explode some of what they refer to as “our most cherished myths” (7), unchallenged beliefs that have grown out of this particular Western view of the past.

Puett and Gross-Loh follow up in the second chapter by providing context for their subsequent examination of early Chinese philosophers, giving a brief introduction to the critical period of transformation that occurred worldwide in the final millennium BC, a time now referred to as the Axial Age:
In a revolutionary history shift, the Bronze Age aristocratic societies that had dominate Eurasia for two thousand years, passing power and wealth down exclusively through hereditary bloodlines, began to crumble. …religious institutions that had been embedded in the earlier aristocratic cultures fell as well. As a result, religious and philosophical movements flourished across Eurasia. (17) 
Among these movements were several initiated by Chinese philosophers; through the texts left behind by these philosophers --- generally compiled by their disciples --- Puett and Gross-Loh provide a window into an alternative way of understanding and living our lives.

The first of the philosophers discussed, Confucius (551-479 BC), felt that we should focus on our small, daily actions in order to not only change for the better the way we live, but also transform the world around us. Drawing from The Analects, a text compiling statements and actions attributed to Confucius, Puett and Gross-Loh examine his emphasis on carrying out our everyday activities and interactions with others through rituals --- patterned actions and reactions that we consciously create. Far from the commonplace view of rituals as contrived and artificial, Confucius saw rituals as enabling us to break free of our existing, unthinking modes of behavior, rote rituals that we follow without pausing to consider their origin or impact.

Instead of defaulting to these existing patterns of behavior, Confucius encourages us to consciously create new, “as-if” rituals --- behaviors that we perform as-if the world were the way we would prefer it to be; by then performing such rituals repeatedly, we will gradually transform ourselves, and so our world. The authors give the historical example of “please” and “thank you”, a ritual they describe as having developed centuries ago, as the market economy spread: in that market setting, people wanted to create a brief moment of pretended equality between participants who were not generally equal in fact ---- that is, an “as-if we are equal” ritual to smooth out the interaction.

A more concrete example the authors give relates to having a difficult relationship with a colleague, friend or family member. Rather than simply responding to them with the anger we feel, we can instead intentionally let go of our natural reaction and develop a new response --- create a ritual that will result in a more constructive interaction. Far from being contrived and artificial, developing such new rituals can slowly, over time, allow us to transform our relationship with that person, and so change a tiny part of our world. For Confucius, a series --- a lifetime --- of such changes will positively transform the world, bottom-up, one ritual at a time.

The second philosopher discussed is Mencius, who lived in the late fourth century BC. Puett and Gross-Loh open with a consideration of a contemporary of Mencius, Mozi, who held to the view of “a coherent and predictable world created by a good deity” (58). This made Mozi and his followers similar in many ways, the authors point out, to Protestants and our modern, Western accepted belief that behaving correctly will inevitably lead to success.

Mencius, on the contrary, found the world to be capricious. For that reason, Mencius felt that:
Hard work would not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds would not necessarily be punished. … [and he] believed … [that] it is only when we understand that nothing is stable that we can make decisions and live our lives in the most expansive way. (60)
By accepting a view of the world as capricious, we avoid the unhealthy rut of assuming that rational decision-making can lead us to the best life, or the opposite fallacy, that of giving in to the idea that we should simply follow our gut instinct. Instead, Mencius felt that we need to achieve a mind-heart balance, which can be done by using the mind to understand our emotional responses, and then cultivate those responses, over time, to become more aware of the complexities of the world. In doing this we are “honing our judgement: seeing the bigger picture, understanding what really lies behind a[nother] person’s behavior, and remembering that different emotions such as anxiety, fear, and joy will draw out different sides of people we tend to think of as rigid.” (76)

Another important aspect of recognizing the capricious nature of the world, according to Mencius, is that it enables us to get past the limiting idea that we can make firm, rational plans for our future. Realizing that both we ourselves and also the world around us will change unpredictably enables us to let go of the fixed patterns of behaviors and expectations about ourselves that we unthinkingly fall into and that limit our future development. Through the intentional cultivation of new and different interests, we give ourselves the ability to more easily adapt to the uncertain future that awaits us.

The third text the authors consider is referred to as the Laozi. They note that “Laozi, the Chinese thinker to whom the Laozi is attributed, is a mysterious figure,” (89) about whom little is known, even whether there was an actual person by that name. The Laozi describes the Way, which the authors state has been miss-represented in the West as an idealized past to be returned to, a time “when life was purer and simpler … [and a] natural perfection that exist beyond us and with which we need to come back into harmony.” (90) In reality, they say, the Laozi describes the Way as a state of being that existed before the Universe began, “an original, ineffable, undifferentiated state” (91); the key for each of us, according to the Laozi is to re-create the Way in our lives, by “recognize[ing] the degree to which the distinctions that pervade our experience are actually false,” (93) and so recognize and acknowledge the fundamental connectedness between all things. Thus we do not achieve the Way by, say, returning to some earlier idealized time or going off into nature or meditating; instead we do so through realizing the interconnectedness of all things, and using that understanding to guide all aspects of our daily lives, from our leisure activities to our work.

Puett and Gross-Loh provide concrete examples, such as dealing with a difficult supervisor at work, or squabbling children or a distant teenager at home. By learning to recognize the interconnectedness of everything, and seeing how others’ lives --- their personalities, histories, and present situations --- affect their behavior, we enable our own ability to deal with them differently, in a manner more likely to have a constructive outcome. As we accomplish this in our daily lives, through the multitude of interactions we have each day, we become the Way.

The Laozi addresses a second, related concept on how to properly turn a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of everything into a method of effecting change in the world. The key concept, as the authors quote from the ancient text, is that:
Weakness overcomes strength,
Softness overcomes hardness. (100) 
Puett and Gross-Loh argue that typical Western culture, which “places such a premium on strength and ambition,” (101) can mislead us in our understanding of the Laozi. Through statements such as “weakness overcomes strength,” the text does not advocate passiveness, rather it promotes the idea that while aggressiveness and brute force can sometimes be briefly successful, these approaches also generate a resistance which ends up undermining their success. On the contrary, having a deep understanding of the interconnectedness and relationships between things enables us to guide and influence events in the direction we prefer, in a way that bypasses such resistance by, in a sense, bringing everyone along with us. The authors provide numerous compelling historical and everyday examples, stretching from military conflicts to national political disagreements to personal interactions, to demonstrate the effectiveness of using the Way as described in the Laozi to enable us to effect a transformative impact on our lives and our world.

The fourth text discussed, Inward Training, consists of a set of writings that urge readers to reach for the “divine energy”. Again, the authors introduce the text by first examining the modern, Western concept of self-divinization, around which has been built up, they argue, damaging associations of asserting one’s self, of imposing one’s self on the world to change it. The Inward Training, instead, focuses on our ability to “alter the world by cultivating [ourselves] to take on divine qualities.” (123) The method differs significantly from Western ideas of self-divinization in that “when we reconceptualize action and agency as arising from connecting rather than from dominating, we become more divine in an essential way: We become more fully alive.” (123) In order to achieve this, the text emphasizes the importance of not allowing external events --- whether positive and uplifting, or negative and depressing --- to affect us too strongly. By seeing the connectedness of things, the Inward Training describes how we can achieve an inner balance and alignment, one that will build up and maintain our inner spirit or energy, and so bring us closer to the divine.

The authors next discuss Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher from the late fourth century BC. They note that the text attributed to him, the Zhuangzi, emphasizes the importance of the Way and the connectedness of everything, just as did the Laozi, but from a much different viewpoint. Unlike Laozi, for Zhuangzi: “You could never become the Way … rather … the Way was about embracing absolutely everything in its constant flux and transformation.” (143) We accomplish this, according to Zhuangzi, by not limiting ourselves to what we believe to be true; instead we must constantly be opening our minds through new experiences that broaden our understanding and recognition of the connectedness of the world, and so eliminate the rigid distinctions with which we view the world. “We think we know what is beneficial, what is large, what is virtuous, what is useful. Yet do we really understand how arbitrary the words and values we depend on really are?” (156) Thus, he points out, something that is large, or virtuous in one context (perhaps the context we naturally gravitate towards given our personal experience), may in another context not be those things; by recognizing the interconnectedness of all things, we enable ourselves to recognize that.

Another consequence of developing this level of understanding is the opportunity to achieve what Zhuangzi refers to as trained spontaneity in the activities of one’s life. Puett and Gross-Loh explain the concept of trained spontaneity as the achievement through training of a kind of “effortless competence,” the point at which “we just ‘know’ what feels right without having to think about it.” They note that when we act to achieve this level of training “in all spheres of our lives, from the mundane [such as ironing clothes] to the rarified [such as playing a piano] … we are changing our whole approach to life … [our] entire way of being in the world.” (149)

The final philosopher the authors consider is Xunzi, “who lived about two hundred fifty years after Confucius … [and who] synthesized the works of all the thinkers who came before him.” (166) They note that Xunzi most closely agreed with Confucius, believing strongly in the power of rituals. Unlike Confucius, however, for Xunzi all human progress towards taming of the natural world to our needs, and development of our civilizations, has consisted of the creation of rituals. Thus, for Xunzi, like the other Chinese philosophers discussed in this book, the goal of someone seeking to transform their own life, and thereby the world, is not to attempt to return to a more “natural” state. Xunzi in fact felt that such a state can no longer even be conceived of, given the long development of human civilization in all its aspects, effectively thousands of years of the creation of systems of being (i.e., rituals) relative to the natural world to improve our lives. “The real question should be: in each instance [in our world], are we employing artifice wisely and well.” (177) To improve the world, we must constantly strive to evaluate and improve on our rituals.

Puett and Gross-Loh emphasize early in the book that the Chinese philosophers they examine do not provide a radical, prescriptive plan for how to change one’s life. Instead, by learning about the philosophies associated with the half-dozen texts they examine, we can begin to free ourselves of the assumptions we have accepted uncritically from the Western culture we’ve grown up in, and, in examining them, make conscious decisions about which provide benefit, and which perhaps do not. In opening, and so broadening our understanding, we put ourselves in a position to transform for the better the way we live our lives, and thereby also put ourselves in a position to help transform the world.

Other reviews / information:

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh were interviewed on the Diane Rehm show, linked to 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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Book Review: "World of Trouble" by Ben H. Winters

World of Trouble (2014)
Ben H. Winters (1976)

316 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the third book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the first two books, The Last Policeman and Countdown City. So, if you haven't read the first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review of The Last Policeman here; if you’ve read that, but not Countdown City, you’ll find my review of that second story here.]

With but a week to go before the impact of an asteroid expected to largely wipe out life on Earth, former detective Henry Palace pursues his final case in World of Trouble, the concluding book in Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy. Following a cryptic trail of uncertain clues to a small town in Ohio, Palace goes in search of his sister Niko, desperately hoping to find her ahead of the now imminent apocalypse.

Niko’s involvement in a far-fetched scheme to save the planet appeared as subplots in the first two books in the trilogy (The Last Policeman reviewed here, and Countdown City reviewed here), in which it was revealed that she has become actively involved with a group of people convinced that a nefarious conspiracy lies behind the U.S. government’s lack of efforts to prevent the asteroids impact. The group believes that they have discovered a plan that the government has intentionally covered up, a way to deflect the asteroid; to foil the conspiracy, the group works to put that plan into action. Palace, though convinced that his sister and her comrades have fallen victim to wishful thinking in the face of the coming catastrophe, at the same time struggles to make sense of the extensive capabilities the group has managed to acquire in the otherwise rapidly disintegrating economic and political environment caused by the approaching asteroid strike.

Late in the second story, Palace watches Niko disappear in a helicopter; unwilling to follow her, he also does not try to prevent her from leaving to pursue the plan she believes will save the Earth. As the second book ends, Palace reaches a house in western Massachusetts that several of his former police colleagues have converged upon in the hopes of creating a location of relative peace and safety for their families to ride out the final months before the asteroid hits. As World of Trouble opens, however, Palace finds himself unable to abandon his sister to her fate, and feeling guilty that he had not stuck with her, he has left the safe house in an attempt to track her down.

Passing through the dystopian and chaotic remains of a pre-apocalyptic world, Palace casts about for even the smallest clues that point toward his sister. In what has been a hallmark of these stories, Palace finds that the perverted social and political situation confounds his analysis of what he learns, leading him through a dangerous and complicated labyrinth of miss-calculation and miss-interpretation as he doggedly struggles to uncover the surprising truth about his sister and the plans she’s been involved in.

Taken together, the three books in Winters’ trilogy form an engaging offering, providing both the thrilling drama of the best detective stories and a compelling psychological look at mankind faced with a sudden and inglorious end.

Other reviews / information:
In the post-script of my review of Countdown City, I likened Winters' trilogy to Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (my review here). As I read World of Trouble, in which the end really has become imminent, another comparison came to mind: Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia, in which a rogue planet enters the system on a collision course with Earth. Von Trier focuses entirely on the psychological impact of the coming apocalypse and includes a healthy dose of surrealism, while Winters, in his trilogy, uses the psychological implications more as a pungent spice for his gritty detective stories; there is, never-the-less, a strong overlap in how the two works examine the complex and varied reactions of different people to the imminent end of the world.

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, September 9, 2016

Book Review: "Naked Earth" by Eileen Chang

Naked Earth (1956)
Eileen Chang (1920-1995)

245 pages

A crushing claustrophobia envelopes a reader in the opening chapters of Eileen Chang’s powerful novel, Naked Earth, and continues tightening its dispiriting grip through to the end. Set in the People’s Republic of China of the early 1950’s, as the Communist revolutionaries have emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War, Chang’s novel examines the effects on the Chinese people of the Communist Party’s aggressive consolidation of power. Her portrayal of the Chinese social and political milieu of that time most nearly resembles a nightmarish cross between Huxley’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trail, as the Party creates a suffocating web of mutual surveillance and fear. Perhaps even more haunting than the disturbing image of her characters caught up in the intricate and ultimately dangerous machinations in the China of the 1950’s, is the recognition of the all-to-common human traits that allow such nightmares to erupt anywhere in the world given the right conditions; “man’s inhumanity to man”, to borrow from poet Robert Burns.

The story opens as a truck travels into the Chinese countryside carrying university students mobilized by the government to carry out land reform. Led by a low-level, Communist party organizer, the group has been assigned to help party members in a small farming village re-apportion land from Big Landlords (in the novel, formal government terms and slogans are capitalized) to the local Poor, who are mostly landless day-workers. The village the student team arrives at, however, has no Big Landlords, and so the local officials, afraid of failure, go after even the Middling Farmers, grabbing all the land around the village for re-distribution. To justify the taking of the land for the poor, the officials condemn and demonize even lower class working farmers as Big Feudal Exploiting Landlords, subjecting them to brutal ‘denunciation’ meetings, and then imprisoning or torturing them to death.

Among the students watching the increasingly zealous and overheated mob is the story’s protagonist, Liu Ch’üan, who has arrived in the village with a passionate desire to support the Communist Party’s efforts to improve conditions. Liu quickly becomes disillusioned as he observes the local party officials, with the support of the party organizer, whip the villagers into a frenzied and increasingly gruesome mistreatment of the working class villagers. Under consideration for party membership, Liu is looked on by the party organizer directing the group as an unofficial leader among the students, and so feels some level of responsibility to try and guide events. At the same time, he hesitates to raise his voice in opposition --- the very slogans and mottos that had seemed proper and principled in the fervor of the student meetings back on campus he now finds turned, in the crucible of policy implementation in the village, into an ideological minefield; a small miss-step potentially ending one’s hope for party membership or even putting one’s life at risk.

When Liu does finally speak out against the abuse of the lower class farmers, the organizer quickly chastises him, saying that Liu has “taken the wrong Class Route,” and is due for some Self-Examination” by the group. Even after the meeting, when Liu talks briefly to a fellow student who shares his concerns, danger lurks; another passing student warns them in a whisper to stop their discussion: “If anybody should hear, they’ll say we’re Holding a Small Meeting.” (40) Every action, every word, can be twisted into an accusation of working against the Party.

Liu survives the situation in the village, saved in part by a sudden government-ordered transfer, along with the party organizer, to Shanghai. In what is effectively a promotion for the two of them, they are assigned to the Resist-America Aid-Korea Association, formed to prepare propaganda in support of the Chinese efforts backing North Korea against the US-supported South Korean army. Whereas in the countryside Liu had dealt with a small group of rather transparently corrupt party officials, in the big city he finds himself buffeted by a vast network of shifting conflicts and alliances among party members seeking advancement and warding off political threats. He also discovers the unforeseeable risks of sudden shifts in government policies that can turn someone who may have been in favor just the day before into a pariah, accused of being a villainous traitor, becoming toxic to even accidental acquaintances. For a person of conscience, such as Liu, just staying out of trouble with the party, much less achieving advancement through its ranks, becomes a virtually untenable proposition.

Chang has written a compelling condemnation of the authoritarian government that formed in China in the wake of the Chinese civil war of the 1940’s, and the vast and oppressing system of psychological and social control it imposed to maintain power. Through the trials and tribulations of her affecting main character, Liu Ch’üan --- a conscientious common-man who is neither a self-centered party member focused only on advancement nor a self-sacrificing idealist --- Chang demonstrates the pernicious ability of such systems to undermine and eliminate even principled opposition.

Other reviews / information:
This another wonderful selection in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics collection.

This NYRB Classics edition has an introduction by Perry Link (available on-line here), in which he mentions that United States Information Service (USIS) offered Chang a grant after she left China in 1952 to write this book, and another (The Rice-Sprout Song). He comments that:
This fact has been widely noted, and its significance sometimes exaggerated. It is far-fetched to imagine that the USIS distorted Chang’s writing. She is too powerful a writer for that --- too “immune from being tricked,” in [MaoTse-tung confederate] Tai Ch’ing’s phrase. (xii)

I have also read and reviewed (here) a set of short stories by Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City, another selection in the NYRB Classics collection.

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