The History of White People

31xr5yvlill-_sy344_bo1204203200_Nell Irvin Painter, 2010

Looking for some clarity amidst our tumultuous news cycle filled with constant reports of an ever increasing normalization of nationalistic fueled racism, I decided I needed some historical non-fiction to realign my perspective about what is going on. The intriguing title of  The History of White People captured my attention. The history cataloged in these pages isn’t really a history of white people’s actions but rather an academic exposition on the history and development of the ideas of race, namely the so-called race of white people.  Nell Irvin Painter is an American History professor at Princeton and in her introduction to this highly academic but readable work she acknowledges that her working title, Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to Present, would better summarize her intention to explore the understanding that “race is an idea, not a fact” (ix) and that American history often includes commentary on the the meaning of what it means to be non-white with too little focus or attention on the confusing and flexible ideas of what it means to be “white.”

The History of White People provides a compelling investigation into the constantly morphing ideas of race while illuminating the fact that race classification is relatively new in the scope of human history. Although this book is primarily focused on American ideas of race, Painter begins this historical investigation with a brief summary of the ancient Greek and Roman relationships with the peoples from the regions surrounding the Black Sea and Northern Europe. The Black Sea, Scythian people were from the Caucasus Mountainous region and played into much of mythology of Ancient Greece as a region of distant and wild people. To the Romans, the people of Northern Europe were wild savage and without civility. These regions, celebrated in modern times as the fruit basket of white superiority were looked down upon as brutish by the classical ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. The Greek and Roman people did not refer to these people as white or fair or beautiful, but rather considered these people as ugly and savage.

Furthermore, both Greece and Rome utilized slaves in their society and people from both the Caucasus region and Europe were frequently enslaved by the the Greeks, the Romans, and later the Nordics. Slavery is not unique to the African people and throughout history many white people were included in the slave class. Even the later development of European feudalism with serfs subject to their local monarchy is a modified form of slavery and after discovery of the “new” world many white people were part of the slave class through indentured servitude. The ideas that Africans were subject to slavery in America due to their social and intellectual inferiority are flimsy when faced with the historical fact that European peoples have been enslaved and part of the slave class throughout antiquity and even up to the colonial era.

So, how did the idea that white people are superior come into being? The History of White People demonstrates that there are multifaceted reasons for the development of this false idea. Ideals about beauty developed within art criticism that influenced popular perception. For instance, in the 18th century ideals of purity developed with consideration of the artistic achievements of classical greatness. In the 18th century: “Copying Greek art perforce employed a more common medium – white plaster – which … they purposefully left unpainted. Thus [a] white aesthetic marched on, trampling the fact that smooth white Italian marble was neither the original medium nor the original color of the Greek statuary” (62). Additionally, ideals of white slave prostitutes from the Circassian, Georgian, and Caucasus regions were depicted in paintings as an ideal of human physicality and thus further escalating the ideal of white superiority over other “races.”

Of course art was not the primary or solitary element to the development of white race theory, but these examples demonstrate how art did influence the intellectual class’s perception of race whereas economies of power influenced the merchant and agrarian classes. The behaviors of the merchant and agrarian classes in America were observed by academics who studied the developing cultures of the American people. The early 19th century French social theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled through America and recognized the difference between northern whites and southern whites, most notably in their treatment of the black man. Tocqueville wrote  “If America ever experiences great revolutions, they will be instigated by the presence of blacks on American soil; that is to say, it will not be the equality of social conditions but rather their inequality that which will give rise to them.” (127)

gordon-t_ca0-articlelargeAmerica’s relationship to slavery is a shameful tarnish on its history, and the treatment of negro/black/African people is fraught with complexity. At the founding of the nation free black men did not have the right to vote and were not full citizens. However, the contemporary idea of a free white man is not as congruent with history’s identification of who defined themselves as a white man. Today whiteness has come to simply refer to European descent, but in the 18th and 19th century there were theories that there were many European races.

Throughout its pages, The History of White People catalogs many different philosophers, authors, researchers, and eugenic sociologists that aimed to define the superior white race and I won’t get into all of the details here, but the central idea of this catologicial depiction is that the history of white identity isn’t as simple as European descent equates whiteness. As successive waves of immigrants began migrating to America throughout the middle of the 19th century, these immigrants were identified as a threat to the American culture and purity of the race of white peoples that had initially founded the former colonial nation. The first waves of immigrants were Irish and “The first assumption that the Irish were unfit for self-government often dominated domestic politics. The United States had black people and slavery to contend with, issues so huge that they blunted anti-Irish sentiment as a source of political conflict, but not before a decade of turmoil. The 1840’s were a tense time in the United States, an era of rising nativism” (146-7).

America’s problematic relationship with immigration is longstanding and reading about the anti-Irish and anti-German sentiments of the 1840’s is eerily similar to the current anti-Muslim anti-Latino sentiment of today. The fear of immigrants is nothing new and it was surprising to be reminded of America’s heritage of anti-immigrant sentiment. For instance, “a political party spun out of the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was actually named the American Party. So patriotic a title encouraged members to brand opponents “anti-American.” In the Midwest for instance, where Germans had settled and voted in large numbers, refugees from the European revolutions of 1848 almost automatically seemed anti-American on account of their suspected radicalism” (148). The anti-American patriotic drum-beating continues on today with the America-First attitude that perpetuates the ongoing fear of the other.

Race theory fed these fears by promoting ideals of superior Nordic, or Teutonic, or Aryan races as the pinnacle of human civilization. Furthermore, as evolutionary theory came onto the scientific stage, the concepts of fitness additionally influenced these ideas of superiority among the races. What is distinct though, is that much of the race theory of the 19th century entirely ignored the dichotomy of white/black race classification that was at the forefront of the 20th century. In the 19th century the races of concern were Nordic or Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean. Today we here these words and think of European regions, not races and this contemporary understanding illuminates how fluid and flawed race classification has been throughout history. The commonly used term, Caucasian, is really meaningless because most white people who today define themselves as Caucasian have no heritage with the region of the Caucasus Mountains, but that term arose from ideals of Caucasian beauty depicted in art. Furthermore, take the term Aryan, which is totally made up and does not even stem from Europe at all, for “Gobineau took the concept of an Aryan “race” out of the obscure scholarship of philologists studying dead languages like Sanskrit and eventually made it familiar…Thus, the nineteenth-century rage for races turned languages into peoples, and the word arya meaning “noble” or “spiritual” in Sanskrit came to be applied to an imagined, superior race of Aryans” (196). These labels fueled ideals of superiority and purity but have little basis in actual fact.

As immigrants continued to migrate to America at the turn of the 2oth century, race theorists such as Henry Goddard developed immigrant intelligence testing that promoted sterilization for the betterment of the humanity. These tests were skewed and intentionally filtered out non desirable cultural traits that had little to do with actual intelligence as defined today. There were dictionaries of races that separated out European immigrants into three races of Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean (289) that had originally included Germans in the superior Nordic race but “after a war in which Germans had been stereotyped as the “Hun,” German “blood” was downgraded from heavily Nordic to majority Alpine” (289). All of this demonstrates how nativist attitudes comfortably stereotyped the other as lesser and used pseudoscientific rational justification to drive policy.

Returning back to the issue with immigration, what is surprising about the history of white people is that the people who are easily considered white today were not formerly thought as such.  Irish, Germans and Italians found there way within American society, but it was not an easy path. Voting and work provided a path for immigrants to enter into the American fold, however the non-white colored were often excluded from this path. “The right to vote, for instance, opened a path to employment through government patronage and civil service jobs. Labor union control meant that their sons and brothers stood first in line for steady work and, later, skilled jobs. The figure of the Irish policemen owes its longevity to this system of public employment” (205).

Of course, much of this history of white people is really the history of white men since women had little power in the young American government. As women began to fight for their right to participate in society the turn of the century suffragette movement was “Turning away from the nineteenth-century pattern of charity intended to correct personal weaknesses, they recognized the structural causes of poverty. Localities, states and even the federal government, they said, owed the population certain services as rights, because environment, not inherent weakness, made people poor” (242). These new ideas influenced the ideas of white racial stereotypes, transforming itself into ideas of class distinction. The focus changed from racial limitations to the opportunities provided through work as the immigrant class who “were living in miserable slums, impoverished immigrant laborers recognized that the fundamental flaw of American society lay in the maldistribution of wealth” (354) and not racial heritage (for white people at least).

As post war society dramatically transformed the nation the immigrant classes that were formerly thought of as separate races were welcomed into the fold of whiteness through work. In the 1940’s “With real American identity coded according to race, being a real American often meant joining antiblack racism and seeing oneself as white against blacks” (363) and “Nowadays race leads directly to race as black, as in the black/white scheme of the South where the civil rights revolution became visible. Black power took the concept even further, making black race a positive sign and white race the mark of guilty malfeasance.” (378)

The History of White People is a fairly impressive book, however I must acknowledge that I was a little disappointed by the unbalanced pacing of the heavy focus on the 18th and 19th century with a very brief summary of the changes of the 20th century. In reference to the Civil Rights era there is a long discussion on the influence of Malcom X with not one mention of Martin Luther King Jr., which was utterly surprising. Additionally, the closing of the book offers itself up to criticism of naivete as Painter celebrates the movement towards a post-racial America since people of color are respected in the popular culture and Barak Obama is president. Of course this book was published in 2010 and much has changed in the American lexicon of race in the post-Trump America and I wonder if a revised edition would edit much of this naivete with a more thoroughly researched exploration of the continued development of racial disparity within American culture.

Additionally, as I had stated in my opening paragraph, this book is not really an exploration of white people’s behaviors and I in my reading I was a little surprised at how much focus there was on particular theorists and authors that studied race in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century with little exposition of actual white culture or events that influenced the general public zeitgeist of the times. This is an academically researched work but its weakness is that it leans to heavily on other academics and does little to depict actual historical events. This weakness does not fail the book though, for it does succeed in achieving its goal to demonstrate that the idea of race is simply that, an idea. The evolution and change of white people’s own understanding and classification of themselves demonstrates how foolish it is for humanity to place labels on one another due to skin colors that evolved due to environmental influences. The book closes with a brief acknowledgment to the 21st century achievements in genetics and the mapping of the human genome, which has demonstrated that all of humanity shares 99.99 percent of the same genes. This biological fact demonstrates that the ideas of racial difference ignore the commonality shared by all of humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Hare

imagesCésar Aira, 1991
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 1998

“One can think one is always in the middle of a dream, precisely because of the consistence of reality, because it continues and keeps on going, though we have no idea how or why.” (95)

I’ve read several of César Aira’s novels precisely because they often read as a dreamlike reflection of the world. His writing is fluid, whimsical, and fun with plots that often trail off on extreme magical tangents that diverge from the realities of their thematic origins. Many of his books are short and quick, often less than 100 pages in length. At 266 pages The Hare is his longest translated work that I’ve read and oddly, it is my least favorite because it is his least magical or whimsical piece of writing.

“If experience has taught me anything, it is that the less one knows, the more effectively one can act.” (73)

The book primarily follows the travels of a nineteenth century English naturalist traveling through the countryside of Argentina. In his travels he encounters several native peoples of Argentina and is sent on a wild-goose chase in search of a Legibrerian hare that has the ability to fly. In his hare-goose-chase he gets caught up in the politics and warfare of the local people. In his interactions with the native peoples, the novel explores ideas of European idealism and colonial disregard towards the history and culture of the native people of South America:

“The reason you consider us primitive (no, don’t worry, I didn’t take it amiss) can only come from the fact that, unlike you, we do not have a God, or a monotheistic system, to provide a general framework of meaning for us. We Indians still ‘find’ ourselves at the stage of potentiality: a sign is not guaranteed by reference to a meaning, but by its position within a specific framework. It is also the case, and I think this is the key to your puzzlement, that since the stars are pure perception, are purely visible without any possibility of becoming tangible, they need constantly to demonstrate their reality, if possible every night. That is the paradox of an imaginary system which needs to be real in order to generate all images. Now look at our own black, immutable sky, our rock. It’s exactly the same. Points of darkness replaced points of light. It is we who are the stars, living memory of our lives, lived without days or nights on the margins of time. Meaning continues to exist however, whether or not there is a God or a sky.” (176)

The discussions about European and native (South) American relations and cultural understanding are definitely the strongest attributes of this book. However I found the narrative of The Hare to be slow paced and distracting. I will recognize that I read this during a tumultuous time during my life when I had moved into a new home and was expecting the birth of our first child and those life changes may have influenced my interest in the book, but this was my least favorite of all of the César Aira books I’ve read to date. If this was written by another another author I may have enjoyed it more, but with Aira I have come to expect a certain playfulness. Unfortunately for me I did not find that playful narrative in the pages of The Hare and it disappointed me. I have come to love Aira as one of my go-to authors, but since he has written over 70 books, it would be unfair to expect that every single one of his books is going to be as enjoyable and fun as the last. In The Hare Aira was clearly exploring a certain type of narrative style that was more linear and factual (despite the presence of a flying mythical hare) with intentions of making social commentary on the influence of European-South American history and culture. It is a decent book, but was not overly enjoyed by this reader.

“Up to now, we’ve given you too many words and not enough action, haven’t we? But without words, there can be no experience. Although without experience, there can be no words – or anything else for that matter.” (49)

 

 

 

 

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Submission

41yjmnlq0cl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Michel Houellebecq, 2015
Translated from the French by Lorin Stein, 2015

I picked up a copy of Submission during the week of November 8th following the election. The jacket cover and bookseller note card both described Submission as a dark comic satire of French politics and I hoped that it would provide an artistic diversion from my somber mood following the devastating American election results of 2016. It was a fairly quick and amusing light read that I finished in just a couple of days but have only gotten around to saying anything about it until just now. Houellebecq’s comic prose did fulfill my hopes in distracting me from my post-election fears, but in hindsight reflection following the inauguration and first two weeks of Trump’s presidency I am chilled by the ways in which art reflects life. Submission is the story of a cultural-political coup and what is happening today in America is a reflection of the chaos and turmoil depicted in Houellebecq’s comic book.

The premise of Submission takes place in France of the not to distant future of 2020. The country’s populace has been overwhelmed by Muslim immigrants and rather than destroying France through violence and terror (as expected) the immigrant population have usurped the French cultural identity by gaming the democratic political system. In the 2020 election the French government is overtaken by the Islamic party and within their first few days of power the new extremist government enacts sweeping changes to the political and legal system such as requiring all woman to be covered and forcing them to forfeit their jobs, the education system is overturned to filter all teaching through the lenses of Islam, and their are widespread changes to the economic system such as outlawing the sale of liquor. The French nationals are in upheaval and chaos and there are riots and disorder throughout the country.

The narrative is told through the perspective of Francois, a middle-aged single man who is a literature teacher with a specialty focus on the nineteenth century novelist and writer, H.K. Huysmans. Huysmans was a naturalist that headed the decadent movement and like his literary champion, Francois is a decadent who prides himself on replacing his girlfriends year after year with an ever abundant supply of young and beautiful students. As he grows older and less attractive, he finds more success in meeting his sexual desire through the convenience of Youporn. To get a sense of the pessimistic attitude of Francois the narrator, read the following passage from Francois’ inner monologue as he reads the prose of a monk in an attempt to find solace during the political turmoil ongoing in his country:

“The prose of Dom Jean-Pierre Longcat – no doubt an excellent monk, full of love and good intentions – exasperated me more and more. “Life should be a continual loving exchange, in tribulations or in joy,” the good father wrote. “So make the most of these few days and exercise your capacity to love and be loved, in word and in deed.” “Give it a rest dipshit,” I’d snarl, “I’m alone in my room.” “You are here to lay down the burdens and take a journey within yourself to the wellspring where the power of desire is revealed.” “My only fucking desire is to have a fucking cigarette,” I raged, “I’ve reached the fucking wellspring, dipshit, and that’s what’s there.”” (179)

Francois is snooty, sexist, and misogynistic but for all of his unlikable traits he is classically French high culture through his dedication to ideals of art, philosophy, and culture. In this satirical novel, Francois serves as a reflection of French cultural decline and it would be too easy for a reader to simply right him off as a elitist pig. His character is intended to signal a warning about contemporary French cultural identity amidst a changing world and despite some of his negative traits and views, he provides some significant thoughts and reflections about the history and development of French culture and perspective.

“People don’t really care all that much about their own death. What they really worry about, their one real fixation, is how to avoid physical suffering as much as possible.” (230)

Although this is a story about political and cultural anxiety told through a French perspective, it is clearly applicable to any of the world’s democratic nations that are currently undergoing cultural influences of newfound uprising of nationalism and anti-immigration anxiety. When I read Submission in November I had been filled with my own anxiety of the yet-to-come change promises by president elect Trump. Now in the two weeks following Trump’s dictatorial onslaught of executive orders that impinge and damage my country’s international respect due to shortsighted and poorly enforced immigration bans, constant manipulation and degradation of the media to promote a post-fact/alt-fact society of reactionary policy, and blatant disregard for the public outcry in support of human rights I am sadly enlightened by the thematic truths buried within the satirical narrative of Submission. 

Within the novel the extremist Islamic Party uses the democratic political system to manipulate the cultural identity of the nation of France with disregard towards the impact that the changes will have upon the people as a whole. This novel isn’t really about satirizing Islam; within this book the fictional Islamic Party is essentially a satirical warning about the dangers of extreme nationalism as a reactionary influence on public policy. Extreme nationalism ignores the diversity of contemporary society and seeks out a nostalgia of a more pure simpler time. The trouble with such a perspective is that the world, society, and culture are in constant flux and the simpler times are only a nostalgic dream. Extreme public policies that disregard the rights, cultural identity, and diversity of a cohesive general public may support the agenda of extreme nationalistic ideals, but these policies do so at the cost of perpetuating a never ending cultural war because the disregard for universal human rights will always cause collateral damage. The extreme policies of the Islamic Party in this novel are a signpost and warning towards the policies of nationalistic fears about the influence of Islam in the modern world.

“Those hideous buildings had been constructed during the worst period of modernism, but nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics, it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.” (217)

 

 

 

 

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Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens

imagesLászló Krasznahorkai, 2004
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, 2015

An author with a voice and perspective unlike any other, Krasznahorkai writes compelling stories that are a special blend of the macabre and the beautiful. His narrative style is characteristically unique in that he often writes in meandering and intoxicating sentences that twist and turn for pages without hardly taking a breath. Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is very different from Krasznahorkai’s novels in that it is a semi-autobiographical travel narrative told in the third person about a Hungarian poet named László Stein traveling through modern China in search of the presence and influence of its classical culture.

Most notable is the lack of long, meandering sentences that is so characteristic of Krasznahorkai’s style as much of the book is written in dialogue between various peoples he interviews and short reflections on the ancient scenery hidden amidst the hustle and bustle of modern China. The style does make this a much quicker and easier book to digest than his very rich and meaty novels, but the novelist’s dark and bleak perspective is still present.

Why read this book written by a Hungarian novelist about a Hungarian poet in modern China? The title, Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens may seem clunky and mysterious, but the footnotes reveal that the phrase “‘All that is beneath the Heavens’ was a name of the ancient Chinese for the world, which in their eyes was identical with China itself” (271). The destruction and sorrow is depicted as the Chinese nation’s disconnection and disassociation with its own history and endangered cultural heritage as the rush towards modernization and the pursuit of capital supplant the identity of all that is beneath the Heavens. This theme can be applied beyond the subject of China and as accurate depiction of mankind’s crisis with contemporary modernization.

For those uninitiated in Krasznahorkai as a writer, a Hungarian traveler’s criticism of China’s disassociation with the wealth of its classical culture may appear as elitist or judgmental, but the themes that explore the merits of artistic beauty coupled with the detritus of a declining cultural heritage are topics that adeptly plague the works of Krasznahorkai. In these pages his interest in China’s rich heritage is portrayed with great respect and reverence alongside a sympathetic disdain for the mass consumerism and commercialization of sacred and once beautiful sites.

The opening page’s introduction proclaim that “there is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called South-western Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on 5 May 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing” (1). Stein is traveling to the temples of Jiuhuashan amidst a tragically archaic and frenetic world filled with travelers in a confusing system of disorganized order in which buses stop inexplicably and all travelers follow each other lemming-like from one bus to another. In a moment of reprieve from the spectacle of chaos, Stein idealizes a monk sitting peacefully in the crammed bus he shares but later is disgusted to find that the same monk attempted to short-change Stein’s bus fare as a vulture capitalizing on the rich pockets of an obvious foreign traveler . This opening scene sets the tone for what is to come in this book’s exploration of the dichotomy of what appears and what is; not all is what it seems in the idealization of the ancient and profane as the corruption of capital has supplanted the ideal of what one would expect of Buddhist monastery ideals.

Many of the famed sites are afflicted with the spectacle saturated by consumer tourism as “the buses pull in and pull in and pull in, one after the other, without stopping, they begin to stream outward as if from some bottomless sack, and tourists begin to flood in, inundate, fight their way inside, as hundreds of newer groups arrive relentlessly like an attacking army” (101). At each of the many sites that Stein visits monks are busy hawking cheap throwaway souvenirs and the temples and statues have been cheaply remade with poor quality cement that is a vague and faint misappropriation of the beauty and artistic quality endowed in the original temple/pagoda/garden. In his travels there are also sad-satirical moments, such as the visit to the famed Ningbo library, celebrated as China’s oldest private library, only to find that the library buildings are empty of books or scrolls as all the texts have been moved offsite from the beautiful library grounds to an environmentaly controlled warehouse thereby making the library a charade. There is also the sad reflection on the celebrated construction of a massive golden lotus throne in Shanghai that is essentially a symbol of an empty throne devoid of the presence of the Buddha, suggesting that Buddha has left the city.

 

Throughout the book Stein interviews many scholars, monks, museum directors, writers and other learned dignitaries in a  quest to understand the Chinese people’s connection with their cultural heritage. Most of these conversations are a disappointment to Stein as he fails to hear his interviewees acknowledge or accept that the fast-changing capitalistic leaning growth of the rising super-power is affecting the nation’s connection to their past or their roots. One such conversation is remarkably different and stands out as a flagpost that illuminates Krasznahorkai’s intention in this book. The conversation with the intellectual Xi Chuan in the chapter titled “Today It’s Over, but That Didn’t Start Just Now” covers many topics including the moralities of major religious or philosophical ideals such as the respect for authority in Confucianism, the ideal of love for other in Christianity, the Buddhist recognition that overcoming suffering by acknowledging that all is essentially empty. Each of these core ideals have had an influence on the moral order of society but China’s contemporary trajectory towards modernity and global strength has moved on a perilous trajectory away from any of these moral foundations:

“But where is the axis of this morality – that is my question. The pace of change is enormous. All the old things have collapsed. I was in India. They greatly appreciate what has happened in China. They appreciate the development, the enormous speed of development. But the reason for that is: we had Marxism! Marxism, though, is gone now, there is only a new modernity with its own specialized morality not supported by anything. The whole thing is just hanging in the air. All the older moral principles, including Marxism, were based on something. Today, principles exist but there is nothing holding them up. That is really dangerous. The problem is not that there are no principles but that behind these principles there is a void.” (176)

I believe that the main emphasis of this book is best captured in the quote above. Behind all of Stein/Krasznahorkai’s interest in classical Chinese heritage and arts and his disgust toward the rampant consumerism that has usurped the culture,  I believe that he is greatly concerned about the Chinese nation and its loss of identity amidst the rapid pursuit of wealth and modern development. He has written this book as a signpost indicating that China, a nation that prides itself on being the longest standing continuous civilization, has chosen a path that is at odds with its own history. What will come of that decision is still unknown. Perhaps it is the best for the people benefit from their nation’s new economic strength as a springboard out of their past of poverty, but is material wealth more valuable than the cultural wealth of heritage?

I recognize that I have interchanged the names Stein and Krasznahorkai throughout my discussion above. The book is written by the author Krasznahorkai who did actually travel through China and Asia during the 1990’s and the turn of the century, however he has chosen to use the pseudonym Stein in this book as a device to add a dose of narrative disconnection from the events and perspectives depicted. Stein could be criticized as being a bit of a curmudgeon and an elitist while removing himself from the narrative Krasznahorkai avoids such personal criticism. However, I believe that in writing this work Krasznahorkai is displaying his investment and concern for the Chinese people and the Stein pseudonym is primarily used as a plot device to add a bit of fictionalization and idealism to what could be considered a travel book. Notably, I had criticized Krasznahorkai in my review of Seibo There Below for omitting the breadth of Asian culture from his novel and had considered that he was only concerned with Japanese culture, but in reading Sorrow and Destruction I now understand that Krasznahorkai is greatly invested in the Asian cultural heritage in writing Seiobo he must have been conflicted about presenting a reflection of beauty from his conflicted perspective of China.

Finally, I feel the need to add a personal reflection that I gained from this book. As a young man I had traveled briefly in Shanghai and the historical region of Hangzhou in the winter of 1998-99 during roughly the same time period that Krasznahorkai was traveling through these same regions. I had traveled with a friend and stayed with her family in the local’s neighborhood far from the tourist locales of Shanghai. The city was undergoing much change during that period and felt like a massive construction site with vast areas being bulldozed to make way for new modern skyscrapers and it was an odd experience. I fully appreciate Krasznahorkai’s perspective because the scale of growth and development I witnessed was spellbinding. I greatly appreciated the travels we made to Hangzhou as an escape from the hectic sites of Shanghai to be among the green hills, view the ancient wooden pagoda of Leifeng Ta, meander through the Buddha carved caves of Feilai Feng, and float on the pristine waters of Xihu West Lake. In the book Krasznahorkai did speak of these locations as “beautiful, indeed breathtaking, and that something has remained of everything here, like a kind of hint,” (107) and his reflections sparked fond memories of my past travels.

There were moments in my travels that stood out as sublime and surreal, totally unique to China of that particular moment in history, such as when a man in the streets of the major metropolis of Shanghai walked up to me to touch my face as though he had never seen a white man before or to witness the famed bicycles toting loads of equipment and gear alongside a major highway filled with modern trucks and cars. The country was certainly at a crossroads in identity and I am certain that China of 2017 is vastly different that it was in 1999 of my time or 2002 of Krasznahorkai’s. Having had the opportunity to see both the chaos of a developing Shanghai as well as one of the few unspoiled ancient sites that Krasznahorkai appreciated fully enriched my appreciation for his great concern in the dichotomy of the unchecked forward progress of the continuously developing China.

 

 

 

 

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My Struggle Book Three: Boyhood

mystrugglebook3_catcover_r5Karl Ove Knausgård, 2009
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2014

“Time never goes as fast as in your childhood; an hour is never as short as it was then. Everything is open, you run here, you run there, do one thing, then another, and suddenly the sun has gone down and you find yourself standing in the twilight with time like a barrier that has suddenly gone done down in front of you.” (136)

Of the three Knausgård memoir-novels I’ve read thus far in this six part opus, book three is easily my favorite.

Both books one and two were fantastic in establishing the voice of this ongoing story. Each of those two volumes relied upon a non-linear collage of personal memories from the author’s life in order to articulate Knausgård’s intoxicating vision of an entire life of personal reflection expressed in novel form. Book one wove back and forth from childhood and adulthood, focusing on Knausgård’s tenuous lifelong relationship with his father and book two danced between stories of Knausgård as a single and then twice-married man as that book explored his trust in his ability to love and settle into his identity as both an author and father. Book three approached the memoir-novel narrative in a more conventional linear fashion as is expected of the coming-of-age genre.

I don’t know if it is the fact that this is the first book that I’ve had a chance to finish in the past four months or if the fact that my past four months have been focused on my own new identity as a father but this book’s focus on childhood really spoke to me and added to my enjoyment of the simple linearity of the storytelling. Both books one and two established a kinship between reader and author and that kinship is magnified through Knausgård’s exploration of his early childhood as the subject of this book. There is a simplicity and honesty of the retelling of childhood memories.

The narrative voice is still the voice of today reflecting upon the past but the bulk of the narrative moves linearly through Knausgård’s childhood from early school days through his early pubescent struggles of personal identity and relationships. Of course, book three takes a closer look at Knausgård’s relationship to his father, since his presence is looming over the author’s childhood, but the relationship is always told from the perspective of child to father and not adult to adult as was reflected in volume one.

There are many moments of the father-son conflict, but the one that impacted me the most in my reading was a story about a time when young Knausgård did a good deed for an old woman and was rewarded with enough money to buy some candy. He took the candy home and his father immediately assumed that Knausgård stole the money and lied about the the theft that did not actually occur. The imposing and suspicious nature of his father forced young Knausgård to throw the candy away in the garbage and the good deed goes punished, conflicting the young boy’s identity in public versus familial life. The story was sad and deflating and is an example of many in an unending string of examples of unjust punishments inflicted by a father that had valued order and appearance more than the development of a relationship with his son.

Although young Karl Ove Knausgård’s boyhood existed in the time and place of Norway of the 1970’s, his storytelling achieves a universality that spoke to my own boyhood of the geographically and culturally very distant Southern California of the 1980’s. The precise experiences cataloged in this book  are unique to Karl Ove Knausgård, but the way in which those experiences are expressed ignited a firestorm of memories about my own boyhood. This is what makes all of the My Struggle volumes engaging reads. Knausgård focuses on the mundane and in so doing he reveals universal themes that speak to existence and life in our modern times. Although the title My Struggle implies a melodramatic narrative, in no way is this story a tragic story told with the cynical voice of Holden Caufield; there is no single metaphorical or life affirming event that drives the struggle in these pages. The struggle is one of identity and loneliness. In boyhood the struggle is a common story of many themes. Those themes are varied, but common to the boyhood experience and  include the difficulty of living with an authoritarian and mistrusting father, the liberating freedom of riding a bike with friends, the camaraderie of playing sports on teams, the self-defeat of being suppressed by constant teasing of one’s peers, self doubt and questions of sexuality simply because one doesn’t fit in with the tastes and interest of peers, the liberation of discovering woman through the teen-boy trade of porn mags found in the forest, awkward discomfort with girls and first kisses and the deflating ego-crush of repeatedly being dumped in short-lived romances.

The struggle to find oneself and make an effort to legitimize one’s identity and behavior becomes a central part of Knausgård’s youth. His interest in arts and literature grows as he grows and his reading interests transition from comic books to literature as he becomes increasingly interested in eclectic music and artistic expression. His interests set him apart from his peers who are more interested in popular tastes and as he observes his peers engage in the all to common popularity contest of youth and he is beside himself in an effort to pursue a life that is good and just and not simply driven by popularity. He discovers himself aligning with christian ideals, but not through any church-going or social influences but through his interests in reading books and the messages within the stories he reads.

“My dad brought me some books…they were from his childhood in the fifties…not only did they hound and beat up this boy that was so different from them…in light of the constant setbacks suffered by the honest, loving, and upright protagonist, was almost impossible to bear. I cried at the evil of it, and the dynamics of a situation whereby good was suppressed and the pressures of injustice were approaching bursting point shook me to the core of my soul and made me decide to be a good person.” (270)

The struggle to be a good person and not simply follow the crowd or succumb to the pressures of familial (or fatherly) expectation are central to Knausgård’s boyhood story. The pressures of youth and peer expectations seem monumental when living through them, but in retrospect are only a blip in the human experience. This does’t discredit the importance or weight of that experience bears while living through the burdensome trials of existence, but there is a freedom one achieves when looking upon the past with a reflective perspective, knowing that those times are gone and done and though important in the makeup of one’s life, are but a piece of the puzzle that makes one whole.

“Who I am to them I have no idea, probably a vague memory of someone they once knew in their childhood years, for they have done so much to one another in their lives since then, so much has happened and with such impact that the small incidents that took place in their childhoods have no more gravity that the dust stirred up from a passing car, or the seeds of a withering dandelion dispersed by the breath of a small mouth.” (427)

 

 

 

 

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Attempting to Process

One year ago this week I was visiting Paris when the Parisian people were attacked by Islamic fanatics enacting the largest bloodshed that the city had experienced since the atrocities and occupation of the second World War. During the events I was separated from my wife and had walked through the city streets in a confused stupor, listening to a ceaseless drone of ambulance sirens while I could faintly smell the distinctly odd aroma of gunfire. I was a mere few blocks away from several of the despicable acts of terrorism and it was a frightening and influential moment of my life.

The following day after my wife and I were reunited I was filled with many conflicting emotions about what had happened. Overall I walked away from the incident oddly inspired and hopeful as I admired the Parisian and French people. Although there was a clearly somber mood to the city and the presence of armed militia on the streets was oddly both comforting and discomforting at the same time, the people of Paris continued about their business and this inspired me. Of course I couldn’t understand the language and therefore did not truly know the thoughts muttered on the breaths of the people; the fact that their voices spoke and commerce continued was encouraging.

That attack was an assault on both the French and Western way of life and had been organized by a small number of deranged extremists. It was an atrocious event but I was mindful that this atrocity was the result of a small group of lunatics that were an outside force attempting to destroy the fabric of a just, albeit imperfect, social system in the name of fanatical, hateful idealism. This fact doesn’t make it okay, but in my mind, the external nature of terrorism makes it less terrifying because it is random and unexpected. That may sound odd, but wouldn’t you feel more comfortable visiting any European country where there exists the potential threat of terrorism than you would visiting someplace with ongoing conflict that is real, present, and expected? 

I cannot deny that both prior to and following November 13th, 2015 there have been a myriad of attacks across the globe where countless more people have senselessly died in the name of a fanatical and misguided idealism. This is very much the way of the world today. However, having experienced the Paris events my awareness was altered and when I was in Sydney over the New Year holiday, I was acutely hyper aware of the vulnerability of having so many people in such a small area. Living with this awareness I have tried to champion hope, knowing that although terrorism will continue and that the presence of these random acts are a fact of the present way of the world, there continues an ongoing struggle to reduce injustice and hate and promote peace. I had maintained these thoughts with a belief that terrorism would only win when the social fabric of order and peace is permanently disrupted and I refused to believe that day of disruption could happen.

I reflect on those past events and these thoughts regarding terrorism on this day of November 9th, 2016 because this day is just as impactful. Following the election of Donald Trump as the president of my country I am overcome with an indescribable emotional hangover that is utterly deflating. As I went on a walk during my lunch break in an attempt to gain some focus I was reminded of my feelings on that past morning of November 14th, 2015 when I had walked the streets of Paris searching for hope amidst violence. A year ago my thoughts and observations led me to follow hope but today I sadly I cannot rediscover that feeling of hope within me.

The violence that occurs through terrorism is an external force exerting a threat upon the social norms that the terrorists despise. I see this election as an social crumbling and reflection of an internal cultural terror. I see the “Make America Great Again” philosophy and marketing brand as a misguided idealism for a way of life that has been fading. This cultural idealism is no different than the violent idealism for a religious way of life that has long faded. Both idealisms are rooted in the lost hopes of a disenfranchised people. Never mind that we will be forced to look at that snarky orange face and listen to his patronizing voice for four terribly long years; the truly upsetting outcome is not Trump himself, but the fact that he succeeded in achieving the nation’s highest office by promoting a branded campaign based on misogynistic, hate-mongering, and racism with an embarrassingly unqualified platform that was only supported by ceaseless bullying, misinformation, and  of course terror. The fact that this nation voted this clown, failed businessman and reality tv star into office is totally and utterly embarrassing. This nomination speaks from a voice of fears in the other and the platform of isolationism will not inspire the self awareness this country’s people truly need. On this day the people of this country have spoken: selfish fear has triumphed over the promotion of civil liberties. Isolationistic nationalism has triumphed over global cohesiveness. Misinformation has triumphed over qualified preparedness.

This country has taken a dark step into an already frightening world and I am completely disgusted and disappointed. There may be a market collapse as a result of Trump’s economic policies, there may be oncoming war or global conflict as a result of his flippant approach to international affairs, there may be a lapse of civil liberties and environmental protection in this nation and globally: or perhaps not. There is a chance Trump will be entirely ineffective and only last 4 years but he will never be a blip in the history books. The true damage I see is not the man himself. The true damage is the cultural damage enacted by not Trump, but his supporters. This has long been coming, the cultural divide in this supposedly united nation is cavernous and the direction is now headed is at odds with logic and human decency. The disrespect and vehemence towards both Clinton and Obama has been absolutely despicable, the Access Hollywood tapes, the mocking of war heros and the handicapped  is only the beginning. I am fearful for more Fergusons. I am fearful for lynching and internal violence. I am fearful for the justification of racism homophobia and xenophobia. It is all so overwhelming that I just don’t know what to think. I am deeply saddened to call myself a part of this nation. I am deeply saddened to be raising a daughter in this world.

I am deeply saddened that I have so much fear.

And from this, I just have no more words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Physics of Sorrow

downloadGeorgi Gospodinov, 2011
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

“The physics of sorrow – initially the classical physics thereof – was the subject of my pursuits for several years. Sorrow, like gases and vapors, does not have its own shape or volume, but rather takes on the shape and volume of the container or space it occupies.” (250)

The last few books I’ve read have left me less than inspired and I was beginning to grow apathetic towards reading in general. I’d like to think that my disappointments were due to several life events that have been keeping me busy and distracting me from devoted, focused reading, but in reviewing my criticisms of Annihilation, 10:04, and The Story of My Teeth, I’m convinced that these books were disappointing for concrete, valid reasons inherent in the style and plot structure of those books and not just my own distracted perspective. As I had been growing concerned that my reading pursuits were taking a turn toward a region of unending disappointment I was pleased by the uniquely intoxicating world depicted in the pages of The Physics of Sorrow. Although the title may be slightly melodramatic, this book should not be categorized as depressive. There are a lot of fun things going on in this book and the title shouldn’t discourage the reader from exploring its labyrinthine exploration of ideas.

 I’ve opened this post with the passage above that gives mention to the gaseous, transient state of sorrow as an indication of the fluidity of ideas of emotion, identity and metaphor explored in these pages. The success and allure of Gospindinov’s novel doesn’t solely rely upon broad philosophical statements about life; this book’s true charm lies in its ability to playfully weave through different stories told from different perspectives and time in a cohesive and readable style that captivates the reader.

The central story circles around the myth of half-man half-bull Minotaur, the bestial offspring of  Pasiphaë, the greek hero Minos’s wife who was orphaned in the labyrinth to become a monster. This story touches upon the significance of myth as a tool to distort man’s view of the world: the misunderstood orphan becomes the feared monster. This central theme is at the root of the narrator’s ability to travel through time and relive the lives of his ancestors, rediscovering the lost connection between his grandfather’s illegitimate offspring when he was a Hungarian prisoner of war during World War One, or his father’s  lifetime living in poor basements in post-war Bulgaria, or his own strange disconnection to modern day technology while living in Paris. All of these stories from different slants of time are twists and turns through the labyrinth of story-telling and ultimately reveal the importance and power of story, or myth, as a deep rooted necessity for human identity.

To get a sense at what I am trying to convey, consider the following reflection told from the lense of the narrator’s grandfather’s observations of the gravestones in an ancient cemetery:

“What happened to the names after their owner died? … Words are our first teacher in death. The first sign of the parting between bodies and their names. The strangest thing about that cemetery was that the names repeated themselves. I stood for a long time in front of a headstone with my name, freed up by someone who had used it for only three years.” (51)

Ideas of identity, loss, and timelessness are infectious within this book and speak volumes about the potential of literature as a tool that transcends a mere function as a source of entertainment. The narrative that weaves through multiple perspectives from mythological musings of the story of the Minotaur to World War One to present day reflections on the influence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and the PlayStation aren’t just gimmicky experimentalism for the sake of experimentalism. This is a profoundly enriching book that uses narrative as a tool to explore ideas of lineage, identity, abandonment, violence, and loneliness, as well as the over-arching ideas of mythology and Platonic ideals. Ultimately, this books is focused on the universal ideas of the sublime and transcendence and their relationship to the everyday:

“Even if you … haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.” (168)

Why is this important? Why is this significant? So much human energy is spent on the ideals that are valuable only from a certain perspective. Our place in time, our moment in history, our mark on this earth, is momentary. The human belief, or rather, the western philosophical belief in the significance of individuality is brushed aside when framed within the scope of human pre-history. The importance of human achievement is fleeting and ironically discredits the significance of the individual:

“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go to cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgement Day. All of this tells you: you pass on but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point of justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark of the night in the primeval, living in flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires …. they truly lived forever and they died at thirty.” (172)

The Physics of Sorrow is a vapor that intoxicates, filling the void of literary potential. This book speaks so many volumes that it is unspeakable.

 

 

 

 

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