Island

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Utopianism – specifically the writing out of a blueprint of a perfect society – has a long and  legendary history in our western civilisation. In many ways it’s unique. Other cultures have had visions of heaven, or conceptions of perfect governance – like Confucianism – but only our Greek heritage has launched on a formal flight of fancy to describe a earthly heaven. In many ways Utopianism is the first literary genre, excluding the Greek plays. Either way, Plato’s Republic is a masterful vision; for the ancient Greeks it would have been both tangible and fantastic; it’s a text which covers psychology, education, society, economics, defence, culture…it covers everything.

Over the centuries, our most important texts often take the form of an utopia. I’m thinking of Thomas More’s Utopia (of course), but also Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Ernest Callanbach’s Ecotopia and Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun. I would also include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These are the classics. But the idea of “utopia” has shot through most of our writing on political philosophy and even science fiction. I seriously doubt the universe of fiction would be what it is today without The Republic to introduce the power of fantasy. Even our Robinson Crusoe stories draw upon the idea of an ‘Utopia’.

It’s important to understand that Aldous Huxley’s Island directly draws upon this tradition. In fact, I would say that Island is one of the best examples of the Utopia genre. It’s both an example par excellence, but a remarkably cogent and relevant ‘utopia’, one that has had a big influence on our society.

You see, Huxley is one of the leading intellectual grandfathers of the 1960’s social movements. By no means a hippie, he is indirectly a progenitor of that whole movement. I suspect that a lot of the interest in LSD, Hinduism and Bhuddism got it’s widespread exposure from Huxley’s late work.

Island tells of the story of a cynical English journalist who gets stranded on a the forbidden island of Pala in the south pacific. A generation or two ago, the ruler of the island – a bhuddist – and a Scottish doctor and man of the Enlightenment, worked together to overhaul and completely change this Palanese society.

The result is a mixture of Bhuddist philosophy -with its attending social mores – and Enlightenment, liberal, scientific ideas imported from the West. Thus Pala is the perfect fusion of Eastern and Western society.

One of the strengths of this book is that it’s set in the real world; a world that the reader of today will recognise. Huxley’s lost journalist is complicit in undermining Pala’s utopia; the book ends essentially with Pala’s end as political unit. To me this rings true; all attempts at utopian society in the real world have been ruthlessly crushed. Beyond that, the actual nuts and bolts of Pala strikes me as probably being truely functional in our contemporary society.

For example, Plato’s Republic is envisioned as a small city-state – maybe 20,000 people at the outside. It’s aristocratic and seems a bit facist by our standards. And while Plato’s ideas echo down to us today when we think of idea societies, it clearly has no reliance to 2016 America. Island, however, does. It addresses modern social malaise; overpopulation, capitalism, militarism, nihilism; it tackles the whole bag and has reasonable solutions to most of it. Huxley addresses the problems and needs of our society.

Published in 1963, it is late Huxley: the Huxley very interested in LSD and what it could do to expand human consciousness. And while I suspect that he overvalues LSD or hallucinogenic experiences in general – I think that his larger point that drug use under the proper and socially profitable circumstances is a good thing and can really help people come to better understand themselves and their world. Huxley isn’t really a great author – not like, say, a Tolstoy or a Conrad. No, he’s a technically competent author attached to an immensely civilised thinker and public intellectual.

The final point to make here is that Island is a counter point to Huxley’s major work: Brave New World. While BNW depicts a likely industrial dystopia; Island was specifically written to answer the problems of BNW. It’s Huxley’s vision of a way out.

We need more of that in our world, this world of ours which isn’t going very well these days.

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Zen and Western Philosophy

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Perhaps a better title for this book would be “Two Hirsute Gentlemen Glare At Each Other Over Vast Philosophical Differences”.

Comparing Zen and Western Philosophy is something quite fascinating – and incredibly difficult. The author – Masao Abe – is probably one of the few people to be competent to write a book on the subject; a Zen bhuddist who has extensively studied the great western thinkers.

This book is immensely valuable because – as  dry and repetitive as it is – Abe has had to consciously and clearly explain not just Zen and Bhuddism, but also the entire course of western philosophy and Christianity. Thus, the bulk of the book is Abe simply explaining say the ideas of Kant and the ideas of Dogen; the differences between the two are self evident.

The result is a surprisingly good book for learning about Christianity, the greats of western philosophy and bhuddism itself. The differences and similarities are well laid out – belaboured might be a better term – but all in all, this is a great introduction to many topics.

Abe himself foresees a truely global religion that mixes bhuddism and christianity. He is hopeful for a profitable dialogue between East and West. Indeed, he finds it very necessary for the human race. And it’s hard to disagree with him.

Abe is a theologian. While his grasp of philosophy is broad, I detected weakness on sociological and historical subjects. Read this book as an introduction to further studies.

Wolf Hall

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The thinking man’s sexy history book.

The new Tudor dynasty has a problem: it lacks a male heir. At every step, civil war looms in the background. It’s this quest for a male heir that results in England becoming Protestant, with huge historical ramifications.Set in the court of Henry the VIII, it follows the life of Thomas Cromwell,  a commoner who  became the early modern equivalent of Prime Minister and basked in royal favour and riches.

Henry the VIII and his wives have now been the subject of almost innumerable histories, dramas and fictionalisations. But this era is fascinating and important-it’s the birth of the modern nation-state and science-the drama of the wives for me is secondary.

Mantel has really made this era original and unique. By focusing on Cromwell, the intrigues of the royal court are thrown into a more gritty and realistic light. Instead of Jonathan Rhys-Myers as a sexy Henry VIII who never gets at all fat or old; something like a real character is able to emerge. A king that is both strong, but insecure; powerful, yet foiled in his plans and dreams. Cromwell comes to power because he’s devious enough to start to make some of Henry’s dreams happen. He has a sort of ruthless, Renaissance air about him that makes things happen in a world weighed down by tradition, fear, and religion.

Mantel uses an intriguing writing style for Cromwell. It’s a third person style that often leads to confusing speech paragraphs where “he said” follows upon “he said”. The result is chaos. But on the whole, I like it. It pays off because the reader dwells with Cromwell, instead of merely seeing him on some sort of mental screen.

Mantel is not afraid to challenge the reader. The time and setting of what’s occurring on the page can change without warning; a tense sense with an angry Henry VIII can easily slide into a Cromwell dreamscape. We spend much time with Cromwell’s internal musings and thoughts. And while this might sound annoying, it is excellent well done.

In essence, Mantel has made the Early-Modern Period come alive. This is quite a feat, actually. Unlike the obvious romance of the Middle Ages, or the seemingly more relevant history of say 1930’s Paris with its tortured artistic genius in wine bars, the Early-Modern Period is both contradictory and complex. It’s a world that is both very medieval, and yet surprisingly “modern” in so many ways. It’s fascination because it is so unintuitive to understand. This is the time of Erasmus and Luther; it is the heights of Papal power, and yet it’s ultimate undoing. It’s the birth of science, finance and the modern nation state and yet a time brutal religious wars.

Mantel’s genius is to show us around this time. The Cromwell that you get to know is both medieval and modern; he looks to a future that we recognise. The encounters with the royal personages of history feel hauntingly accurate. This is historical fiction at it’s best: what it lacks in say academic rigour is more than compensated by a sort of historical heuristic that allows the layman to really get a real understanding of the period.

I look forward to finishing the rest of the trilogy.

 

The Origins of Totalitarianism

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No, this is not an article about Trump. Even though it might as well be…

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew, who escaped the Holocaust, and spent her entire life essentially studying why things went for very wrong.

Arendt, like many other German Jews who escaped to America, became determined to understand the totalitarianisms of the world and how to combat such societies. The Origins of Totalitarianism is probably the best, most succinct and accessible book on the topic.

This is primarily a work of European history, largely in a socio-economic sense. The first ‘book’ covers the growth of antisemitism in Europe. The second book covers imperialism-as separate from earlier colonisation-and finally the third book describes the totalitarianism party or movement in growth and a little bit in power.

Totalitarianism is essentially when a society is gripped by an idea and the logical (however unreasonable it might be) conclusion of this fundamental idea or premise. The Nazis had race, and the Stalinists had class; both thought they had grasped the fundamental laws of history. And from this pretty much anything can become reasonable from a certain point of view.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Arendt points out that “antisemitism” is relatively new, historically speaking. Sure, Jews where segregated and outcast members of European society, but this had little to do with “antisemitism” as we know it. Jews where often able to prosper because they formed an important social strata-protected by kings-that lent money, conducted diplomacy, and often could be counted on to manage the finances of the burgeoning European state.

Jews become so hated and feared because of what they represented: a chosen race, but also financial masters who seemingly cropped up behind important events and powerful figures. The protection of the kings died away as states became more “egalitarian”.

The next stage is the advent of imperialism you know: Cecil Rhodes, The Scramble for Africa, Rudyard Kipling, etc. It starts around 1870-1880; and represents a new phase where excess money or savings went to invest overseas, and these powerful moneyed interests essentially got the various nationalist governments of Europe to physically safeguard the the investment. Not only is this a big step forward in terms private corporations receiving free financial guarantees on the back of the tax payers of the nation at large, it’s a profoundly dehumanising process that both dehumanises the conquered peoples, but be gins a subtle where the people of the initial colonising power start to slip towards the same status.

WWI-the war that everyone lost-destroyed Europe’s class structure which hither to had provided a sort of communal sense identity and support. The story of interwar Europe is the story of the masses. Masses of alienated, nihilistic, aimless people. Totalitarianism comes into play because it offered both a salve for damaged egos, but also promises a purpose and vision of the future.

I would strongly recommend this book because it is one of literally half a dozen that I have read which truely explains fascism and totalitarianism. Most of what you read, see and hear about the Nazis is largely a shallow, Disneyfied imitation of what was really going on. Few books explain the why and the how as good as Arendt does here. For example, Arendt speaks of how the reasons that the supports of the Fascist leader are seemingly immune from facts, logic and common sense is a peculiar mixture of naivety, cynicism, and hopelessness. Alienated people are very vulnerable; but once “inspired” are capable of swallowing any false hood from the Leader, but if caught out factually, are capable of explaining it away cynically, i.e.: “it was all a brilliant calculated lie in order to…”

Sound familiar?

It does come back to Trump. This book gave me some real insight into what’s going on these days. I would say Trump gets 6 out of 10 possible swastikas on the Totalitarian Leader Scale. The rhetoric is there; the absolute dismissal of facts and reality is there. The insinuations of violence, the promise to set everything right in the world is there.

In all honesty, it is dicey to compare contemporary American politics to events that took place going on a century ago on a different continent. I in no way want to minimise the terrifying similarities, but I simply wish to point out that there are significant differences as well. Fully understanding the situation can only aid us.

I would suggest that Trump falls quite a bit closer to Mussolini; Arendt specifically separates his regime in Italy from the “true” totalitarianisms of Stalin and Hitler. Both H and S where masterful at organising huge numbers of people and manipulating them. S in particular was a man of infinite patience and cunning; H had a real flair for being all thing to all people. Neither of these things sound like Trump. Both H and S and organising principals which claimed to “explain the secret of History”; race and class, respectively. Trump has no such principal; merely a sort of angst and sense of victimisation to draw upon. Trump promises to set things right, but he’s totally unclear on how or why; H and S would have had their reasons out for all to see.

Mussolini, on the other hand was journalist. He was bombastic, and totally buffoonish. He was a master at sweeping, psudo-intellectual, statements that also manage to be total nonsense. M engaged in a delusional form of extreme, militant nationalism, which somehow never really crossed the line into the truely anti-human forms of society that H and S managed; probably in part because M lacked the organisational drive, nor the world-and-history spanning idea to make the whole thing possible.

It’s not terribly fair nor accurate to accuse Trump supports of being fascists. They do not understand what that word means. To them, a Nazi is someone who has a silly little moustache, shouts in German, and wears a brown uniform. Cheap photos trying to show Trump supports doing the Nazi salute do far more harm than damage. When we say Trump supports are racists, fascists, etc, we forget that they do not understand what these words mean. As much as I want to start chanting “sieg heil” overtime I see someone in a Trump hat, I know that deep down, it’s not going to be effective. If someone where to call me an “anti-American net-communist” I would ignore it because it clearly doesn’t apply to me; I suspect the same thing is at work with the Trump supporters. We need to attack in terms of facts, and appeals to the strong tradition of American liberalism. We need to break down bubbles in this country and communicate not by name calling, but by charged and determined arguments.

I do think that the internet has changed things. It’s made some things possible that where not 90 years ago, but it has opened some new doors as well. All told, the real scary thing is that the next right-wing populist candidate too come along after Trump as lost in November might be even scarier. There are things worse than buffoons.