King Leopold’s Ghost

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Like many of the historical topics that I am interested – like comprehensive, well written histories of ancient and medieval China – I was unable to find books on the wars of independence in Africa involving ageing European imperial powers like Portugal and Belgium that wind up being a playground for the CIA and worse….

If you know of any good books about Portugal’s involvement and wars in Angola, let me know…

King Leopold’s Ghost is one of the few books that did come in the course of my search. Of course, this is not about Portugal and Angola, but rather, Belgium and the Congo. Close enough.

During the 1840-1914 “Scramble for Africa” – the height of European imperialism – little Belgium’s constitutional monarch, the lonely, somewhat tortured Leopold II – desperately wanted a colony. And lacking both the military means, much less a domestic drive to acquire a colony, he essentially dedicated his life to acquiring a colony and running it himself. He stands out as more CEO than “king.”

By carefully manicuring an image of philanthropy and backing famous explores of Africa – especially the (also tortured and lonely) Henry Morton Stanly – Leopold managed to wrangle a rather unique situation. He cobbled together “treaties” signed by African Kongo chiefs which seceded their land into an “independent state” based on “free trade.” After furious lobbying and international campaigns that can only be described as propaganda – perhaps the first true use of “lobbying” in the way we mean it today – the US recognised the “Free State of the Kong.” Not ruled by the civilian government of Belgium, in effect the Congo became the personal property of Leopold.

The result was a humanitarian disaster – the Congolese were not just exploited as slave labor for ivory and rubber, their treatment was such that Leopold’s regime can be considered a genocide. This devastation, and the humanitarian response in Europe constitute the first example of both that we see in history. Leopold made millions. And Joseph Conrad wrote his brilliant Heart of Darkness from it.

King Leopold’s Ghost does a great job balancing human interest and telling the stories of the major personalities involved with facts as they can be ascertained. Narrative and factual rigour are well matched in this book. Informative, eye-opening and despite the rather tragic topic, quite enjoyable.

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The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

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This is a charming work of history and biography – not an oil painting, a sketch. Jonathon D. Spence presents us with the story of Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s extra-ordinary life in Ming Dynasty China. The book is framed around Ricci’s “memory palace” – an European memory aid that Ricci hoped would appeal to the scholarly sensibilities of the Chinese elite.

The idea of the memory palace is that you place what you want to remember in a imaginary building and the objects de arte inside are linked to the individual items you want to remember. For example, in your imaginary dream palace, you enter the forecourt, which has say four statues in it; each statue is dramatic and vivid, say, two warriors fighting – and this prompts you to recall the Chinese ideogram for “war.” Ricci was a master of this technique, apparently able to recall entire books and repeat them forwards and backwards. If this technique seems unwieldy – effectively giving you more to remember (as it seems to me), bare in mind that Ricci lived in a society that was still essentially oral and verbal – their capacity for memory was therefore far more linked to song and the spoken word.

I found two of Spence’s books simply browsing in Powell’s – and I knew that they would be winners from the moment I saw them. More of a cultural history through the lens of one man’s life, we are guided through the world of early-modern/Counter Reformation Europe, and the world of the Jeuits in East Asia. This schema works because Matteo Ricci himself was such a fascinating, brilliant character.

From Papal-controlled central Italy, Ricci became a Jesuit priest and as  young man, sailed out to China and spent the rest of his life attempting to convert the Chinese the Christianity. Facing the complex web of Chinese belief, Ricci made little headway but was remarkably successful in interesting the Ming court in Western mathematics and technology. His attempts to make christianity “palatable” to the Chinese borders on heresy.

Ming society was a curious mixture of belief – the common people were largely Buddhist or Taoist, with a healthy dose of folk customs and superstitions. The ruling class practised the loose corpus of philosophical and ethical doctrines known as Confucianism, which has this epicurean, agnostic, and one is tempted to say humanistic vein.  Thus Ming China was a cosmopolitan place compared to Counter-Reformation Europe, and the monotheistic strictures and fears of Christianity made little headway. A telling event recounted by Spence is the reaction of a courtly eunuch finding a dramatic, baroque crucifix – the agony and torture of Christ; his emaciated body – all being vividly rendered in wood, shocked and angered the eunuch, who showed it to the assembled Chinese – they found the concept of the “tortured” God inexplicable, and the obsession with the “torture” itself the Chinese found to be somewhere between quite odd and downright evil (they may have a point). It was a ‘PR’ disaster for Ricci, who was unable to find a reasonable explanation for it on the spot. The Jesuits in China focused largely on the Virgin Mary, backed by God-the-Father and the more edifying exploits of the Apostles.

This world of Jesuits, emperors, science and religion – I got hooked on it from James Clavell’s Shogun – is one that is fascinating. In many ways, this is Shogun but factual.

Informative, interesting, vivid.

The Plague of Fantasies

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As our Republic continues it’s Twitter-fueled death spiral, and humanity trundles along in polluting the planet in the name of greed for greed’s sake, works of philosophy increasingly read as obscure works of ancient hieroglyphics – tokens of a dead time when the things like “truth” and “justice” had purchase and meaning. I was reading Habermas – a titan of liberal-democratic philosophy, attempting to perfect and streamline  a hopeful future  – and it might well have been the small stick-like imprints on clay tablets that the Babylonians made. Trump’s election broke something, something that I despair of ever getting back.

Happily, The Plague of Fantasies does not read like this; I found it to be one of the more “relevant” books of “philosophy” I have read in memory. Fantasies addresses itself to the what we might call the underlying human psychological “problem” of the internet. The internet is this place where all the world’s facts, ideas, and truths are literally at your fingertips, and yet it’s ushered in the end of “facts” and “truths” as we know them. Technological change is reaching a point where the very nature of what it means to be “human” is under real change in our own lifetimes.

Zizek approaches the “problems of the internet” from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanylsis, which draws on Freud, but also the larger tradition of Critical Theory. As such, he’s not interested in the internet as a technical achievement, but sheer human psychology and how the internet effects us in the most fundamental sense. For example, with “windows,” computers cross a border between being large calculators and become rather vehicles of fantasy (they cease to be tools and become a sort of magic). We cease to “work on it” and now computers “work on us.” Real Life is increasingly just “real life” or simply “RL.”

Most of the book focuses on human psychology – a complex and delicate web of deferred fantasy, impossible to resolve tensions and unexplored truths about what “makes us tick.” The internet essentially provides this vehicle where are fantasies are “granted” when human psychology seems folded around having fantasies that are never realised. 

Of course, Zizek shines with a plethora of pop-cultural references raised to high philosophical and psychological points, mixing startlingly pronouncements that shatter the stilted “Option A or Option B” common opinions of our society. Powerful, insightful, totally original and completely uncommon, Zizek never disappoints. Fair warning, this book was pretty heavy on “inside” Lacanian theory; and in that respect, this book was a sometimes a bit inaccessible; I have never in the flesh a person conversant with Lacanianism.