Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Mirror at Midnight - Adam Hochschild

Traveling across time and space in South Africa, Adam Hochschild examines the state of the country as he visits it in 1990. Focusing on an upcoming Afrikaner national holiday, what it represents and how it is perceived by differing ethnic groups Hochschild weaves together South Africa's past and present.

Besides giving the reader a better understanding of one of the main narratives of South African history the book remains especially poignant given the picture it paints of undemocratic, white-ruled South Africa, a few short years before its first democratic election in 1994. Witness the Afrikaners in the last throes of complete political power and the inhuman lengths both sides have gone to - though the balance lies largely on the hands of the whites - to contest for what power there is.  Travel with Hochschild as he visits Afrikaner battle memorials and hears what blacks and whites have to say about the country's thorny past.  And see the United States' and much of the western world's tacit and sometimes not-so-tacit complicity in propping-up the failing system of apartheid.

At its best the book examines the different ways we choose to remember history and how this process of remembering cannot be divorced from issues of power: who has it, who can mobilize it, and who is allowed to impose it on others.  By contrasting the historical scholarship surrounding the Battle of Blood River with the differing ways the event was portrayed in South Africa across the ensuing years, Hochschild cleverly illuminates a fractured society at a crossroads between the inevitability of majority rule and the last grasps by the ruling parties to assure their own position going forward. The story of South Africa's independence is so unique in world history and Hochschild's work adds a vital wrinkle to understanding the country's transformation.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Strength to Love - Martin Luther King, Jr.

A collection of sermons, altered slightly for the written word, by perhaps the greatest American spirit of the past century. Given the specificity of themes - the white and black church, desegregation, and the Cold War - much of King's writing reads as relevant as ever. 

Throughout each sermon King places at the forefront of his reflections an absolute and unshakable belief in the goodness and grace of God. For those who do not see the work of the divine imbuing the world around them this may seem difficult to surmount. However, King beautifully connects his faith to his unswerving commitment to social, racial and economic justice.

"A religion that professes a concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion." p. 149

Far from removing the arena of religion from the rest of human experience, King refused to shy away from notions that science and religion had many different things to tell each other: that an deep appreciation of each only enhances our understanding of the other. Similarly King freely quotes Shakespeare, Thoreau, Lincoln or James Russell Lowell to color contemporary religious and ethical points.  Clearly at home in the realm of western civilizations' greatest thinkers, King's synthesis of themes and willingness to explore the implications of their ethics and his faith illuminates far-seeing implications for the manner in which men live within our society. Whether Christian or atheist, young or old, poor or rich, there is much in King's ethical underpinnings that can serve any person in better reflecting on how he or she lives in this world and what it means to move towards our better angels.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lord Jim - Joseph Conrad

Marlow returns to recount life as it has happened to one young Englishman, he who the natives of Patusan have dubbed, "Tuan", or "Lord" Jim.  This ex-deckhand and ex-water clerk strikes Marlow, and indeed many older men who encounter him as a young man of decided character and vigor.  Unfortunately for Jim, he is unable to escape the shortcomings of his soul and is thus doomed to allow the seas of life to forever toss him hither and yon.  

"He looked with an owner's eye at the peace of the evening, at the river, at the houses, at the everlasting life of the forests, at the life of the old mankind, at the secrets of the land, at the pride of his own heart: but it was they that possessed him and made him their own to the innermost thought, to the slightest stir of blood, to his last breath." p. 178

At its core, Lord Jim is a story about men who life happens to.  Throughout the reader cannot escape the notion that Marlow, Jim and Stein are men who are struggling to find their place in the world and deal the best they can with the opportunities life allows them.  This is not to limit their own agency, but rather to highlight that we are creatures of the world around us, not separated from it.  So often we cannot but move along and wait to see how the world casts our part and try our best to live up to our ideals along the way.  Wherever any man - or woman - wanders, Marlow's narration, and Jim's experience, seems to tell us that we cannot escape who we are and that each account will be settled, whether within one's own conscience or by the world we inhabit.  In this regard Marlow and Jim present as opposites: Marlow has seen and down much and allows that he has at times acted rightly and at times been found wanting, yet he remains able to move along, knowing that his future is often only loosely connected to his past.  Jim however cannot escape the weight of his shortcomings; his drive for an ideal, one that we remain unsure is ever attainable, stalks him throughout his life.  From this there can be no escape.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Other Life - Paul Theroux

"Reality for me was past, and it was elsewhere." p. 144

Morose, self-absorbed and over-dramatic concerning what he sees as his own lot of suffering in this world, Paul Theroux's My Other Life is nonetheless an insightful look into the the mind and journey of the author.  Cast as a fictive autobiography, it is unclear how much of what is related is an accurate depiction of Theroux's life.  Far from being the book's downfall, it is precisely this attempt to get at the spirit and import of his particular experiences, that makes Theroux's work uniquely instructive. 

Were this to be a drab recounting of his life and times Theroux's attempt would be wayward from the start.  Yet by making the focus life as it has been, shaded with life as it could have been and as he imagines it, Theroux has succeeded in (we think) providing a more complete portrait of the artist.  We are given the picture of a furtive, wandering, hopelessly fretful and perhaps too inwardly-focused man's reflections on his version of the truth of his life.  Whereas we would conceive of an autobiography as a retelling of a man's life and times, My Other Life is concerned with the life Theroux has led in his own head.

This is of course a tricky rope to walk and though this approach is the book's strength, it may also be its greatest downfall.  Reading the work requires a certain level of sympathy with the author as he has cast himself, without which the work may be a bore; this is the story of one man, make no mistake.  There is little to no character development and we cannot expect Theroux to grow and learn as all events are recorded after the fact and with an eye towards the larger point: that we take what we have gained from our past experiences, use them and learn from them as best we can and try to move forward purposefully and, hopefully, happily. 

Though Theroux must surely be the dominant light by which the story is understood , one cannot help but wonder if glimpsing just a few other stars would not better help us understand the daylight.  Because we only see him it is hard to tell why we should care that he has grown and traveled and shared his sometimes fictive, sometimes real experiences.  At the end it is hard to see if Theroux is any better off for all he has written and seen - though surely he would agree that he is unsure.