Less Calvino More Camus

Kiran Bhat reached out to me over email to review his new novel “We Of The Forsaken World” after reading my review of “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. “But things are not lasting, not eternal nor stable. They rise and fall and rise again – like the cities of Italo Calvino’s novel ‘Invisible Cities’.

This clue has given me a good starting point from whence to begin a review of “Forsaken World.” Bhat’s novel follows the paths of four civilizations: Tribe, Village, Lake and City as they “fall apart” as is written on the book’s jacket. Bhat was seeking to have the stories interconnect at precise moments along the paths of mayhem; and diverge again in a dance of destruction.

I think it probably makes sense for me to treat this goal objectively, juxtaposed against the subjective reviews which I often give when a novel I have chosen makes my heart sing. This, because “Forsaken World” is not a beautiful book. It is gritty and violent and uncomfortable – as it is supposed to be, these civilizations are falling apart and the process of destruction is never as glorious as the ruins left behind for tourists to ponder over, far in the future.

Does Bhat pull of what he’s trying to achieve? Sort of. “Forsaken World” is, I think, less Italo Calvino and more Albert Camus. Less Invisible Cities and more Myth of Sisyphus where Camus boldly states that the human situation is absurd and devoid of meaning. Less a delicate dance of construction and destruction, and more theater of the absurd, nihilistic in its lack of joy – for Camus’ existentialism was joyful. But there is nothing joyful about “Forsaken World“.

When I was reading this, I could not help but think about the 2006 Brad Pitt movie “Babel” – also a group of four stories that are not related, in that nihilistic, absurdist sense of “Why do things happen as they happen?” Or perhaps the 1994 movie “Being Human” by our departed friend Robin Williams, stories that are interesting and beautiful in a way but fundamentally unsatisfying, for in them are not found the answers of our great human experience, and humanity is above all in search of answers – especially these days:

Now a thing or two about absurdism. I wonder if it is not moving resolutely into our past. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his famous Harvard keynote address said, ““Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror.” I’m not sure this is necessarily true, at least not anymore. I’m seeing a reawakening these days of the ancient human motivations of glory and duty and honor and the thrill of the fight against evil and a reconnecting with that which makes us human in the first place. In that way, “Forsaken World” belongs in our past, as a reminder of a time when things had no meaning before the theater fell away.

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I Am Not Raising A “Greta”

Incidentally I’m not raising a Naomi either – although this little duel is quite funny. For what its worth, Naomi looks like she’d be much more pleasant to have a chat with.


Joel D. Hirst's Blog

I am not raising a Greta. It’s not really right; in fact the tragedy of that train-wreck sometimes takes my breath away. Life is sad enough, hard enough, and with more bitterness and frustration all of its own to foist it upon little minds un-prepared. Its like robbery, a thief in the night stealing away the great joys of life; beauty unimaginable and the satisfaction of small acts of discovery in preparation for the tremendous triumph of achievement long fought and well won, if we ever get there; but even if not, the realization which comes with wisdom in knowing that there is happiness to be found in the journey and rewards even in a struggle unsung.


With my boy, we’ve decided to guide him along the rolling road of wonder as we introduce him slowly and methodically to our amazing world, a world he will call home for the…

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Latter Plates of Novel Men – A Poem

In words that paint, I hide away;
Hoping armistice to stay;
Immortal craft ‘gainst tempest brewing;
Ever madness quill eschewing.

We write of beauty ‘fore the storm;
Our words they dye the summers warm;
The flowered glade, the meadow golden;
Practice kept from times now olden.

Composing sketch of bronzen harvest;
Gusting flurried fronds of varnish;
Crunching leaves piled in a heap;
In glee upon a child to leap.

Penning muraled winters, whitened;
Tables full and families brightened;
Glow red and gold our jubilee;
To shush the alpine slopes carefree.

Drafted in pasteled rebirth;
With soft-hued words scribe shades the earth;
Meadowed lands where yearlings frolic;
Lord returned, creation aulic.

And when it comes, the storm at last;
We grasp the pen, we hold it fast;
We cry out not, we do not squeal;
Tempera words in calm appeal.

At maelstrom end, did phrase abide?
Did pigment last upon the hide?
And if we find we’ve weathered true;
It’s restoration, we must to do.

Tis all a part of glowing writ;
Reward for those who shun to quit;
Discover they a hue enduring;
Custom letters proved a mooring.

Yes, there are those who dare to write;
And ‘tis with golden shaft they fight;
‘Til old they grow and pass the pen;
To latter plates of novel men.

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“Seven Songs” is a Symphony

Seven Songs Emin

“To know wisdom and gain instruction; to discern the words of understanding.” It is said that these were the first words written by Mesrop Mashtots after inventing the thirty-six character Armenian alphabet. Though written 1600 years ago, Mashtots might very well have been referring to Gevorg Emin’s extraordinary work of scholarship “Seven Songs About Armenia”.

“Seven Songs” is a reflection about the past, present and future of Armenia from one of her finest poets and writers. Each “Song” represents an aspect of Armenia’s national character, each a facet of Armenia’s multi-faceted diamond which makes her sparkle, a great and ancient jewel nestled in the crossroads of past and future, east and west, empire and village – which still glistens brightly despite hardship and war and violence and which, following each tragedy, polishes itself up to again place on display its glories to enliven a weary world. The songs: Song About the Centuries, which tells the ancient story of a land and her people that march together resolutely through history; Song About Stone, which tells of the land; Song About Water which tells of the rivers and the sapphire of Lake Sevan; Song About the Soil which tells of the ancient vineyards, planted perhaps by Noah himself; Song About Fire which tells of the tribulations, of the violence and the endurance of a people who seek always to overcome; and, my favorite the Song About Letters which tells of the amazing literary tradition of which Emin is only one in a long line of scholars going back to Mashtots and then further back still. Finishing up with the Song of Songs, the crescendo, bringing together all the other songs into a beautiful symphony.

It is hard to convey a sense of the extraordinary learning that flowed easily from Emin’s pen to page after page of his ‘Songs’. Writers today don’t have the same command of knowledge, the same passion for their tales, the same commitment to their readers – to give to those the best of who they are, to leave not only the drying ink but a little bit of sweat and even blood as a reminder of so great an effort of creation. “Seven Songs About Armenia” does this, and leaves the reader spellbound for a season to consider so tremendous a tradition and so great a bard as is Gevorg Emin; son of Ashtarak, son of Armenia.


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Revolutions don’t just happen. They are in fact product of profound societal stress; the status quo is too much of a powerful force even in the most unjust of countries to be eschewed lightly in favor of a great leap into the unknown. And there was no ‘modern’ country more unjust than Tsarist Russia. The calcification of a once-great empire, the folly of a dynasty that had lost its connection with its land and its history and any sense of noblesse oblige, as were the Romanovs and their last hapless emperor Nicholas II. But not even this figure, alone, was enough to spark revolution; thick and rich in the winter palace eating caviar while his serfs worked bent and aggrieved in the fields. It was in fact the great war that brought on revolution – a war that ended the old ways in all of Europe, and Russia was no exception. The fact that Nicholas doubled down on serfdom while the rest of his peers across the continent were liberalizing their stranglehold on their people was his own special madness; the hands of Rasputin, the hemophilia of his son and heir. No not even in this was unleashed the madness. It was the war that did it; sending serf/slaves to fight and die against the Kaizer’s Germany armies, a war that also ended that monarch’s rule, along with the Ottomans. Everything was changing, why should Russia be any different?


That is what Alexei Tolstoy’s three-part epic ‘Ordeal’ is about. The start of the war, the death of the Tzar, the murder of the mad monk, the fighting first against the Germans but then the Russian Civil War into which the country was plunged – the White Armies against the Red Armies with the Anarchist Greens throw in there. The disintegration of a massive empire after hundreds of years of corruption ending in an orgy of violence that gave way to the stale totalitarianism of communism. It is a grand story; those of us in the west often think that one day Lenin wandered into St. Petersburg, grabbed the Tzar and his family and lined them up in front of the shooting range and that was it. In point of fact the Russian Civil war was begun not by the Bolsheviks but by the Constituent Assembly, the Mensheviks and resulted in more than one interim government and an almost-return of the Whites to power; five years of mayhem until Lenin and Stalin prevailed. And it could have gone many different ways. Had the French or British intervened – had the Mensheviks’ more rational reformations prevailed, had assassination attempts on Lenin been successful history would have turned out very differently. Nothing is written beforehand – that is the lesson with which one enters into the commitment of reading Alexei Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Alexei, the nephew of the great novelist Leo, member of a great noble family that began with Andrey who moved to Moscow to serve in the court of Vasily II in the 1400s at the very beginning, before even St. Petersburg was built, and witnessed the entirety of Imperial Russia’s 600 year story. A family that still exists, Nikolai and Artemy and Vladimir who are still active in Russia today. Alexei was a monarchist, a supporter of the Whites, an exile first in Paris and then in Berlin where he grew disaffected by the Russian refugee-elites and returned to become one of the greatest voices of the Reds. Life is strange that way, and there is no accounting for how it will turn out.

No, revolutions do not simply happen for if there is one thing that people can be counted upon to consider it is their own welfare. The moral hazard for those living day-to-day attempting to raise their families and hold the ends together is zero, every decision is existential. If they feel, even just hope, that their lives are improving – or that there is somebody fighting for them – they will be patient, keeping their heads down and plowing forward. The tremendous discipline of men and women raising a family, juxtaposed against those whose moral hazard is complete and who, in the Gramscian sense, seek to foment radical change secure in the utopian belief that the violence will not reach them – people like Alexei Tolstoy who only survived by becoming a mouthpiece of revolution, selling his tremendous talent to the perpetuation of a great evil.


Today Lenin is dead, Stalin is dead. What is left over are broken down statues abandoned under the trees growing around them and the lessons acquired from a time of great turmoil and preserved as if in amber by the tremendous talent of Alexei Tolstoy and his compatriots. It is up to us, then, to learn from those lessons as we seek to build the worlds for our children and our children’s children. You can start by reading ‘Ordeal’.



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Environmentalism is for the wealthy…

Mali zooThe morning after the Friday terrorist attacks in Bamako, Mali I took my son to the little zoo for the last time. It was not bittersweet, only bitter; I knew everything was about to change – for myself and my family, because they had tried to kill us (perhaps not by name, but certainly by profile) – but more importantly, for that little zoo. Hard times were coming. That zoo had been for me and my little boy an oasis in a barren wasteland. I usually am not a fan of zoos – of the animal kind, or of the human kind either, like Cuba – but this one was run by the Aga Khan’s development fund and was a refuge, because we all knew how long those animals would last if they were released back in to the Malian wild. That final time, while the city was still on lockdown, I drove the silent streets, paid my dollar fee and walked the stairs. “Look, a hyena!” and “It’s an alligator”, words I’d said a thousand times before to the grins of my boy. We walked through the aviary, the Ugandan Crested Crane staring at us as he always had – unaware that things were about to change.

I often think of that little zoo. It was probably never going to be sustainable – what would happen when the Aga Khan stopped his support? Now that the diplomats have fled, the tourists have dried up, and the businessmen stay away – thinking only of blood running down the steps of the Radisson Blu – now what will happen? Who knows.

image0 (2)Fast-forward a few years in time – tucked away in a Caucasian capital; a petting zoo in a mall, little monkeys taken from Central America, Macaws from the Amazon and foxes from the Sahara kept underground away from the frigid snows, not sad really – not any sadder than any other small town zoo – but still a prison for animals that should be free. My little boy didn’t notice; he’s not yet old enough to fully grasp the morality of liberty and what that means for the animals. Besides, these are not the only caged beasts he’d seen. Dubai, only last summer, Green Planet – the fabulously wealthy Emiratis took back from the barren sands a piece of land, importing thousands of birds and bats and piranhas in their jungle aquariums; a fifteen story building, encased in glass, flowing water and budding flowers and the chirps of exotic birds not heard in that sandy place since it too was a vast forest eons ago. And what is the difference; a cage is a cage, right? IMG_3642Sure the sloth – brought from Brazil – had his own caregiver; an American graduate of zoology from some western school balancing the creature’s meals perfectly, combing out the tics and flees until the coat shone bright in the Arabian sun. Why didn’t Green Planet bother me, like the underground mall-cages where the foxes slept? The answer, I suppose, is money. The same reason that Bamako Zoo gave me a sense of refuge, not imprisonment. Because oddly enough these two places – so far apart geographically but also as it relates to the human experience – were a reflection of infinite, immeasurable, limitless wealth.

Of course none of these places can even compare with the greatest culprit of all, Venezuela and their socialist ecocide. A post-apocalyptic zoo in a country lush and green with rivers and jungles and forests, the only thing keeping the animals from running free and making their lives – like the hippos of Pablo Escobar that bathe in the mysterious Orinoco – is the iron fencing through which the starving lions can see their paradise. But as in all things socialist, those in charge seek control, power, dominion; and who cares if they cannot responsibly exercise it, that is not the point, is it? They say the right things, their motivations are more moral, and their intentions need not answer to the emaciated lions. And after having brought even that once-lovely Caracas Zoo under their wicked economic model (“free” they like to call it) they proceeded to mismanage it out of carelessness while the noble creatures starved. And in the jungles beyond…? – trees felled, arsenic poured out in the rapacious search for gold by the gangs who raise their clenched fists high humming all the while The Internationale in the eternal salute to the brotherhood of slavery. Yes, socialism is by far the greatest environmental aggressor.

tiger Environmentalism is for the wealthy. This is what I have learned. The poor have other things to think about, to consider, to fear and fight for. They poison the lions for encroaching on their $25 goat farms. They kill the elephants to smuggle the ivory in to China (for communism too respects no law). They take the bed-nets distributed by mangy do-gooders from the west and fish out the sterile lakes, frying the tiny minnows in charity vegetable oil before packing their worldly possessions into plastic buckets and carrying them on their heads to the nearest displaced camps (I wrote my greatest novel about this – a more significant act of creation than Hemingway and met with a collective yawn, for I am not of the right profile nor do I have the right message to become a darling of the socialist elite, which is needed today to make it in the arts).

Not even the middle class can save our bedraggled planet. Case in point; I would love to purchase a massive track of land in Costa Rica, and buy back all the little monkeys I saw today to send them to live in a pristine private paradise for my own satisfaction. I would revel in buying ranchland in northern Arizona where the bison could again lock horns with the elk under the great storied western skies. I would return the little foxes to their homes in the Sahara and create a formidable army of Tuareg Rangers to look after them in their Maghrebian wonderland. I would do all this, but I am hopelessly, tiresomely, futilely middle class. Making the occasional donation to Audubon Society while the wild areas of the world shrink away for want of those to care for them.

Yes, environmentalism is for the wealthy. Jeff Bezos (who recently gave $10 billion for ‘climate change’; money that will slip away like sand through the fingers of radical NGOs and fruitless climate summits); he might change things – should he purchase a rainforest and police it with Tuareg Rangers. Or captivate the imagination of the wealthiest of all empires, harnessing their entrepreneurial spirit to see an end to the internal combustion engine and the plastics proliferation through venture capital which will create more, greener wealth. The Green New Deal people, however – should they be allowed – will bring poverty and with it the annihilation America’s great reforested green spaces. And there is no Aga Khan for America’s prairie bison.

These are the things I have learned – though nobody listens anymore, to anything. So I just dream – would that I were wealthy, and could buy a forest in Costa Rica. Then I would save the little monkeys that today entertained my little boy, but only brought me sadness.

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“What is Covetousness?” asked my little boy

Dinner, a bath, brush teeth, and into bed for a story. Children need structure, they need their rituals – they need to know what comes next; it gives them security. And the bedtime rituals are as old as childhood itself. One can almost imagine Adam and Eve seated beside Cain and Abel in paradise. Maybe they lived in a cave; perhaps it was an adobe hut – or maybe it was a mansion made by the Lord Himself into which he settled the father of our human race and in which the first parents read to the first children from whatever they had, if they had books, or if they did not read instead telling them the creation story fresh though it was and tales of the lions and bears that wandered all around, tucked safely into whatever shelter God had provided those first humans. It is how we pass on wisdom to our offspring product of our experience on this planet and what we have learned from lessons easy but most often difficult.

These days my own ritual with my little boy involves the “Lord of the Rings” series. We’re on the last book, “The Return of the King”. He is intrigued by Gollum, for some reason – “Where is Gollum now?” he asks. LOTR, because it is as good as any story I can think of (and better than most) that teaches about honor, about discipline, about hardship and sacrifice in fighting for what is right and good and true and about what Tolkien himself called the modern “eucatastrophy” – a surprising victory at the end after everything has gone wrong and the darkness seems invincible.

After a few pages, maybe a chapter of LOTR we then switch to the Bible – and a few days ago it was the Ten Commandments. The first laws, like Hammurabi – laws of God written upon the hearts of men and then upon stone when it became clear men are fickle creatures and always scheming. Don’t kill (life is sacred), don’t steal (private property matters), protect the traditional nuclear family (honor your parents and don’t cheat), and don’t lie in court (bear false witness – it’s about rule of law). Then there’s the “covet” laws. “What is covet, daddy?” My boy asked. One of the surprising realizations of parenting comes when our little people force us to articulate what which we have not put to words for a long time. “Hum. You know what jealousy is, envy? Greed?” He looked at me with a blank face. “Ok, lets try this again,” I said. “Does one of your friends ever come to school with something new, that you think is cool?” I asked him. “Yes!” he responded. “Jealousy is about how that makes you feel. If you say to him ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ and you are interested, that’s great. However, if you see it and it makes you upset and angry – that is jealousy, and greed.” It really is simple, isn’t it? Long after all the political candidates attempt to explain their jealousy in ‘moral’ terms, muddying the waters to make them appear deep, we who have little boys cut through the murk with the clarity and purity of childhood. “Oh, I get it now!” he said – and its settled.


Life, family, law and property. The recipes for a successful civilization explained by a child in only a few words. Maybe the next Democratic debate should be moderated by my little boy…

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