Fathers and Sons – A Review

Fathers and Sons is a novel about Russia, above all. A Russian empire still firmly under Tzarist control before the wars against the Ottomans and the Germans undermined and eventually ended that ancient dynasty. But its also about a Russia on the cusp of change. Ivan Turgenev was one of the first loudest voices raised in defiance against Russia’s intractable intransigent feudalism. A serfdom that was unchanging and embedded in the vast lands that spread across half the earth.

The story is about Bazarov, a youthful rebel, an aristocratic do-nothing and a nihilist. Maybe literature’s first nihilist (I’ve heard that said); trying to make the case to his family and friends that nothing matters. But then he falls in love; following which he contracts a disease and (spoiler alert) dies young – as he does raging against that unwelcome specter not in a youthful tantrum but in a sorrowful lamentation of life left unlived – and he expires, leaving his father and mother to mourn him. The last scene, his parents visiting his grave at the cemetery, rings true for those of us who have sons and for those who also know that the natural order is never for a father to have to bury his son.

Nihilism is popular in our modern world, a marriage of cynicism with increased knowledge butting up against a stubborn powerlessness that does not change. But it is also a youthful indiscretion; as we age, that which seemed to have no meaning is forgiven and we find purpose in watching our sons grow, in the extraordinary experiences lived upon this planet and in a renewed faith in our God that it all is in preparation for something; a bus station waiting room where we rage at the rules penned on the wall until we realize soon we are to leave.

A classic is a book still read 100 years after its publication. Turgenev, then, becomes one of Russia’s greatest classicists.

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On Absurdism and its Minions

We are told these days that truth is not objective. Nothing is right or wrong, not really. Simply the mood of the day, the fickle ebb and flow of culture. But who decides? We have replaced our philosopher kings with ‘influencers’ – are we really better off for it? Of course, if there is no right and wrong, then there are no wicked or saintly deeds; and thusly no beautiful and ugly paintings and certainly no great or bad books. ‘Postmodernism’ it is called – where we are all subjected to judgement by unjust judges and unwise seers. How could this go wrong?

I recently finished Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (again, I’m sure I read this before, as I did Timequake. A mistake I won’t make again, life really is too short) – perhaps the most important member of the ‘aburdist’ post-modern literary club (in that he represents its end state). He is the destination on a road that some say began with Camus (and others Dostoevsky) where we are all “wet robots made of meat”; because where does one stop? I am reminded of a scene from The Fountainhead:

“You’d better give up the theater, Ike,” said Lancelot Clokey. “Writing is a serious business and not for any stray bastard that wants to try it.” Lancelot Clokey’s first book–an account of his personal adventures in foreign countries–was in its tenth week on the best-seller list. “Why, isn’t it, Lance?” Toohey drawled sweetly. “All right,” snapped Clokey, “all right. Give me a drink.” “It’s awful,” said Lois Cook, her head lolling wearily from side to side. “It’s perfectly awful. It’s so awful it’s wonderful.” “Balls,” said Gus Webb. “Why do I ever come here?” Ike flung his script at the fireplace, it struck against the wire screen and landed, face down, open, the thin pages crushed. “If Ibsen can write plays, why can’t I?” he asked. “He’s good and I’m lousy, but that’s not a sufficient reason.” “Not in the cosmic sense,” said Lancelot Clokey.

In The Cause of Hitler’s Germany Leonard Peikoff wrote about just such philosophical abdication by German elites all at the service of Plato. First went the writers, then the painters, then the church, then the philosophers and eventually – so went the government. Glorify the ugly, the wicked, the meaningless – ridicule moral fortitude and replace it with, yes, the absurd. Create a Frankenstein’s Monster of a state and then surrender to it – sound familiar?

Vonnegut is basically unreadable. Slaughterhouse Five is supposedly an anti-war protest by a man who had observed the firebombing of Dresden. Does that not give him the moral authority to author nonsense? Who cares if its not beautiful, or tragic even; who cares if it conveys no meaning taken from an incident with such historic power – that is the point after all. Nothing matters – how could writing be any different? And who am I to judge, hasn’t Slaughterhouse sold a million copies (with my novels far, far behind, a fact that you dear reader could certainly help to remedy)? And is not therein found the ultimate opprobrium of a society towards itself?

Of course these days we are taught not to interfere with anybody’s “freedom”. People should be allowed to live exactly as they please, and those with greater ‘courage’ are those who pursue their absurd lives with more abandon in an ever-widening assault upon all that has come before – for is not everything in our past wicked?

Freedom for the ancients meant control of inner passions and the cultivation of virtue and self-control and restraint; at the service of that which is good and true and – yes – beautiful. We’ve come a long way from those days, haven’t we? And who really wants to live in a world created by the insane, at the service of the absurd? I sure don’t.

insanity

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #7 – Influence)

They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”

I was walking through an ancient monastery yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, in a place lost in time and history. It is perched on the precipice of a gorge, far from anywhere we who live in the modern world would consider important; though greater significance in terms of the story of faith and freedom would be hard to imagine. Staying power – that is something that we don’t think much about. Our flames burn bright, extinguishing themselves quickly like one of those candle sparklers for my little boy’s birthday. Shiny and exciting and quickly forgotten as we move on to the next thing. I was studying the olden carvings in a strange foreign tongue when a monk sidled up to me, worn iPhone in hand and we had a Google-Translate conversation, and he told me of the ancient building and its secrets. He was only the latest in a long line of men who chose to use their precious time on this planet to safeguard something ancient, a living monument in stone to the one true God which had withstood invasions and plagues; famines and droughts and all the violence a wicked world can muster.

monastery

I woke up this morning thinking about that solitary man in that tiny place. Why would he after all choose that, of all things, to do with his years on the earth? Yet there he was; a look of calm and patience as he explained to me the stones and the arches; his sacred charge. Yet I’m sure he raged; I’m convinced he looked down into the gorge, as priests have done while Kennedy dealt with the Cubans, while Washington fought the Redcoats, while Napoleon’s war burned in Europe, while the House of Wisdom was sacked and the Vikings took to the seas and the Saxons migrated from their home in central Europe to England – and wondered what it was all about, human as he is after all. Did not even Mother Teresa, the great saint of our age, struggle with faithlessness and depression? If her too, why not that young monk – and if for him too, how will the rest of us, who live such frivolous lives, be spared?

Meaning; we live in the age of ‘influencers’. “Are you an influencer?” an app asks of you as you log in desperate to see if you have been upgraded to that coveted status, ‘not yet’ much to your disappointment, emoji frowning at you; “Be careful she’s an influencer” somebody says – and we tremble. But what does all this mean? That we can be more widely insulted? That my 140 character missiles will have a greater range? These days everybody wants to be an influencer. I just finished “The Crown” season three, and there’s a funny scene when Prince Charles is made duke and decides to insert into his speech some thoughts of reconciliation with the Welsh population, prompting an angry exchange with the queen; “Nobody wants to hear your ideas,” she says, “nobody.” Gone are the days that we have to entertain opinions of people based upon the blood flowing through their veins, much less the little blue check mark beside their avatar. Influence without insight, turns out, is tedious and not particularly helpful; the blind leading the blind, but it is those who allow themselves to be led who are cheated.

Back in that ancient monastery where the rock walls reverberate with the energy and hopes of generations of faithful come to ask God for help, to lay their souls bare before the Most High – where a young monk still sits in the quiet of a wintry thanksgiving afternoon pondering the great thoughts that do not change and losing himself in the majesty of the Almighty – silly concerns of algorithm-assigned status fade like the fog into the gorge below, overtaken by contemplation of the only influence that matters, one that endures forever.

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“Ordeal: The Sisters” – Book One

“I stood here in the crowd a short time ago, and listened,” said Roshchin through his teeth. “Fire and brimstone descends from this balcony and the crowd mops it up. I don’t know any longer who are the strangers in this city – ourselves, or that lot.” He nodded towards the balcony. “Nobody listens to us any longer. We mutter words devoid of sense. When I was coming here I knew I was a Russian. But now I’m here, I feel alien. I don’t understand…”

ordeal book 1

With those words, uttered by Vadim Petrovich Roshchin, Alexei Tolstoy finished Book I of his masterpiece of the Russian Revolution “Ordeal” (stay tuned for the full review after I finish all of them). But how did Roshchin arrive there, in that place captured so eloquently by Tolstoy; where the character, a soldier from the Tzarist war against the Germans and the Turks returns to Saint Petersburg to find that what he had been fighting for were shades and shadows upon a whitewashed wall – after the lights had been turned out? The answer, in the case of Russia, was found in a confluence of events. Tzar Nicholas the wicked, doubling down on autocracy and feudalism as winds of freedom were blowing all across Europe. An unwinnable war against the Central Powers; a foolish, elitist war – the last of the wars of the nobles fought by the peasants; a war that ended a world order. Inflation, hunger, poverty. The revolution was about these things – and Roshchin? An officer in the Tzarist army and one of the elites.

I recently had a conversation with my wife about this – who is Venezuelan, who has also fled the madness, and has often repeated to me the same reflections as those of Roshchin. “Where did all this evil come from?” To answer her is harder; for it comes not from so great a tribulation as the Russians faced. Envy and bitterness mostly – detonated by a great act of violence. That’s all it took in Venezuela; and yet the revolution still burns, the slow suicide still goes on. A lesson to all of us, I suppose, lest we too look for revenge through the fire and brimstone of balcony speeches.

It is amazing the similarities – in my own two-part “San Porfirio” series about the Venezuelan revolution, the protagonist finds himself on the “Balcony of the People”, it could have been Roshchin’s balcony, addressing the crowds who had finally had enough of revolution:

“Pancho walked forward through the bedroom to emerge onto the balcony of the people.  For generations El Comandante had stood on this same spot as he railed against his enemies and proclaimed violence against those who opposed him.  The spot still smelled of sulfur, and an evil pall seemed to dim the sunlight; for just a second Pancho hesitated.  Then beside him Susana’s ghost appeared, like a black pearl in shimmering obsidian beauty, lending him energy and resolve.  Pancho walked forward, the unlikely leader of a new country.  He had not won elections, manipulating the mob does not lend legitimacy.  He had not overthrown the government through non-violent or violent means.  He had not assassinated the leadership.  He was standing there because, as it must, everything else had just withered away; to ashes and to dust.  He stood because, after the chaos, the violence, the incompetence and the decay all his enemies – all those who had tried to peddle their second-hand ideas for generations – were gone.”

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Our Empty Planet

We have been taught by the deejays of doom in the media, the hard-left apocalyptic political class and their ‘scientists’ at the United Nations that the end is nigh. Water wars; energy shocks; rising of sea levels swamping first Venice then Miami and Los Angeles and Rio. ‘Climate change’ bringing drought first and then flooding causing agricultural collapse and heralding famine beginning with the poorest and then working its way up the “Great Chain of Being” to our new nobilities sitting enthroned in their ivory towers or in an old mansion atop a swamp. It has so permeated our thinking and planning that we have only to wait for the next announcement of our coming anarchy after the near miss of the last: the ozone layer’s evaporation will cook us all; the water wars are upon us; the asteroid just missed!!; the oil is running out; ebola will make us all bleed from our orifices – how about 2012 anybody…? Even the calendar is conspiring against humanity, helped along by the ancient Mayans who foretold of our catastrophe so many years ago.

Have you ever considered that everything you think you know might in fact be incorrect? That is, at least, the contention of “Empty Planet” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. According to their ground-breaking book, the world is becoming wealthier (see Angus Deaton and Stephen Pinker); more environmentally friendly (as a wealthier world looks at its destroyed picnic spots and polluted lakes and is willing to make increased sacrifices to fix them – as disposable income works its way into the natural places around especially those of us in wealthy countries); and older. Much older in fact. Median age in the United States is approaching 40 – in other places of Asia (Japan and Korea) it has already passed that number. Population growth in most of the world is collapsing; the dependency ratio is creeping steadily towards 1-1. The population, somewhere in the seven-billion range right now might grow to perhaps nine before it starts to fall; the first time since homo-sapiens began to roam the world, returning to the current seven-billion by the end of the century and continuing its downward spiral.

Well that doesn’t fit our “The sky is falling” punditry, does it? We may be forced at last to consider that perhaps the climate-doom prophets are mostly about serving their own interests (perish the thought): using the faux emergency to push a Gramscian ‘Green New Deal’ or a nouveau Marxist wealth redistribution to the poorest and most corrupt dictatorships via a ‘carbon tax’ administered by the tyrants’ minions installed in the expansive UN bureaucracies. It is for this reason they will find as many excuses as possible to discount Bricker and Ibbitson. It won’t help their cause that both are self-proclaimed Canadian “liberals”. At any rate, this is one of those things that time will certainly show – however if our Canadian friends are correct the world has some serious preparing to do (and not in the way we are being instructed).

Now I’ll own up to the fact that I have been for a while what I think I myself have self-dubbed a “Neo-Malthusian”. We are a product of our experiences, of the lives that we have lived – and my decade on the African continent watching those wars extend, the populations explode, the forests slashed and burned to feed the wood-fires in which are fried the last tiny minnows of the desiccated lakes emptied of water by over-irrigation in the desperate attempts to coax a harvest from land burned by fertilizer and over-farmed by the next in an endless line of desperate poor; ya that didn’t help. I often wrote about it, about the arriving ordeal and what is coming. And I am not entirely certain that Bricker and Ibbitson are not overly sanguine about the future of Africa specifically. Read “The Bottom Billion” if you wish to consider why Africa might just not make it (as an outlier in the world, like it always has been); and why this will be existential for a Europe that is getting older and more conservative (as all old people naturally become) while unable to use smart immigration as a pressure-release-valve. That being said I am certainly willing to consider the fact that I am wrong, at least to a certain degree. And so, in that spirit, what if Bricker and Ibbitson are in fact correct? This would mean all the assumptions of the revolutionaries attempting to plunge the world into Russia 1918 are in fact desperately mistaken. The current wave of conservatism sweeping the globe is not an outbreak of ‘fascism’ but is in fact a response to an aging citizenry becoming more thoughtful and calculated as their experience and knowledge meld into their consciousness in the form of wisdom and they are increasingly able to discern the foolishness in so much that is proposed by the know-nothings (a few notable exceptions aside). And what might this mean for future elections? No, Americans are not interested in a workers revolution; but instead are looking for a welfare state which can accommodate age and increased frailty and protect their golden years from the rumble-tumble of the markets. And capitalism? Dependent upon constant population growth (people from 30-50 consume the most, people who are retired begin the process of downsizing from their large houses and their expensive keep-up-with-the-Joneses SUV); as the world gets older and begins to shrink, our markets will also do the same. And as the world gets more urban, and agricultural production by mega-corporations (especially in Africa – the last continent to still practice stone-age-agriculture, but maybe not forever?), more of the hinterlands will be surrendered back to the jungles and the re-greening of the world which has already begun will extend. And our existential China threat? According to Bricker and Ibbitson the Chinese are in deep, deep, deep trouble. Their population might have already started declining (as has Russia’s, Japans, South Koreas, etc.) and in the next several decades they might face a halving of their citizenry, down to six hundred million – and those older. Their “one child” policy was extraordinarily stupid and short-sighted. And their emergence into urbanization and middle income, too quick. For this reason they will be too obsessed with attempting to deal with the massive expense of their elderly that they will abandon all thoughts of Tianxia in their desperate attempt to care for their aged (think Japan). And don’t forget no Asian country – China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, none of them are recipients of any immigrants to offset this challenge. For this reason adoption from the Middle Kingdom has already virtually dried up; and we might see a day in the not-too-distant future when China starts to pay bounties for the return of their citizens from abroad.

And in this, the United States? Along with Canada and Australia and other freedom-loving countries; smart immigration to our free prosperous societies will blunt the coming population collapse and keep us competitive (as it always has) long after China and Russia and Europe become geriatric wards. What are the recommendations, then? Sensible immigration reform – such as Canada has – policies which scope out and bring to us the best and the brightest from the world over. Public policy which facilitates integration and English language acquisition. Embracing of our free market system which will bring in the people who will keep inventing and innovating (and paying taxes) long after the Chinese retire to the shuffle board tables. And figuring out how we will pay for the massive social safety net we will need for the elderly in our midst – which I will be as well in the intermediate future (yes this is going to have to involve real health care reform – somebody please get rid of Obamacare!!).

All said, this is not a tale we often are told – which is why this book was so interesting. I recommend you read it as well.

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #6 – Compassion)

You say you have compassion; social consciousness which sets you above the rest. You rail at injustice (sometimes real though often perceived through your oh-so perfected filters of subjugation). You vote the right way, you march during the great mobilizations of contempt, you use the correct hashtags and eat at the right establishments and protest at those speakers the rejection of whom so acutely demonstrates to the world your understanding, your enlightenment. You perceive your struggle to be epic; and yourselves to be descendants of gods upon Mount Olympus.

But what do you do, not for your planetary battleground into which you launch arrows and bombs in 120 characters or through like-and-share mongering? How do you show your compassion? Do you set aside money from each paycheck to put a little girl in the third world through elementary school? Do you stop to help an old man rake his leaves in the encroaching days of winter and engage him on his memories of family, not the turbulent talk of Trump? Do you spend your time cleaning your own community, looking for bits of trash or cigarette stubs left by the careless? What about a food drive for the inner-city vulnerable; no blue donkey to be seen anywhere. Have you built homes for the poor; have you traveled to a foreign land to make common cause with the struggles of the not-so-prosperous and thereby atoned somewhat for your tantrum? Have you sought out the widowed or the single-mothers in your church in order to prepare for them a meal – or perhaps invite them all to Thanksgiving, an act of generosity and compassion which might soothe your scalded spirit if only for a day?

Have you sought out somebody who fought to make our country great, to protect it from foes – perhaps somebody who is alone and hurting – and said thank you, inviting them in, laying aside for a season your bitterness?

Are you kind to others? Have you thought to hurl love-languages over twitter against those whose ideas so offend you; who you have declared your bitter enemy, who you have branded deplorable? Have you sought for a moment to understand them, from where they are coming? Have you gone to their churches, visited their community centers, sat with them in family, read with them their Bibles?

Acts of reconciliation only come served hot upon the platters of compassion. Compassion, which breeds empathy. Just like cynicism has replaced wonder as the fundamental philosophy of our generation; so too entitlement has replaced gratitude. Gratitude, which is only returned through service built upon compassion. We are getting close to thanksgiving – and today is veterans day. Maybe we can all calm down for a minute, and be kind to those with whom we have a shared interest in protecting so great a prosperity as we have known. Now that, my friends, would be an awakening.

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The Untold Story of Cuba

“Do you ever listen to a song that is so remarkable that you play and replay and replay it until you’ve memorized every word, and it becomes a part of you? (…) Have you experienced epic moments of victory when you were the world’s master? And have you agonized over a loss that is so total that you are sure you will never recover – a colossal failure that will mark you for eternity? (…) Now would you sacrifice all this? Would you end the celestial banquet of human existence because it is not your fate to taste of every dish?”

Joel D. Hirst's Blog

Have you ever seen a painting so beautiful that it stops your heart for a second; reds and greens and golds imprinted upon your essence for eternity? Do you ever listen to a song that is so remarkable that you play and replay and replay it until you’ve memorized every word, and it becomes a part of you? Do you ever read a line in a novel that is so profound that you have to close the book and set it down, to sit in silence for a moment – staring at the wall, letting it sink into your consciousness?

Have you ever encountered a moment of fullness so complete that you know you could die and it would not matter? Has your heart ever surged with such a sense of expectation and impatience at what is to come that it is hard to sleep, to eat? Did your adolescent…

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