A Tale of a Dying Utopia

Sufi

History moves about like waves great and small crashing upon shores near and far; ripples in oceans might lay low the foundations of an ancient edifice while a mighty tsunami in a small sea crashes harmlessly upon the walls of a castle keep, protecting deep within the aspirations of those who are, like all of us, the victims of history. Because everything falls away, it is only a matter of time and a little bit of luck; happenstance upon the rolling road of wonder, that amazing story of humanity of which there is no end.

So how do we know when something has changed? When something has fallen away and something new is on the horizon? How can we contemplate so great a consequence as that which fells emperors and lays waste to nations and imprisons the fate of billions? For as Jesus once said of the poor; will we not also have the wars always with us?

I recently finished “Faith at War” by Yaroslav Trofimov; a book that is about the greatest epic battle of my lifetime, the fight against totalitarian Islam. Oh, I know, we’re not supposed to say that. We’re supposed to say “violent extremism” or some such double-speak. But we know what the fight was about; I say was, because I think that chapter in our history is over. Not that all Muslim countries are now democracies; and of course there are still terrorists out there content to bomb churches. But ‘over’ in that the utopian draw of the caliphate which inspired the frightening wickedness of a movement is spent; nobody sees castles of crystal in the sands beyond the next bloodbath. Sure, there are still insurgencies that burn at the inverse of epicenter the world over, and many of these are in Muslim countries so they might have a “revolutionary Islam” feel to them to the un-informed observer. But they are more a symptom of the coming anarchy – not the one that has ended.

As I said, Trofimov’s book is about the world at the height of the “war on terror” – that moment when the monumental imperial might and laser focus of the empire of the west (if I may call it that) were directed at controlling and stamping out the latest in a long line of challenges to western liberalism (in the correct sense of the word). If first there was fascism, then there was communism, next there came Islamism. It probably started in the 1970s with the fall of the Shah of Iran, spawning the Iranian revolution (which continues to fund terror) and then rippling into groups like PLO and people like Carlos the Jackal and Yasar Arafat and onward (into the alphabet soup of groups we have all heard so much about). As the Jackal once said, “Revolution above all, is today Islamic”. Its greatest victory was had on 9/11 – unquestionably; and was probably the day the “shooting war” really started (think Germany’s invasion of Poland perhaps). And for the next 17 years, the history of US foreign policy, of western foreign policy in fact is told by the efforts of our governments to contain the spread of this war.

A war that has ended. But when? I would argue, though many disagree, that it ended with the fall of Raqqa. Utopias only inspire if they remained unachieved. Al Qaida somehow understood this in some twisted way. ISIS never did; and assuming the trappings of legitimacy taken from obscure passages in their holy books they built their bricks and mortar utopia. And it was hellish. Just like Nazi Germany was a terrifying place of scarcity and violence; just like communist USSR was a land of famine and enslavement – the Caliphate of Sham was a place wicked and base, far from the ideas of the golden age 800 years ago, which they promised to rebuild.

“Faith at War” was written in 2006, right during the main efforts to prosecute this war. It emerges from stories of a journalist traveling to the front lines of the “war on terror”: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bosnia, Mali – in order to understand from ordinary citizens and members of communities what were the realities of this war, the motivations for (and against) it and its repercussions in their lives. And as such it was engaging and easy to read and I found it for the most part with no axe to grind, no agenda and was not overly preachy. I found the stories interesting, certainly Trofimov had some harrowing experiences and close misses and has earned the right to tell about them. His anecdotes about some of America’s mistakes in the war effort were perhaps sadly comical.

Nevertheless, overall I walked away from the book feeling that Trofimov somehow missed the point. He never really delved into the philosophy, never understood the grievances of those who fought the war, and did not seem to understand the historic moment in which he was writing. He was not well versed in the ancient histories of the lands he visited nor did he “get” the civilizational components of the struggles he chronicled. I came away without a better understanding of the war on terror, which ostensibly was what the book was supposed to help with.

And now the war is over – yes it is over; although it is possible that it has taken the EU with it, the last 11th hour casualty. Then again, perhaps the collapse of Europe is more a part of the coming anarchy; the massive austral edifice of ‘liberal’ power and capitalism that is teetering and about to fall, eaten away as it has been by the tiny ripples in the form of migrant streams. Yes, I think that may be the story that is only now just starting to play out, and demanding to be adequately understood in order to be competently written. Hopefully Trofimov will do a better job at this one.

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #4 – Utopia)

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed…”

revelations

Last night I read devotions with my little boy, as I do when I am home and not traveling the lost places as I am wont to do. We have again reached the end of the Bible, the third time or so, only to start again from Genesis, our reflections following the cyclical patterns of the world itself; birth, life and death only to be renewed in a glorious garden again. I had never thought about it before, but the Bible both starts and ends in a utopia. It goes from “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day.” Genesis 1:31 and it ends with “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’.” Revelation 21:1-4

In between, the messy machinations of man. The entire thousands year-long fight to be free, to live our lives more abundantly and with greater prosperity and a more intense significance. To reconnect with the image of God within each of us, an image of a creator God. “To care for and to keep”, that is what Genesis tells us man was placed in the garden for.

This is always where man falls down, again and again. Instead of “caring for and keeping”, living gentle disciplined lives responding to what is right and good and true while awaiting that day when the “order of things (…) passes away”, we instead try and build our own utopias. The utopias of Dr. Moreau, created in our own image, the sayer of the law repeating desperately: “Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not men? Not to suck up drink; that is the law. Are we not men? Not to eat flesh or fish; that is the law. Are we not men? Not to claw the bark of trees; that is the law. Are we not men? Not to chase other men; that is the law. Are we not men?” to the maddened monsters. Decrying the creator, we try to replace Him with ourselves and His creation with one of our own making. And we wonder why all we ever achieve is Dr. Moreau’s Island – the tortured beasts feeding upon each other in the darkness. Venezuela, Nicaragua, the USSR, genocidal Rwanda, Nazi Germany, the Islamic State. Thomas More’s Utopia; Karl Marx’s communism; Plato’s republic. Man-made utopias are hellish affairs.

This was never the plan. Jesus said early and often that it was never for us to attempt political perfection. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” He said, for “the poor you will always have with you,” words spoken while visiting followers in Bethany when a woman – presumably a prostitute – entered the house where He was visiting with friends and began to wash His feet using expensive perfume. Hearkening back to Deuteronomy, as Jesus often did, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land.” Reminding the ancient nation of Israel that poverty is the natural state of being, and that personal acts of sacrifice are the ones which will preserve our goodness and pave the way for our salvation, while government programs only create bitterness and violence. But why would Jesus say this? Because, of course, there was an objection – as there always is from those who seek your money in order to pursue their own ambitions – that the perfume should be sold and the money given to the poor (we are told in the Bible that this is because the treasurer, Judas, wished to steal the money). And there it is – “give the money to the poor!!” say loudly those whose motivations are for themselves alone (think of the politicians who wish to increase taxes ‘for the poor’, and the hell-on-earth they are responsible for); those who seek power and position through controlling the purse strings of utopia.


As you have found out, common sense is not all that common these days. The problem is in our good-faith attempts to build just societies that protect the poor and the weak, responding to our moral code of compassion, which emerges from the laws that govern our creative humanity, we have surrendered our societies to the very things that make people poor and weak—to those people who build majorities upon their angry mediocrity to justify their theft. Through the redistribution of power and prosperity, we have allowed society to put the strong at the service of the weak, the right at the service of the wrong, through erroneous principles they call social justice. Social justice is, of course, the opposite of natural justice, because natural justice seeks equality before the law, while social justice makes excuses and exceptions. They gained more power politically and in society, and then slowly they used that power to place themselves at the center of our civilizations. Nakedness is less humiliating if we are in a group. You want to feel better about yourself, strip those around you. Failure is more acceptable if you don’t fall alone. Strength is less intimidating if it is shared. But if you keep lowering the bar so that everybody can leap it, pretty soon the ability to jump to the sky is eliminated—and our great athletes become day laborers. Power is a terrible thing. To control other people is to live at their expense. Those who are strong and confident usually don’t want the added bother. But for the weak, the bitter, and the jealous—or those who cannot or choose not to live on their own—power is a very attractive thing. The Burning of San Porfirio


That is why I love reading Revelations, because it reminds me that it will end, our fight for significance and our struggle for right against wrong. And let me give you a hint, it will end in a beautiful utopia, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children…”

Although not for everyone:

“…the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelations 21:6-8.

And for those who would flee to Masada, it will not end yet. For there is much work still to be done.

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The Event Horizon of Africa

Last night I sat with friends in a run-down rooftop restaurant overlooking pockmarked streets and balding hills watching the sun set – again – over Africa. The smell of wood smoke lightly scented with beans wafted on high as we chewed at the over-aged calamari and washed the mealy shrimp down with vinegary wine. It was Kampala; Luanda; Abuja; Bamako or Kinshasa. And we were speaking of Africa.

IMG_1697

A painting on my wall of Gulu, Uganda by #Taga

“They don’t generate enough power here,” said my friend as the sun went down and the city plunged into darkness; pinpricks of light only for those who could afford generators and the fuel to keep them running. A mansion of an oligarch; the occasional bar/night club, filled with the omnipresent westerners – diplomats and aid workers and oil executives and World Bank technocrats – a motley crew who agreed upon nothing except that primal need to cut the boredom of a Friday night in Africa. Strobe lights and the pounding heard even high up and far away. Silence and pounding, the sounds of Africa; diesel fuel and wood smoke – her smells. “Why is that?” I responded. “Because they don’t have the infrastructure, the money is all stolen, and what little power is generated is siphoned away along that tortuous path from power-plant to consumers, the few consumers who pay.”

If electricity is a “right”, as the aid workers wagging on the dance-floor below say – that “rights inflation” in which they are engaged has caused scarcity, as all inflation eventually does. Africa is a repository for the failed notions of quixotic westerners – the hideaway of utopians seeking a pliant constituency upon which to experiment with their ideas; being chased from their own lands in annoyance it is in Africa they can find a listening ear and a willing hand, as long as they have money. And it does not take much money in Africa. Preachers and priests; libertines and the lecherous; the naïve and the gullible all rubbing shoulders and sweaty embraces with the mercenaries of forgotten wars far from home.

“What can I get you?” the question from the restaurant manager – a Venezuelan man who once probably tended bar in the crystalline watering holes of Las Mercedes but who has now made the unlikely journey to wait tables on a rooftop terrace in the darkened night of Africa. Venezuela, stable through centuries (if at times not entirely democratic) now joining the likes of Lebanon and Syria as one of the great diaspora countries of the world. Who has not had humus and pita bread? Who has not had a shawarma? Soon – you all will be eating also arepas. Will Venezuela’s great exodus create a storied merchant class – stateless people existing on their wits alone, hard and disciplined? Perhaps – state failure, as anthropology’s great equalizer, has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Once-prosperous Venezuela certainly had a lot of chaff.

The conversation turned to the future, for Africa exists now as a great leviathan in the rear-view mirror of my fastly speeding car. Not chasing me – for Africa does not move – but so massive, so colossal and epic and ghoulish (though at times – limited times – also extraordinarily lovely) that no matter how far, how fast we speed down the road she never seems to fade. There is an event horizon, old Africa hands (like myself) know, from which there is no escape. A great gravitational pull sucking us back in to engage yet again; a boundary which is expanding outward as Africa’s problems spill out from her dark heart and onto the beaches of an unwanting and weary world. Overpopulation, the culling of the animals, environmental degradation and mono-cropping causing hunger, insurgencies that burned deep in the jungles making their way at last into the imaginations of urban elites in London and Paris and Berlin, diseases terrifying and ghastly now on our airplanes. Africa’s problems are about to go global; what the Great Recession was to our markets – that moment when our “mixed economy” (with its central banks and its overactive states picking winners and losers) failed (though we have yet to realize it – more on that probably later); Africa will be for a weary global polity which can no longer make collective decisions clear-sighted and realistic. The anarchy that has come, the ordeal which has arrived.

Of course the gyrators on the dance floor don’t see any of this. They are too fixated upon their narrow avocation – division of labor, that primary invention of industrial England, has a dark side too which has given us a tyranny of experts who cannot see the world in its complexity but only through their single issue of worry. “If only we can get the terms of the loan right, this place could become great!” says the lovely young woman, screaming over the cacophony, and whose pirouetting partner responds only with “We need to kill the rebel leader.”

It is magnificent, isn’t it…? – our world, interesting and exciting and stressful and sad; a terror of existence against a life more abundant. Would we have it any other way?

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #3 – Dubai)

“The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:”

“What was your favorite thing about vacation?” I asked my little boy, to his thoughtful answer “Green Planet…! I touched a snake!” Green Planet, a six story recreation of a rain-forest, complete with bats and hissing cockroaches and gentle curious sloths – free in their environments and interacting with we the intruders as they would if we were trudging through the darkest Amazon. The construct starts you in the basement, a simulation of the overflow of a great river (the Orinoco or perhaps the Amazon) where you watch a school of piranhas devour a chicken – then you are ushered to the canopy where you walk down gracefully through the branches feeding birds and monkeys and watching out not to step on the mighty iguana – as if he would let you.

Sloth

Green Planet Sloth – I’m gonna call her Esther

All laid out upon the harsh desert sands of the Arabian peninsula. For I was vacationing in Dubai.

I vacation in Dubai because my work takes me often to Africa (where I have lived off-and-on for a decade, ten years of my last twenty). Because it is a direct flight (from everywhere) and it is the antithesis of everything I have come to know about the dark continent. Where in Africa there is violence, Dubai is safe. Where in Africa there is no electricity, Dubai sparkles at night like a shining multi-colored desert jewel. Where in Africa there is no food, Dubai hosts great cuisine from around the world. While Africa has wattle huts, Dubai has built the Burj Khalifa; a needle pointed upwards to pierce the center the galaxy (and which sometimes on a cloudless desert night even appears to). Where Africa has ancient prejudices Dubai has a pragmatic, self-interested conversation with a world just itching to invest. “Self-interest at its healthiest implicitly recognizes the self-interest of others, and therein lies the possibility of compromise. A rigid moral position admits few compromises,” as Robert D. Kaplan writes.

I go to Dubai because there I can make sure my little boy considers the reality that there are those who still build – the tallest building in the world, for example. That there are those who can still plan (Dubai is planning for the colonization of Mars in 2117 – in America we cannot even pass an annual budget, to say nothing of Africa…) Where generally accepted rules (no public inebriation of fornication please) are set in place by leaders – monarchs whose legitimacy does not come from the ballot box but in the older way, for the prosperity and well-being they have been able to provide for the people under their care.

Burj

Burj Khalifa

Somewhat ironically, the utopians do not like Dubai. They find its rigid self-interest somehow offensive. “Dubai is not a moral place,” a friend of mine once told me. When I responded that “States are not moral. People are moral, or should be. States (good states) watch out for the well-being of the people under their care – we call them citizens,” my friend sneered and said “Well, it should be moral. They should give more rights to the migrant workers.” As if Dubai does not have the sovereign right to watch after their own citizens; challenged at every turn as they are by the ideologists who will not be happy until every place in the world resembles Tijuana or Karachi or Lagos. “I will never leave here!” a Pakistani taximan answered my question as to how long he planned to work, what he planned to do after saving money. And as if the simple presence of Dubai, a land that does not wait fetid and tired, charging admission to marvel at ancient edifices silent witnesses to a time when it was once great and how it fell away, was an insult to the utopians – for this utopia had nothing to do with them nor their ideas; a land that marches unapologetically into the future upon a road paved by competence and competition (I think Ayn Rand would have loved Dubai – just as I think Howard Roark would have loved the Burj Khalifa). As if we don’t need a place like Dubai to remind us of what the human spirit can achieve when not restrained by ideology and redistributive baggage; of envy and greed and wickedness product of ideas of “state morality” and redistributive “social justice”.

Which brings me to Venezuela (of course, as the sort of “anti-Dubai”). One and a half trillion dollars. Let me lay out the “0s” here so you may contemplate them – $1,500,000,000,000. That is what the Venezuelan socialists have wasted. “But we wanted to make a better world for our people,” say the naïve – with hunger approaching famine, a reduction of life expectancy of 3 years, of perhaps 5 million refugees – a number rivaling Syria. Of economic collapse reaching 50% of GDP (when the USSR collapsed Russia’s GDP only fell by 30%), and inflation reaching %10,000,000 – now going down because there is nothing left to buy. Of hate and stupidity and a generation of Che Guevara quoting idiots when elsewhere people are planning for the colonization of Mars. “Dubai does not respect minorities” the utopians sneer, except the minorities are flocking to Dubai as fast as they can get their visas stamped (as they once did in Venezuela, before the days of socialism). Not one rock atop another, that is what Venezuela has given us. Even the cavemen gave us some rock art and a few flint knives to account for their presence. Socialist Venezuela will extinguish itself in a massive supernova followed by a black hole which will suck in aid money and World Bank loans for a generation, or two; joining the likes of Somalia, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Congo and other failed states. “But Dubai is not a democracy” say the defenders of Venezuela’s socialist suicide, forgetting legitimacy of leadership is arrived at in different ways than simply the ballot box; that monarchies are the oldest system of government (and historically the most stable); that benevolence of leadership is shown not through ideology but always through results. Especially when the results are so great a creation as the Jewel of Arabia.

So go to Dubai, ye socialists who cannot see a shining beautiful orb without imagining its destruction upon the rocky shores of your ancient prejudices. Think of things besides yourselves, your tired worn-out notions of equality and revel in a land of the future where anything, anything, is possible. Then come talk to me of Venezuela.

marina

Dubai Marina Sunset over the Persian Gulf

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The Hard Work of Understanding

azerbaijan

In this sordid age of journalistic wickedness when those of that treasured profession have decided against their ancient sacred trust of informing, of shining beautiful white light into the darkened corners of our tired world, sometimes nevertheless you come across a champion. Like a knight in shining armor, following an olden code driven onward by honor and dutybound to carry out his chosen burden in good faith; holding his cherished joy in an open hand lest he should clutch it in rage and impunity and destroy it, for it is delicate and fragile, he seeks to tell a story. A minstrel; a griot; a bard.

I find Robert Kaplan’s writing to be like this. He is a journalist from a bygone era, full of curiosity and compassion and insight when nowadays all we have is shallow hubris and hate propping up the sad enraged opinions of the uninformed informers. His works are long; as long as the journeys he undergoes to attempt to get to the heart of the issue, to understand it in order to then explain it to those of us who cannot take the time necessary to understand it ourselves. He journeys by bus, not the first class tickets and executive lounges that have become the norm these days by those who nevertheless wish to be our guides. He traverses countries through lost land-borders, like the powerless are forced to. He stays in the ratty hotels of provincial capitals; because it is there where the merchants and miscreants stay, those who govern the world away from the shiny buildings in the capital wherein rest the television studios with their painted pundits. He does the hard work, for those of us who would love to but cannot find the time – the months and months of travel and the dozens of painstaking interviews that the job demands, the compost from which grows understanding.

I picked up a copy of “Eastward to Tartary” while I was on a quick vacation in Dubai with my family. My little boy was searching out a copy of “Dog Man” (of which I will not be writing a review – though I was immensely pleased to go into a bookstore for my tiny lad to hunt down a book; though the mark was something less than literature, I’ll take it!); and I took the opportunity for myself. I was actually looking for “Revenge of Geography”; but that will have to wait, for “Eastward” is about the Caucuses and Balkans and Syria and Turkey – written twenty years ago at a time of great flux and turmoil (a turmoil which, ironically or perhaps not, has only gotten worse).

I have been spending significant time myself in the Caucuses recently – though without the opportunity and platform to turn my own wanderings into anything, at least not yet. And I wanted to read what Kaplan had to say about the place. I was not to be disappointed – in true Kaplan fashion he outlines a 4000 mile trek through the south-eastern edges of Europe; going farther and farther from Europe and Turkey to end up in the bizarre backwater of Turkmenistan. There are so many places, far at the edge of empire yet with a resonance all their own – that echo with a past of greatness and significance though today the names no longer fall freely from the lips of merchants and mercenaries and diplomats. Places we should nevertheless consider.

What I always take from Kaplan’s writing – and “Eastward” was no different – is the cyclical nature of history; of how places rise and fall and often rise again, usually in a different form, but returning to our imaginations after long at the inverse of epicenter. Places like Damascus; like Jaffa; like Jerusalem and Baku – Moscow, which always sees itself as one of the great guardians of Europe after Rome and Istanbul. Places which endure; and stories we must know if we are to divine what will happen in the future, and from whence we came. Modern journalists could take a page from the book of Kaplan’s life: rediscovering their curiosity they could deny the sirens call of arrogance and moderate themselves, perhaps even finding wisdom through so great a study which always – always – reminds us of how little we actually know about what we think we can control.

A quick aside; the one thing I did not like about “Eastward” was the perfunctory or perhaps postscript nature of Kaplan’s section on Armenia. Written as an epilogue, and focusing mostly on the genocide and the war with Azerbaijan, he does not do justice to the epic 2500 (at least) year story of Armenia; especially given the amazing fact that in each other section of the book – from great places such as Istanbul and Aleppo and Jerusalem to the lost ones like Ashkabat on the far side of the silent Caspian Sea – he describes the presence of Armenians and their impact on areas far from their gentle valley under their ancient mountain.

Maybe in his next book!

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That Eternal Question

art

Impressionism

Do you ever wonder about greatness? How about mediocrity? I have been considering these things lately – as I grow older and the future ceases to be laid out in a great plane of opportunity before me. As the path narrows and becomes more craggy; the hills become steeper and more barren while the end approaches more quickly than I – than any of us – would like to consider.

When we are young we think of ourselves as people apart. Invincible, different, special – unique; certain we are that in our very demeanor and bearing lay the hallmarks of our greatness, something to which we are predestined. None of us are alone in these delusions; most people I have met have harbored them, illusions that are best abandoned but sadly sacrificed as the realities of the limitations of man are laid like a heavy blanket over a fire that is burning out of control.

Greatness. Our world seems to confuse this with the physical; beauty not in the eye of the beholder but as the magazines tell us they should be. But of how many of those who were great, do we remember their appearance? And how many of those would we consider – or were considered – remarkable? Da Vinci? Benjamin Franklin? Homer? Sir Thomas More? St. Paul it was said was a hunchback. Jesus might have been a redhead.

I am currently on vacation, with family, in Dubai. That resort town of the Persian Gulf, the playground of princes and paupers, of the rich and famous and the painfully middle class. Of diplomats, dreamers and day-laborers. I see them all around me, at the hotel pool and on the beaches and walking through the crowded shopping malls. We don’t consider appearance, not really. Sure when we are young and the hormones rage we cannot help but see the innuendo in everything, a glance and a careless brush and a gentle smile. But we get older, and all we come to see are humans as they are. One, a little overweight; another balding. An unfortunate tattoo; a melancholy sag product of a life hard lived. Any of these, a possible Claude Monet… – or a nobody.

And what do they see, when they look at me? A washed-up novelist entering middle age; dreams of what could have been crashing upon the shallow shores of reality? Probably not – for they do not consider me, nor I them. We are silent companions upon this planet, each thinking more of ourselves than is warranted and each meaning less to the relentless rotation of the world than we would care to admit.

I recently finished “Villa Triste” by Patrick Modiano. It could be said that all French novelists are channeling the spirit of Baudelaire, Sartre or Camus. Not Nietzsche’s violent nihilism but instead a comfortable existentialism, gently held in the spirits of a people who do not consider greatness and who do not rage. That’s hard for us to understand, American’s are taught to rage. We are raised on stories of Paul Bunyan and John Henry and Lord of the Rings: we are told that to rage is our responsibility and that in our tremendous violence will be found the answer to that eternal question for which we really do not want an answer at all. “Do I matter?”

“Time has shrouded all those things in a mist of changing colors: sometimes a pale green, sometimes a slightly pink blue. A mist? No, an indestructible veil that smothers all sound and through which I can see Yvonne and Meinthe but not hear them. I’m afraid their silhouettes may blur and fade in the end, and so, to preserve a little of their reality…” 

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Moby Dick

whale

This book was not easy to read. Melville is certainly erudite and has a prodigious command of the English language; but the prose is not beautiful, nor is the structure of the novel commanding. The word count on Moby Dick is 209,000 – today a publishable novel is between 80,000 and 120,000 words and I cannot but imagine that a modern-day editor would have had Melville remove the tedious lists: types of whales, pictures and paintings of whales, annotated summary of a literature review regarding whales, and all the other digressions which rob the novel of its sense of purpose and drive. And perhaps the novel would have had more power had he done just that – but would it then have survived the test of time? Who knows…

Its almost as if Melville was not writing a novel at all but the precursors of our modern documentaries. The book itself can be broken down into sections (introduction, the search, the whale) or into types of writing (poetry, essays, monologues, the Bible) – and for analysis of this I recommend the review in Patrick T. Reardon’s blog.

Is the novel an allegory? Is it modern mythology; is it meant to be an epic like the Iliad and the Odyssey? Maybe neither, maybe all of the above. The thing that struck me, as a student of theology, was the intensely spiritual and religious nature of this novel. From the names – the protagonist was Ishmael (Abraham’s prodigal son) and the antagonist was Ahab (the wicked king of Israel famous as the husband of Jezebel). Elijah the prophet that stands on the quay warning Ishmael and his cannibal companion Queequeg to abandon Ahab and the Pequod and their diabolical mission – against the leviathan described by God in the book of Job, that most ancient of Biblical stories (which probably predated the flood).

Ahab

Or  maybe, just maybe, it is the first environmental novel. Perhaps it is a parable; Ahab representing the rapacious madness of human ambition and Moby Dick the viciousness of nature fighting back – to the destruction of all and sundry except for one because somebody must tell the story, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” (from the Epilogue and taken, of course, from Job). There are some surprising hints at this possibility: one can be found in the description of the first sighting of the great white whale, “A gentle joyousness – a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.” And the second as Stubb, in the darkness of night, orders the preparation of a steak taken from a recently killed whale, “It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned: i.e. that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.” Its almost a lament for nature of a mariner knowing he was doing wrong.

What the novel does, for posterity and once and for all time, is enshrine a peculiar period in American history when we depended upon the great leviathans of the seas to light our homes. A ridiculous idea, absurd and wicked in its very essence. No wonder the whale killed everybody.

Now, just a little bit on art. I find extremely odd the ‘natural selection’ process by which history and posterity select works of literature that survive, while allowing others to fade away. Why history has picked “Moby Dick” and “East of Eden” to embed themselves into the fabric of America’s literary tradition while “Pacific Viking” (in every way just as grand), self-published (as Nietzsche and Thomas More also were), sells only a few dozen copies and will probably fade into oblivion.

Perhaps, as in all things, it is the presence or paucity of a champion. And I do regret that that my pen does not represent so great an advocate as to guarantee the survival of literature I find amazing. But alas, so goes it in the estates and affairs of men.

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