Thursday, February 23, 2012

For Pleasure: Winter

Since I happened to finish several books I've been slowly reading for the past few months, it seemed like time for an update.  My bedtime reading was mostly Robert D. Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986.)  It looks like I've saved his first biography for last, after starting with Emerson and then William James.  In this book, Richardson is perhaps less ambitious but just as successful, although it may be that Thoreau's quiet life lends itself to a quieter treatment.

The book relies a great deal on Thoreau's journals, and it is chiefly a chronological treatment.  It's quite an achievement to retain reader interest in a life that was so solitary, but that's one reason I keep reading Richardson--he's a beguiling writer.  But there is a sense of the real world Thoreau lived in, like his involvement in his father's pencil-making business, for which Henry made several important (and profitable) innovations.  Or the reality of Walden Pond, skirted on a side near Thoreau's cabin by railroad track, and the regular passage of steam engine trains.  The suddenness of the book's end mirrors the suddenness of Thoreau's death at a comparatively young age.  It seems he was becoming more of a systematic naturalist, yet had he lived a few decades longer, there's no telling what further visionary literature he might have produced.

I also finished Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, The Years of Rice and Salt.  Having been pleasantly surprised by his science fictional historical novel on Galileo, I moved on to this one, which is an alternate history of no less than human civilization, based on the "what if" of the Black Death effectively wiping out Europeans rather than killing a third. Over the centuries the civilizations contending for world power are Islamic and Chinese, then India and the civilizations of the New World, the South American tribes (Inka) and the North American tribes united in the Iroquois confederation. 

Robinson tells this sweeping story with an intriguing device--he adopts the metaphysics of Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, that posit reincarnation.  So he follows essentially the same group of characters, as they are reincarnated in different countries and cultures, their fates yoked together.  In between they meet in "the Bardo," a kind of limbo where they are assigned their next incarnations, and where they discuss whether they (or humanity) are actually making any progress at all.

History in its broadest sense doesn't turn out too differently--there are struggles for empire, technological advances linked to trade or war or both, as well as the struggles of individuals to pursue science, justice and humanity's best potential.  There's something like the Great War, though it lasts a generation, and the possibility of atomic bombs is discovered, but perhaps the reality is avoided.  Within the story there are utopian visions for which Robinson is rightly noted.  I read this long and complicated novel in spurts--it was just too much to handle continuously, as I had read his other novels.  But I knew all along the way that this is a true literary milestone,  perhaps his most impressive novel as literature of any kind.  It's his best written, virtually without the slackness that sometimes rolls by as I race through the story.     

I also just finished Jim Harrison's most recent collection of novellas, The Farmer's Daughter (Grove, 2010,) which I acquired in hardback upon its ascension to sale book status.  I actually read the first two novellas (the title one, and "Brown Dog Redux") pretty quickly, but deliberately decided to save the last one for later ("The Games of Night," a story which apparently uses Harrison's research on lycanthropy for his script of the Jack Nicholson movie, Wolf.)  I look forward to the Brown Dog novellas being collection in one volume.  Otherwise these have the usual rewards of Harrison's fiction, which are considerable.

After "always meaning to," I finally read We, the classic dystopic novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin.  I see why it is a literary classic as well as an historical one, coming before Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm,  and Huxley Brave New World , but after H.G. Wells and The Time Machine.  I also read some of Zamyatin's essays, including the very perceptive one about Wells--it is among the best short summaries with insight into the full range of Wells' fictions.

But I didn't stay so high minded, indulging in several Star Trek novels (which I usually save for traveling, but...) and my first Captain Future novel.  I didn't even know there were Captain Future stories when I adopted this as my Internet screen name (though I thought there must be.)  Then I found online articles about Edmond Hamilton's novels published in pulp magazines, and copies of their covers.  So I finally ordered a facsimile copy of the Summer 1942 issue of Captain Future: Man of Tomorrow with the "novel" The Comet Kings.  It's actually a long story, which takes up about half of the magazine. (Though the cover has nothing to do with the story.)  The whole magazine is great fun, with a vision of the future that includes "radium lamps" for lighting!  There's also an origin story for Captain Future and his Futuremen (a floating brain, a robot and a cyborg, plus a couple of pets) that's a frontiersman saves Indians from thieving white traders set on Mars.  But it does establish Captain Future as a hero of the downtrodden, a hero template set by Superman, Flash Gordon, etc. in the 30s and 40s.  And thank god for that. Despite the populated solar system planets, there are interesting elements in the cosmology of Captain Future's universe that are curiously similar to certain theoretical models derived from quantum theory.  Hmmm.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World
By Leslie Paul Thiele
The MIT Press

Why do we glorify the “Midas Touch” and forget the rest of the story? That everything King Midas touched turned to lifeless gold, including his daughter? Leslie Paul Thiele points out that this is a cautionary tale about unintended consequences, which pretty much characterize what we’ve done to our society and our planet.

With many painful examples, Thiele describes how unintended consequences of clear-eyed altruism as well as stupefied greed have characterized our era, because we treat the world like a machine that needs a technological fix or two. A more realistic metaphor is Indra’s Net, a figure of interdependence and interpenetration from Eastern religions which ecology and systems theory confirm.

With William Ophuls’ Plato’s Revenge (reviewed last time), this is a notable attempt to think through the climate crisis future. “Sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary” Thiele writes, so like Ophuls he covers a lot of ground and many important authors, in chapters on ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, physics and metaphysics. He also mines western classics and other wisdom traditions (just as Ophuls also mentions the Indra’s Net metaphor.)

But Thiele brings a younger point of view, and a very disciplined, trenchant and elegant style as well as wide-ranging scholarship. There are no wasted words in his sentences, and no wasted sentences in this book. He goes beyond the usual questions and conclusions to tougher applications and more subtle synthesis. He integrates fresh concepts from the front lines, such as safe-to-fail experimentation, cascade effects, resilience, ecosophic awareness. But he also finds new relevance in dismissed principles, like courage, respect and gratitude, and the determinative roles of imagination and story. Sustainability requires a new understanding of soul.

My favorite guiding quote on thinking about the future is from H.G. Wells: “The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis.” This book is the best exemplar of such a synthesis I’ve encountered in awhile. The individual ideas may not be shockingly new, but the logic of the connections is revelatory. He ranges from Sophocles to systems theory and the remarkable knowledge of squirrels. An entire curriculum could profitably be based on this book—a curriculum to save the future. But even by itself, this book is a handbook of conceptual tools for making a better future. Or for reading about the future that could be. I may question some of his assertions, but at least he’s providing sturdy transport for the journey. One message in both Thiele and Ophuls is that individuals and small groups can make ultimately large differences. “Hope is our greatest resource in these troubling times,” he writes. “But the hope we claim and cultivate must come from decidedly new ways of thinking and acting.”

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology
By William Ophuls
MIT Press

If a stream of recent books are correct (I’ve reviewed several here, including those by David Orr, Bill McKibben and Paul Gilding), much of this century is going to be significantly and catastrophically different from today, due primarily to energy and ecological limits amplified by the Climate Crisis. These books all made strong cases for what is likely to change, but less impressive suggestions on how to think constructively in the coming context.

Now there’s another generation of books that take a deeper and more comprehensive look, however preliminary, at what might constitute a way forward in the inevitable cultural shift. Two very impressive ones have been published almost simultaneously by MIT Press. This is a brief review of the first, by political scientist and veteran author William Ophuls.

He starts with the stark if now familiar premise:“Modern civilization lives on depleting energy and borrowed time. Its day of reckoning approaches.” So we need a new ideal that “makes a virtue out of the necessity of living within our ecological means.” In this very blunt book-length essay, Ophuls puts the emphasis on the word “virtue.” Our failures can’t be remedied by “smarter management, better technology, and stricter regulation” because they are supported by “a catastrophic moral failure that demands a radical shift in consciousness.”

“Ecological scarcity is not a problem that can be solved within the old framework but a predicament or dilemma that can be resolved only by a new way of thinking.” But Ophuls does not develop a new futuristic system replete with its own jargon. He critiques the failures of our simplistic cultural context, and returns to forgotten sources for conceptual tools that might equip us to deal with the onslaught of rigorous change, in the currently ignored classics of western civilization. Yet this isn’t a scholarly rehash either: it uses these ideas together with current ecological understanding to inform decisions on how we should live and organize ourselves, and cope with a future of immense challenge.

His chapters examine “law and virtue,” ecology, physics, individual and cultural psychology, and politics in the larger sense of how societies are organized. Plato, Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Jung and other ancient, modern and contemporary thinkers are consulted.  But he proposes neither an intellectual new order nor a return to some bookish Golden Age. He argues for adherence to better interpretations of natural law, and for a balance found in Thoreau: “The civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage” who forgoes superfluities for “a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”

To me there is something very encouraging about his general approach. It says that even in the intensity of the coming confusion, we have the tools to think and feel our way out of it. Ophuls bravely and succinctly offers his synthesis, which at the very least is a well-constructed springboard to fruitful debate and further thought.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
By Thomas Franks
Metropolitan Books

Best known for his book analyzing the paradox of middle class Americans voting against their own interests, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Franks turns his attention to the recent Tea Party phenomenon, and that monumental paradox of victims of a Wall Street-induced Great Recession rallying for unfettered free enterprise at the precise moment it “has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud.”

His answer is unconventional. While other commentators note the Tea Party’s apocalyptic qualities, Franks writes that they’re really utopian, and their utopia is a free enterprise that never was or could be. So facts don’t interfere with their faith in it.

Franks shows how this utopia is based on the idealization of small businesses, which unfortunately has little to do with super-corporate capitalism and international finance. But to adherents, free enterprise failures are due to sinister forces: Big Government and its “crony capitalism” partners, socialism and liberals in general.

This conviction feeds a closed circuit of grievance and self-pity, which Franks say “has become central in the consciousness of the resurgent Right.” Victims of the class warfare conspiracy include the world’s wealthiest capitalists—“the persecution of the Koch Brothers,” who fund right wing causes and candidates with their fossil fuel fortunes. “Pity these billionaires, reader.”

Franks illuminates a related mystery, the phenomenon of Glenn Beck. The first time I saw Beck on TV I knew he was principally an actor, and Franks adds the telling detail that Beck’s hero is actor/director Orson Welles, particularly for his War of the Worlds radio broadcast which panicked listeners who thought the Martian invasion was real. According to Franks, Beck relentlessly cast liberals as the Martians, and Barack Obama as leader of the alien invasion.

To those outside this world, Beck was the most conspicuous example of the hothouse media that these adherents inhabit exclusively (talk radio, FOX News, a world of Internet sites), leading to the self-reinforcing fear expressed in rhetorical extremes that have since become mainstream on the Republican campaign trail.

Besides being entertaining enough to slightly distract from the depressing content, Frank’s overall analysis is nuanced, complex and convincing but still incomplete. He doesn’t fully explain the logical connection between free market utopianism and fundamentalist Christianity. But most importantly, he barely mentions race as a factor—which is especially puzzling to me, since it was by reading earlier Franks that I recognized the suburban euphemisms and undercurrent of dog whistle racism that seems to me to be a very big part of what’s going on now.

Frank faults Democrats for not acting more forcefully and failing to provide a compelling Great Recession explanation, creating a vacuum that the Tea Party filled. His account ends with the infamous debt ceiling fight. Since then the Tea Party has waned, Occupy Wall Street has risen, and a liberated President Obama has a different kind of populist message. Still, this book provides useful explanations for Mitt Romney’s candidacy and Newt Gingrich’s politics of rage and grievance.