Sunday, October 7, 2012

Salman Rushdie's Memoirs of Joseph Anton: Who Controls Story?

  I have just finished reading “Joseph Anton: A Memoir" written by Salman Rushdie and released last week. It is a remarkable autobiographical account of the days when Salman Rushdie was under death threat issued by Iranian Head Cleric Ayatollah Khomeini for his controversial novel “Satanic Verses”.  Islamic fundamentalists considered this work of fiction as an insult to the prophet Mohammed and the Quran, and this resulted in world-wide protests and ultimately in  death sentence being awarded by a theocratic order.  This was a throwback to the medieval period when burning heretics at the stake  was not considered abnormal.  In our times we have hardly come across a work of pure fiction whose author was sentenced to death simply because that work is not acceptable to a group of people or a community. This is the perspective and the running theme of this beautiful book. It is a wonderful story of how a community of believers tries to control the story and the narrative of people and how the struggle for freedom of expression   generates different perspectives in this complex world.

The Decade of Death 

 Ironically, serious trouble started only after a wave of religious protests from India, Rushdie’s own country, led to government of India banning this book. It was only after the Indian Government took this extreme step that the world Islamic community started realizing that there may be something in the book that offends Islam and Muslims.

 The “Fatwa” (literally meaning an order) to kill,  issued by the Islamist Fundamentalists of Iran and endorsed by the Iranian Government was not merely a symbolic disapproval of Rushdie’s work of art or an empty threat; following the Fatwa, the Islamist fundamentalist groups, spread in various parts of the world,  made several attempts to track down Rushdie and kill him.  In a period of ten years Rushdie moved about secretly, surreptitiously and was closely followed and protected by British police. Initially, to escape death it was made mandatory by the police to keep shifting his dwelling place after every few days. He was always in the company of his protectors who camped in the same house/flat that he occupied.  Death literally hung over his head and even people who otherwise were friendly started avoiding him lest they were exposed to the bullets of the Islamist fundamentalists. Even airlines refused to carry him for fear of attracting the wrath of  fundamentalists. During this period, his protectors wanted him to take up a name, an alias, so as to keep his movements secret. He took up the name, “Joseph Anton”, built up from the names of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

 During the ten long years of the “Fatwa”, Rushdie saw disaster on every front: fractured relationships, broken marriages and depression in personal life. He also found himself engaging with a strange world that was at worst hostile and at best indifferent to his cause.  And yet he rebelled against all that was out to crush him. During the period he traveled secretly to America and other European countries, visiting literary events, universities and meeting  political bosses and  leaders who mattered and who could be roped in on his side in the battle for freedom for expression. He wrote two novels during this period and had them published. On the whole, with a few exceptions, the entire community of writers   stood solidly behind him. But the world of writers and artists is perhaps as abstract and as fragile as the freedom of expression he was fighting for. They stood behind him, but he  found that the world out there was practical, cruel and businesslike.   The support of the community of writers may have given him strength to stand firmly in this battle, but it was not sufficient to end his loneliness and isolation.

Freedom of Expression, Electorates and Cheddar Cheese

 We do some lip service to the cause of freedom of expression from time to time. But this is more like endorsing an ethical principle or taking up a theoretical position in academic life. With the death dancing over your head and the threat of death becoming grimmer with the passage of time, a theoretical meditation on the concept of freedom of expression ceases to be a literary problem. It becomes a problem of survival and a problem of life and death. It is a warlike situation.   And Rushdie, who lived with this problem intensely for over a decade, discovered the other sides of this problem too. He thought that the Western society and the polity would firmly stand behind him in this struggle. He was, however, proved wrong. British and American politicians may have given him necessary protection and some assurance in person; but they perceived this as his own personal battle. In the Muslim protesters of their country they saw their potential voters and they did not want to offend a group of citizens just for defending an abstract and rather vague principle of freedom of expression. British Prime Ministers and other statesmen kept themselves away from him and did not allow themselves to be even photographed lest it be construed  that they publicly backed him. And when he called on Bill Clinton, American President, in a bid to request him to support him and persuade the Iranian government to retract the Fatwa, Clinton had to publicly explain, rather defensively, why he met Rushdie.

 Some countries were more bothered about their trade relations with Iran and perhaps wondered if it was really worth endangering trade relations with Iran for the so called freedom of expression.  Some countries wondered if such a pro-Rushdie stance would adversely affect the sale of ‘cheddar cheese’ to Iran and thereby jeopardize their  national economy. Further, to his disappointment, Rushdie also saw other religions and religious groups strongly condemning his book. He saw a strange solidarity in the community of religions when these groups perceived him to be not only an enemy of Islam but an enemy of all religions.

 Although Rushdie survived the Fatwa and the death, some of his colleagues and those involved in the publication of the book paid the price with their lives. The Japanese translator of the “Satanic Verses” was stabbed to death. The Italian translator was stabbed and was seriously wounded. A friend who took initiative to have the paperback edition of the book published in Europe went in coma after he took in several bullets in his body, and remained in the hospital for more than six months.  

 Who Controls Story?

This book narrates a fantastic story of what hell and suffering Rushdie underwent and how he spent a long period condemned in isolation, humiliation, with death constantly hovering over his head. One wonders how strange the world of writing and  writers is and how the convoluted and fierce battles for controlling the story and the narrative are fought among various institutions, political, religious, social and others and how fragile, abstract and relative is the  freedom of expression in our society.   Rushdie's book is an important part of the twentieth century history of struggle for Freedom of Expression. At the heart of Rushdie’s struggle is the crucial problem: who really controls the story and the narrative? Do we really have control over what we feel, think and write? Who exercises this control? Is it the State? Is it the Community of people who share some belief and feel that people’s stories and narratives threaten their community? 

Struggle for Freedom of Expression

As the book progresses, there arise several questions    and the reader starts meditating on these problems.    Is the freedom of expression of writers and artists absolute with no limits to it? Is there a legitimate point up to which society may tolerate writers and their writing?   Is there only one way that the artists and the writers relate themselves to the society, with one provoking the other and the other  getting provoked in turn? Was the world around Rushdie, even  his world that was supporting him, secretly getting exasperated by his arrogance, indifference and obsession with his own self? And lastly, was this really a struggle for freedom of expression of a writer or a personal battle of Salman Rushdie? The book raises these and other issues, some directly and still others not so directly. As we progress with the book, we  start wondering if  Rushdie was not fighting a personal battle, with the world around standing neutral? 

What does one feel after one finishes reading these memoirs? Rushdie’s   memoirs  are brilliant and scintillating and there is lot of storytelling here. The narrative and the story is authentic and the memoirs are told in third person, presumably because the writer can in this flow ensure some kind of an objectivity.  There is also a lot of reflection on the theme and Rushdie has shown again and again that he is not merely a writer of fiction but a thinking writer. Rushdie's memoirs form perhaps the most important document in the history of struggle for freedom of expression of writers in the twentieth century. 

 But Rushdie's memoirs are also not what many had expected they would be.   I am not sure if he has made sufficient efforts to understand his adversaries, his tormentors and sometimes even his supporters. One suspects that Rushdie  knows only one perspective and denies all others.  Further, he has not been able to hide bitterness, animosity and sometimes loud and strong passions against his tormentors. This is understandable. However, what is not understandable is that he has not been able to show enough gratitude towards his protectors and all those who stood behind him.  

Rushdie is in a hurry as if he is on a battlefield and really  comes off in these memoirs more as a Roman warrior obsessed with only two states, victory and defeat. One may argue that this is what the situation was: a struggle for life and survival.  But then literature is much more than this. Literature is not battle. It is a story, a narrative of the battle, and has to be told in a perspective,  a story seen somewhat telescopically.  True and great art is born of the magical touch of love, healing and understanding, which need to come with such a long telescopic vision. Rushdie may be a brilliant writer, a great craftsman of words, a great fighter; but I am afraid, his memoirs still fall a little short of what we might call Great Work of Art.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Remembering Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian of the twentieth century, passed away this week. I felt a great personal loss in his death, for he was my most favorite historian. And I feel very sad that he would no longer be there to provide wealth of meaningful details and great insights into historical and contemporary happenings and phenomena. While marshaling facts and arguments he used to be ruthlessly objective and yet there was a larger humane framework in which he conducted his profession of historiography. And this is perhaps a reason why, although he was a Marxist historian he conducted his discourse almost in the grand tradition of Liberalism.

Hobsbawm was a central European Jew and was born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution.  His father was British, his mother Austrian and he was born in Egypt: a pedigree that perhaps qualified him to become a true international historian with a global vision and a global reach. He lost both his parents in his childhood and was brought up by his uncle in Berlin, Vienna and London and ultimately he settled in UK. In those days, especially in the inter-war years, the Jews in Central Europe had mainly two options: they became communists or became Zionists. Hobsbawm joined communist movement during his student days and remained a devout communist to the end. And yet he was a communist and a Marxist thinker with a difference. He never compromised on basic human values of freedom and liberalism. Whether it was his observation that the Soviet communism was rooted in its ossified bureaucracy or whether it was his direct criticism of the communist party when Soviet Union occupied Hungary in 1956, he always displayed a rare sense of independence and respect for basic human values. Hobsbawm was a great scholar, a Cambridge Don and a member of Red Brigade. He was not merely a great scholar; he was a great lover of music and wrote extensively on music.

His greatest contribution was of course his four- volume World History, (from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989) with titles, “The Age of Revolution”, “The Age of Capital”, “The Age of Imperialism” and “The Age of Extremes”. He not only brought great scholarship to his writing of history;  he also had a great gift of telling the story, almost as if readers are a witness to what is happening.  

  In 1994, Hobsbawm  had finished writing his last volume of world history, “The Age of Extremes”. Towards the end of the book he argued that, if the Soviet Communism has collapsed, that should be no reason for the West to celebrate. He further argued that the internal contradictions of capitalism had sufficiently advanced to a point where   there seemed to be  something seriously wrong with the Western Capitalism, which itself needed reforms. Subsequent events, especially the crisis of the capitalism through which we are passing, only show that Hobsbawm was essentially right. We are now debating how we may restructure the global financial system.

Hobsbawm also wrote prolifically on Nationalism, Globalization and Economic History.  A remarkable book that he wrote (a collection of his essays) in 2011 was “How to Change the World: The Tales of Marx and Marxism”. He argues in the book that although world over Marxism has ceased to be a political ideology, Marx’s writing is still, in its sociological and economic insights, very relevant to our times where lot of correction is needed to the  style and functioning  of capitalism. He further says that Marx and Marxism need to be presented somewhat differently and more comprehensively, for essentially at the heart of Marxism is great concern for man. Although, I have never been a Marxist I always found Hobsbawm most stimulating and original.

Hobsbawm  was respected both on the left and right and his passing away has truly   created a great void in the otherwise weakening tradition of historiography. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Difficulty of Being Good: Search for Ethics in Business through Study of Mahabharat

In India, Gurucharandas enjoys a special reputation in the corporate world and the  rising middle classes. After Narayan Murthy he is perceived as  one important corporate leader who tends to think always in ethical terms. This is very rare in India where paradoxically  we see two extremes: on the one hand, wealth creation and especially doing business  were until very recently considered  unethical activities and on the other, there is  high tolerance for violation of ethical code even in day to day activities.

 In nineteen nineties, Gurucharandas  published, “India Unbound”, an important book that traces   events leading to opening up of  Indian Economy and the unfolding of the process of wealth creation that followed in its wake.   It is  an insightful study of how Indian economy responded to the economic reforms and how that led to unleashing of a powerful process of wealth creation.  More importantly, it was  a sociological description of a people who , after getting used to  socialism for quite some time, were exposed to  free market capitalism which combines two contradictory principles: one,  enjoyment of ever increasing new wants and two,  rigors and pain that accompany the process of wealth creation. 

 Economic liberalization of the early nineteen nineties did unleash powerful productive forces in action  and it accelerated the process of wealth creation in this country. But productive forces and power also brought unpleasantness and pain.  The whole process was  accompanied by an indifferent style of governance, corruption, corporate greed and perhaps  beginning  of crony capitalism. If the government and its labyrinthine bureaucracy took upon itself the responsibility of promoting business, the proximity between  business and politics at times crossed the reasonable limits  and they tended to  collude to present worst cases of corruption.  People who live on the periphery of the affluence, and worst still those who live outside the realms of market and wealth, are  victims of these new evils. Further, productive forces, even in their pristine form, are truly children of market and they inflict unmitigated cruelty on the weak and  the  most vulnerable.   Surely, after putting in action the forces of wealth creation what was necessary was a moderating spirit of ethics and accountability. Capitalism, especially market driven capitalism, may be a powerful engine of growth and development but it requires a working framework in which society has to evolve a political, social and economic consensus that saves the society from the excesses of capitalism itself.

 For last several years after finishing writing of “India Unbound”, Gurucharandas was working on the theme of ethics for a modern capitalist society. He was unhappy about the   manner in which ethics is given a go-bye by the economic players and those in charge of governance. And this often left him wondering about the future of  society that does not adequately address the issues of ethics. At the same time he was also, on a personal level, fascinated by our ancient scriptures and especially “The Mahabharata" and its ethics.   These two cognate interests led him to take up  the study of ethics, especially the study of what constitutes good  in a fast transforming capitalistic society like India.   Thus, Gurucharandas wants to know if "The Mahabharata" offered any principles of ethics and behavior with which he could get insight into the present day problems of corruption and corporate greed, and if any corrective prescription can be found in our own tradition. His book" The Difficulty of being Good" tries to answer these and other ethical issues of capitalism. This   book   explores the subject of what constitutes good in human life and how one may attain it.  He discusses the question of good and bad in the context of Mahabharata, giving many examples and presenting many case-studies from the celebrated epic.

This book and the subject itself are both very ponderous issues and present great challenge to the author. Gurucharandas is sometimes clear and at times very vague in coming up with a concrete framework in which we can hope to  resolve these ethical issues. There are two major issues that he presents with reference to a number of case studies :viz. the subtle concept of Dharma and the process through which the individual discharges his obligations in accordance with the perceived Dharma.  He says that the concept of 'good' itself is very subtle and that it is very difficult to lay down a very concrete model or framework for ethical resolution of issues. 

Dharma is nothing but the whole gamut of roles, responsibilities and duties that a human being is supposed to discharge as he holds a position. There are often contradictions in various roles and responsibilities. Man does not have only one role to perform. He is simultaneously performing a number of roles, some private and some public. He is simultaneously a member of a family, member of an organization,  member of  local community, a national citizen and a citizen of this world and lastly a human being. Each position has some duties, responsibilities and a reach of values  that circumscribe his role. These roles are often overlapping and yet a man has to ponder and think intensely on his position several times before he makes a decision, for some of his decisions may be very complex. When the CEO of a company manages  the company, he does so on behalf of a number of stakeholders and interest groups and still the company has certain responsibilities to the society and the world outside his company. He holds a position of a trustee and more importantly, he  cannot use that position for advancing his own personal interests at the cost of the company. Such decisions and the process that leads to a decisions cannot be  concretely laid down in a framework. And hence he Gurucharandas says that Dharma and the concept of Good are very subtle. Gurucharandas presents a number of instances and gives examples from the Mahabharata to illustrate his point. At times he goes back and forth on the merits of the Mahabharata in an attempt to provide  a concrete ethical framework. 

At other times, however, he somewhat brings himself to convince that Mahabharata does have an important message for our age and says that the Mahabharata presents its message in a negative way.  He says  that Mahabharata demonstrates bad effects of bad actions; by presenting a series of disasters, it teaches what one should refrain from doing.    

 This may all seem very interesting; however, there is nothing new that comes up at the end of the book.  One expects that Gurucharandas   would come up with a new formulation of the problem of ethics needed for this country or for the new capitalism in these extraordinary times. Gurucharandas has a philosophical bent of mind  and this has further been shaped by his philosophical studies at Harvard where he was a student of  John Rawls. And, therefore, readers would expect him to formulate first the problem of ethics in Indian society and to provide some answers and  insights that would at least give some indicative answers drawn from the Mahabharata.   However, he does not come up with anything, finally. That the Dharma or the Right Ethics is a very subtle thing is the only conclusion (and yet according to me a very important one) he draws from the rambling three hundred pages. Does a serious discourse on ethics in the post-liberalization era in this country has only this to offer?

 But I would not blame Gurucharandas for this. Like all important issues in life, ethics in our public and corporate life also would require subtle discernment and insights. But more than this one wonders whether ancient traditions anywhere and in any part of the world  can provide straitjacket  answers to the present day complex problems and issues, especially ethical issues.  Traditions are an important source to resolving such complex issues, for it is the departure from the proximate  tradition or accepting new social structures and values and the tensions that result from the confrontation between the tradition and the modernity that many ethical issues stalk in our face.  A good way to resolve such  issues could be reformulating the problems and examining them in the dynamics of the evolving modernity. And in this exercise of reverting to traditions and sometimes even to ancient texts becomes inevitable.  But the problem with the ancient texts such as Mahabharata is that they themselves, as a part of the tradition of the people of this country, have evolved over time.  Each epoch has its own way of attributing meanings to the stories and the actions of the actors in the stories in accordance with the ethos of the times. Under these circumstances looking for ready-made solutions and algorithms in the Mahabharata that can resolve the ethical issues of modern hybrid capitalism as practiced in this country is a very difficult proposition.    

But Mahabharata is not alone in demonstrating its inability of alleviating the modern paralysis of ethical decision making.  No other ancient text anywhere in the world      has that capacity of resolving moral and ethical issues that we face today. A lot has been written and is being written on Chinese Confucianism  and it is being argued that Confucianism preaches moderation, prescribes standards of behavior for bureaucrats  and endorses  subtle art   of governance.  But obviously, Confucianism does not resolve   modern day ethical dilemmas in China.  People go back to history and visit classics in all earnestness to find if the ancient texts can be a guide to resolving the present day ethical issues and ethical dilemmas. This, however, generally does not help, though excursion through history and ancient texts do widen the scope of our mind and prepares it to accept  responsibility. They broaden our canvas of thinking and in turn expand   consciousness and help in understanding issues over a long period of human existence. These are of course  rich rewards of visiting past. To expect anything more than this from our history or our ancient texts is to deny to the evolving life pattern the gifts of rich complexity and innovative ways of evolution. 

 Anyway, I remain thoroughly unimpressed by the book and I am  disappointed that it takes one nowhere, and the issues of corporate greed and corruption in this country do not get adequately addressed to. Gurucharandas is an insightful and thinking author and with the success of "India Unbound" readers had great expectations from him.   It appears that the author had set out an ambitious plan of writing on ethics of present times with reference to Mahabharata.  However, he does not come even near to formulating the question of ethics. 

 Of course this is not to say that what he has written is of no use. He studies the Mahabharata carefully and closely. And there are some meaningful insights that he shares with his readers. He cites good scholars on Mahabharata and we must admit, mentions a few things that may be new and fresh.  However, he has lost a good opportunity of formulating the question of ethics in our social, political and economic life today. Sometimes he is discussing the Mahabharata, and at other times the present day corporate world with its ethical issues. But the reader who follows him through finds himself more confused as he proceeds further.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Remembering Arthur Koestler

 One of my most favorite authors has been Arthur Koestler, who initiated me into the hyper world of books and   ideas.  Arthur Koestler caught my imagination very early in life and his influence lasted long. He was a great polymath and, from late nineteen forties to early nineteen eighties, he enjoyed great reputation as a unique intellectual who moved easily in such disparate disciplines as politics, science and literature. He was a great champion of freedom and fought authoritarianism of both the Right and the Left. In his young age he was a political activist, was sentenced to death by Franco but escaped miraculously. He wrote very good novels and at least one of his novels, “Darkness at Noon” is regarded as a classic and has since been translated into more than hundred languages. His legendry account of how he    was disillusioned with Marxism has gone under the rubric “The God that failed” and   has since become a political classic. He wrote on philosophy and methodology of science and rocked scientific establishment with his writings in early seventies.     Arthur Koestler’s world was not simple and linear; it was exotic, colorful, and mesmeric and had large cosmic horizons.   

Fighting Authoritarianism: Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian Jew and was born in Budapest in 1905. He left education at an early age, when he was studying for engineering and joined Zionism. The Central European Jews in those days, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, had only two options: either to become a Zionist or to become a Communist.  Soon he took avidly to science journalism, became editor of a science journal and interviewed such great scientists as Louise De Broglie and Heisenberg. Later on he also had an opportunity of interviewing Albert Einstein. He did a short honey-moon with Marxism too, but was soon disillusioned with it and openly opposed it. He also   joined fight against Franco’s fascist forces and was captured   and sentenced to death by the fascist regime; however, while awaiting the sentence he miraculously received reprieve. 

The “Arrow in the Blue” and “The Invisible Writing” constitute his autobiographical writings that are full of action, drama and his early engagement with political ideologies and his fight against the forces of fascism and communism. In late 1940s he was to write one of the greatest novels of all times, “Darkness at Noon.” This novel powerfully portrays the dark side of  Soviet Marxism. One rarely comes across a novel that so vividly describes the communist world of investigations, enquiries and trials and shows how the traditional power structure and the ideology worked hand-in-hand to end freedom of human beings. It also shows, with deep psychological insight, how the communist dictators and bureaucracy retained their power by eliminating dissenters and those who challenged the system. The novel shows deftly how Soviet Communism carefully managed trials and how victims often confessed their guilt and cleared way to their own liquidation and led to perpetuation of power in the name of the ideology.  Translated into more than a hundred languages, “Darkness at Noon” is regarded as the most influential and penetrating novel yet written on the secret and subterranean world of Soviet Marxism.

Astride Two Cultures:  “Sleepwalkers” and “Act of Creation”

After the end of the Second World War, however, his writing took a different turn. He turned to philosophy of science and creativity. In nineteen fifties British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow held that the two cultures, science and humanities, are irreconcilably different from each other and that any attempt to explain them in a single framework may not work.  This stirred a great debate on the nature of science and nature of humanities and led to examination of many important ideas. 

 Arthur Koestler too was   toying with novel ideas. He was   trying to build a synthesis, a larger system of ideas that would explain both science and humanities in one common and unified framework.      Reading Arthur Koestler’s works is a wonderful and enjoyable exercise   for the sheer audacity of the attempt at synthesis of so many disciplines.    Koestler’s writing touches many disciplines simultaneously. It talks of scientific discoveries, evolution, psychology, creative writing, mysticism and spiritualism. In one single argument he invoked and sought to understand the basic patterns that lay behind such    disparate theories   and ideas as biological evolution, literary theories and other scientific theories and transcendentalism.

It is true that Koestlerian synthesis was not sustainable and did not work except for a while. It was too ambitious and too sweeping.  The fact, however, remains that this novel synthesis brought great insights into creative processes in scientific discovery, literary creativity and all forms of art.    In the matter of relationship between science and man, his trilogy--- “The Sleepwalkers”, “The Act of Creation” and “The Ghost in the Machine”--- by far remains unsurpassed both in scope and contents. “Sleepwalkers” was a patient and thorough enquiry into   man’s changing vision of the cosmos from antiquity to the times of Galileo and Copernicus and it showed very insightfully how science has progressed through a process of trial and error and how men of science whom we often blindly worship as heroes also at times were not free of dogma. It   is a philosophical discussion on increasing schism between science and religion on one plane and faith and reason on another. It presented a historical and sociological perspective on science and discovery.  It demolishes the view that scientists are heroes and the world,   a villain, a view that dominated the discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Sleepwalkers” demonstrates that science is a process of trial and error, a slow and non-linear process of learning that moves to and fro and then consolidates itself and moves on again. He also mentions that science was not a crusade against religion and in practice religion did not work against science. Indeed in most of the cases the early scientists and thinkers who greatly revolutionized our ideas were themselves clergies and churchmen.  It also traced increasing schism between faith and reason in the field of knowledge and pointed to increasing schizophrenia afflicting man’s world of progress. The progress of science, argues Koestler, slowly broke down the unity between science and religion,    and faith and reason. Koestler’s argument that the traditional systems and institutions of knowledge were not entirely obscurantist and in many cases those traditions were fairly enlightened did not go down well with the scientific establishment. 

 His argument was that with more and more progress science has come to excessively rely   on reductionism. And with increasing schism between faith and reason, reductionism itself is progressively becoming barren and unproductive, and in turn science is neglecting phenomena that it considers irrelevant.  Although these opinions sounded strange   to the older scientists, the young generation of scientists saw some point here.  Koestler, through his Alpbach Symposium “Beyond Reductionism” also gave voice to the concerns expressed by the generation of young scientists and sought to break the barrier imposed by reductionism.

“The Act of Creation”, the second book in this trilogy, goes further and tries to explore basic patterns behind all forms of creativity. “The Act of Creation” was an enquiry into all the creative activities suggesting    a common and similar pattern at work behind all creative works, be it a scientific discovery, humor, mysticism, self-transcendence or a work of literature.  With numerous case studies and examples drawn from different disciplines, Koestler concludes that there is remarkable uniformity in the patterns behind all forms of creativity: scientific discovery, literature and humor.   The last book in this trilogy, “The Ghost in the Machine” is some speculative writing based on the insights gained in earlier volumes in this trilogy and provides some clues as to  how the mind and the body may be  working together and how species may be slowly evolving. In some writings towards the end, Koestler indicated a possibility that something may have gone wrong during the process of evolution, resulting into some disparateness in the growth of Neo-Cortex and the Limbic brain in human beings. This he would say may be the beginning of the end of human race, a conclusion he drew, perhaps, without much conviction. We need not dwell much on this conclusion as any such hasty judgment on human race is not worth contesting seriously. However, in the process of arriving at this conclusion, Koestler discusses many brilliant and original ideas and speculates on them, an exercise that is interesting, insightful and rewarding.
 The trilogy, “The Sleepwalkers”, “Act of Creation” and “Ghost in the Machine”,   was an attempt at unifying faith and reason as also science and religion to understand fully the world of man. Increasing schism between faith and reason on one hand and religion and science on the other, Koestler would argue, is the source of all problems in the modern world. And hence he wanted to unify faith and reason in a framework to somehow reverse the process of separation between the two that had begun with the enlightenment. Koestlerian synthesis of faith and reason was also prompted by uneasiness in the scientific community in the sixties and early seventies that were largely directed against too much of reductionism in the methods of science that tended to neglect significant findings. 

   Koestler’s “The Case of the Midwife Toad” can be likened to a mystery book of science. But it is also an account of how the scientists and the world of science is still mired in the familiar and the furrowed world of jealousy, hatred, politics and blindness to new ideas. He tells the tragic story of a brilliant Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer, who committed suicide after allegations that he tampered with some samples in   experiments that were trying to demonstrate how evolution would follow a Lamarckian path rather than a Darwinian one.   He also wrote a controversial but important book “The Roots of Coincidence”, which examines discipline of parapsychology. He was of the view that the horizons of the scientific investigations should be broadened to include even such phenomena that are overtly non-scientific and non-rational.   
Beyond Reductionism : Human! All too human!!

 Although the novelist-scientist Snow perceived considerable distance between the science and the liberal arts, there still was and always is a case for looking at their unity for both are valid ways of looking at the world, perceiving the world and interpreting the world. Both are results of observation and contemplation of a curious mind that wants to   explore what exists.   It is true that Koestlerian synthesis was not sustainable and did not work except for a while. The fact, however, remains that this novel synthesis brought great insights into creative processes in scientific discovery, literary creativity and all forms of art.  Koestlerian synthesis was bound to fail, sooner or later, for it was too ambitious---trying to unify faith and reason. It is not important that it failed. What is important is that in the process it gave deep insights into creative processes and human behavior.   The two cultures still remain fairly separate and all attempts to reconcile them in a unified framework have failed. And yet if a fair amount of friendly and useful trespassing is seen here, it is solely due to realization that both the cultures are complementary and have their origin in the human mind that tries to comprehend the universe in different ways.  Co-existence of two vastly different cultures may not be   schizophrenia after all. Indeed, continuing with two different cultures in human mind is a unique feature of human mind and needs to be read as a sign of wisdom.  
What an irony! A person who set out to lambast Skinner’s behaviorism ended up giving deep insights to the very science of behaviorism.  These are also the unintended benefits of purely intellectual criticism----serendipity, if you choose to define it. 

Koestler’s greatest contribution to the scientific world was his Alpbach Symposium which gave voice to a generation of young scientists and made the scientific world look beyond reductionism. He helped in bringing  science and its processes close to people and showed that science is very much a human process, correcting its own wrongs and in the process creating further wrongs. Posterity would also remember him as the author of that brilliant novel, “Darkness at Noon” that laid threadbare the nature of   communist regime.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review : Henry Kissinger On China

In 1971, Henry Kissinger, then National Security Advisor to the United States, travelled secretly to China and initiated a process of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Officially, he was on his tour of Asian countries of Vietnam, India and Pakistan that was to terminate in Pakistan at Rawalpindi.  After arriving at Rawalpindi, however, feigning ill-health, he disappeared for rest for a goodly twenty four hours.  And his team likewise ‘retired’ to a hill station in the foothills of Himalayas.  Actually they were already in Beijing, parleying with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, working with him on the terms of reference of their engagement and perhaps making preparations for the visit of the American President to China.

     The Cold War Setting

This historic visit shocked the world and laid the foundation of Sino American relationship.   Significantly, the visit came at a time when China had been caught in the entrapment of its own home-grown recipe of “Continuing Revolution”, a mantra devised by Mao who was at once a romantic poet, a traditionalist strategist and a Marxist revolutionary. If the cold war was all about the two colliding and conflicting ideologies between the United States and the Soviet Union, one wonders why in late sixties and seventies, the stormiest days of the cold war, the communist China and the capitalist United States were trying to seek each other. The cynical answer lies in the overall geo-political considerations and especially the growing feeling of insecurity in the minds of the Chinese Statesmen about the Russian designs in Asia.    It was also no coincidence that this relationship came to be forged at a time when China was increasingly becoming weary of desolation and spiritual pain brought about by Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  Mao and his team found this   relationship   a source of great security especially in circumstances where her neighbour and ideological ally Soviet Union was trying  to encircle China and   continue encroachment on her borders: directly and systematically on China’s northern border and indirectly through neighbouring countries of North Korea and Vietnam on the Southern border. 

In his recent book, “On China” Henry Kissinger has chronicled the story of forty years of Sino American relationship and captured   some dramatic moments of this history. This is not only a book of history and diplomacy but also an informal narrative of Kissinger’s personal encounters with the powerful top Chinese Statesmen. Few books, if any, would match the immediacy and authenticity with which Kissinger tells the story of these historic moments. The privilege that Henry Kissinger enjoyed is perhaps unique in the history of diplomacy. For over forty years Kissinger has been strutting on the scene that is embellished by a frightening array of great statesmen: eight American Presidents and four generations of top Chinese statesmen.

Sino--American Relationship and Rise of China

Ironically, Mao viewed this strategic relationship with the United States as an opportunity to end China’s isolation, buy peace and grow economically stronger and end her encirclement.  Mao had already admitted to Edgar Snow, American journalist through whom he was initially trying to establish contact with the US statesmen, that his Cultural Revolution had run haywire and that he was looking for new strategies to come out of it and consolidate the gains of Communist Revolution. Although, it was Deng Xiaoping who in the post-Mao period initiated great economic reforms and showed great pragmatism in marrying Chinese Communism to   market capitalism, it is questionable if China would have been able to achieve all she did without this beneficial relationship with the United States!

This growing relationship with the US proved immensely profitable to China. It ended China's twenty years'  isolation, increasingly brought her in the community of nations, redirected the rabidly aroused  energies of Cultural Revolution into constructive channels of economic growth and  hurtled her on the global scene as the most powerful economy after the United States.   

 Relationship between   China and United States was always uneasy and it got worse during the Korean War of 1950,   during the subsequent war in Vietnam, and during the three occasions leading to Taiwan Strait Crisis when China tried using force against the Nationalist government in Formosa.   Although Kissinger’s visit helped in establishing a special relationship between the two countries in 1970s during the cold war, this broad understanding was also uneasy and it got worse at some points of time, such as during the    Taiwan Strait Crisis and the period following the Tiananmen Square Tragedy in which the Chinese Government crushed and suppressed the student revolt in 1989.  And even today differences continue on two counts viz. highly undervalued Chinese currency that allows China to appropriate all the world economy in its favour and the unresolved issue of place of Taiwan.


Differences in Approaches and Perceptions

Kissinger offers a wealth of information, political, historical and cultural, relating to engagement of the West with China and narrates interesting encounters with his counterparts from China and from elsewhere as his narrative unfolds the story of over forty years. And through these anecdotes and stories the real faces of these statesmen that generally lie hidden behind their carefully guarded masks peep out, sometimes hideously and at other times humanely.  However, Kissinger’s book has a running theme of continuing contrast between the West--especially America-- and China as regards their perceptions, their paramount concerns, their world -views and the systems of their deeply rooted beliefs and fears that shape their foreign policies and their strategies.

Throughout the book Kissinger   unceasingly keeps reverting to the tension generated by different   approaches employed by the two partners in seeing realities and comprehending issues. He goes back to the history of the engagement of the West with China during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and highlights the abyss that separated the two. Kissinger traces the history of the contrast between the two fundamental approaches right from the time of visit of Lord George Macartney, British ambassador, to the court of Chinese Emperor in 1793-94 during the Qing dynasty.  The British ambassador   presented many advanced machines, equipments and other gifts to the Emperor with an intention to highlight the advanced and rising industrial civilization of the West and drive home the point of western superiority. The Chinese merely looked to them as some different things available with the visitors and considered as natural to receive these gifts as coming from an inferior race and “barbarians”, unmindful of the collapsing eastern order and western ascendancy. This chasm between China and the world and especially between China and the US recurs in Kissinger’s book from the beginning to the end and he keeps arguing that statesmen from both the camps must save this relationship from these differences

 Kissinger comments with great perspicacity on major differences in approach and perception between the two nations   and shows how it impacts relations between the two world powers and how great an ambiguity it creates in their relations.  First, the US, and in general the West see diplomacy as transactional in nature and as distinct from war and use of force.  They make fine distinction and allow diplomacy to run its full course. They view diplomacy as a series of moves or reactions or counter-moves to corner the opponents and score a sort of moral victory or a public showdown. Force is resorted to only when the diplomacy fails. The Chinese have a more traditional and holistic approach that is more strategic in nature and where the response may combine   diplomacy and use of force to achieve the desired result or a configuration. Moreover, Chinese traditional approach to the foreign policy and international relations is a steady-state universe where all pieces and all neighbours and countries fall in their own places and remain in equilibrium.

 Second, and more importantly, the Chinese view the internal affairs of a nation and its foreign policy as distinct from each other and would not bother about what happens inside a country or how the governments behave with their citizens. The foreign policy of the United States, on the other hand, is, in addition to geo-political considerations, determined by the fundamental values of Human Rights and Political Democracy. Americans come to this issue with a missionary and evangelical zeal and do not eschew use of force where they feel that human rights are at stake or where democracy and political rights of citizens are involved. To the Chinese, use of western values (or for that matter any values) in determining relationship with a country is anathema and they suspect that the West is merely trying to impose their own values on others.  This controversial issue of “democratic values in foreign policy” acquires further urgency for the United States because the American public opinion is very strong about it and no government wants to antagonize the public opinion in democracy. Again it is interesting to see that these differences arise primarily because there is a fairly mature democracy in the United States, and   statesmen are not free to make foreign alliances against public opinion.   

 Lastly, at least theoretically, the west and the United States would regard all nations as equal; though in reality when people sit across the table to negotiate, they sit consciously with power equations at the back of their mind. The Chinese, however, often treat themselves as the “Middle Kingdom”, the centre of all civilizations and regard others as their tributaries; and this sense is often consciously lent to discussions and deliberations outsiders have with them.

Kissinger also repeatedly refers to the Chinese national fear that often impacts its policy towards foreigners and international relations. In the collective psyche of the Chinese people the memories of the horrors of colonialism   are still very fresh. They know that the collapse of central power led to invasion by the outside powers in her territory.    And hence to them their own security is more important than respecting some lofty and subjective values. 

While commenting on these differences, however, Kissinger is   more balanced. He does not regard Chinese approach as any more flawed than the American. Very wisely and with   understanding he states that Americans should show more understanding and patience with countries that have culture different from theirs.  Although he sees problems with the American approach of mixing up human rights and democratic values every time every time America deals with the foreign countries, he sees the Chinese views also as an extreme view. The ideal and just approach according to him should be somewhere in between these two.

Tiananmen Square and Fang Lizhi Controversy

However, despite these differences of perception and approaches to resolving issues, the Sino American relationship survived many hurdles and challenges mainly because the statesmen on both the sides understood each other well and kept private communications open. Kissinger mentions many examples of this behaviour on part of statesmen on both the sides.

Tiananmen Square tragedy was such an event that strained the relationship between the two countries to the utmost. In 1989, while world communism was going through serious crisis, China also faced its share of rumblings.  It started with the death of Hu Yaobang, the general Secretary of the Party till 1986, and a political liberal voice that believed in political reforms. His death was the occasion for politically charged mourning. It became an event around which rallied all the dissidents and critics of the communist party. Soon the students in Beijing and other cities voiced their frustration with corruption, inflation and lack of political freedom. What had started as a demonstration soon became a challenge to the government with the demonstrators and students occupying the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, just across the seat of the Chinese Government. Although the government was confused initially in the light of the international attention the event had received, it soon, after about six weeks’ hesitation, cracked on the students, and the Tiananmen Square was cleared by army.  

The whole world strongly condemned the violent suppressing of the students’ agitation in Beijing. The public opinion throughout the world, and especially in the United States, was very strong and President George Bush was under great pressure to take action against China for violation of Human Rights. Bush did not want to take any action because he knew that China had always been a good friend and had cooperated with the United States on security issues on a number of occasions. Still Congress imposed some punitive measures on China. Chinese could not appreciate this as they thought that this was China’s internal affair and hardly a matter of international debate.

Thus again the Tiananmen Square brought in sharp focus the different approaches and different world views of these two big powers. This issue was exacerbated further by Fang Lizhi affair that strained the relations between the countries further. Fang Lizhi, a physicist and a former member of the Party took refuge in the American embassy in Beijing in the wake of reprisals that followed the clearing of the Tiananmen Square. Earlier, in the same year there had erupted a controversy over Fang Lizhi getting an invitation at the Dinner at American Embassy when George Bush, the American President was visiting China. It was really a diplomatic gaffe on part of the embassy then; however, in the wake of the Tiananmen reprisals the American embassy gave shelter to Fang Lizhi and his wife.   The Sino American relations post-Tiananmen came to depend on final solution to Fang Lizhi affair.  And ultimately at the highest level, and after much behind-the-scene-private-working, Deng, at the suggestion of Henry Kissinger, agreed to   allow Fang Lizhi leave China on   condition that he would not make much noise and embarrass China. But in exchange of  this gesture that showed China in a more positive light post-Tiananmen, Deng also secured reversal of sanctions and other measures against her from the United States.

These examples show how both the countries were eager to continue relationships despite vast differences between their perceptions, approaches and values.

Future of Sino American Relations

Sino American relations developed during cold war and sustained despite fundamental differences, and this was mainly due to   compulsions of the cold war.  Now with cold war over and Soviet Union sufficiently weakened, one may ask what the future of the Sino-American relationship is. This question needs to be seen not only in the context of a weakened Soviet Union, but also in the context of a vastly strengthened China, whose formidable economy is becoming a subject matter of global discussion. It also needs to be seen from the perspective of a fast tiring out United States who finds its manoeuvring and its missionary policing of the world a lot irrelevant and self-defeating.   What is the future of the Sino American relationship in this scenario? Or will they compete with each other as the US and the USSR competed militarily? Will they be able to remove mutual fears and apprehensions and co-operate in the new emerging world order?

Henry Kissinger devotes last pages of his book to a comprehensive   discussion on these issues. He appears fairly ambivalent, if not pessimistic.   He feels that although so far China and America   have sailed safely together, their relationship in future may not always be that smooth.  He feels that the cultural, historic and strategic gaps in the perception pose formidable challenges for even the best-intentioned and most far-sighted leadership on both the sides. And hence he feels that both the countries would have to work very hard together to steer clear of the disturbances.

 Despite this masterful discussion where Kissinger presents various strands of this issue, one still wonders why his discussion again and again fails to rise above the considerations and details of strategies, advantages and realities of politics. This is the language of the professional diplomat, the view of a cynical and continuously doubting scholar who, although he has a grand view of the history yet misses the spirit that governs the peace and understanding among the comity of nations and   the behaviour of statesmen who  preside over the destinies of people.  Statesmen do listen to   professional diplomats and their concerns, and they should. However, history shows that at critical juncture and at defining moments, some statesmen rise much above their own self during their engagements. During such moments they listen carefully to the dialogue the history holds with the present, the grand dialogue that one period holds with another, and also the dialogue that is suffused with existential wisdom.  These are the moments in which universal peace and harmony is born. 

Kissinger has captured such moments in his book, especially, in the formative period of this relationship. We should wonder why he fails to invokes such moments while discussing the future of Sino American relationship.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Octavio Paz : Locking Horns with Writers

“On Poets and Others” is a book of essays by Octavio Paz, the great Nobel Prize Winner poet, essayist, thinker and diplomat from Mexico. It contains essays on remarkable poets, thinkers and philosophers, novelists and literary personalities  he met in his life. Although some of the subjects and persons  he writes on  appear   rather dated, the themes and topics he discusses are still   relevant today.    

What would you expect when one of the greatest poets   writes in polemical and stylish prose on such issues as dissent of the intellectuals or the decadence of an ideology or comments on the increasing psychic schism and divided conscience of modern man?   He may not be always right, and sometimes you will find him not very agreeable; and yet he will engage you, allure you.  The poets, intellectuals and other literary personalities, which are really his subjects of writing, come in the picture as if incidentally.  He writes on them with love and penetration, but in the process he unfolds something much larger and greater. He creates a World of his own.  

Amongst the poets there are Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Charles Tomlinson.    His essay on Robert frost   captures some magical moments of interaction between the  two when young Paz calls on old  Robert Frost on his Vermont farm.   Robert Frost speaks to him on  how he sees the world around him and how he communicates with  stones, farms, trees,  hills, knolls and everything around him.  They speak on relationship of poet with his tradition; they speak on how poet challenges tradition, creates the language for his poetry and how he creates a new world of his own.  They agree readily that solemn poets, humourless professors and howling prophets are dangerous entities and be best avoided.     People cannot face the reality of the self that descends on them in solitude, and hence they are in search of new schemes that give them speed and restlessness.  The tragedy is that man is running away from himself, says Frost.   Paz beautifully recaptures and plays the tunes of magical moments of their meeting on the Vermont farm.

Other essays cover such personalities and subjects as Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jean Paul Sartre, Jose Ortega Y Gasset and others. All these are brilliant pieces and narrate the writer's encounters with great minds. They  constitute an insightful commentary on how writers and intellectuals engage with the world which they help shape.  I shall briefly discuss only three essays from this collection: essays on Dostoevsky, Sartre and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

 He argues that though Dostoevsky wrote in the nineteenth century, he is still a modern writer and his writings always appear contemporaneous and relevant to our times. Dostoevsky very competently explores the working of the mind of the modern man that is torn by various forces. It is the fragmented soul and the divided conscience that he explores in his writing and it is, argues Paz, very relevant to our times.  In eighteen sixties and seventies, in his writings Dostoevsky portrayed consciousness of full many generations that were to rule   Russia in future. Dostoevsky was describing something in his writing that actually came into being later in twentieth century. Stavrogin and Ivanov who ultimately commit suicide in “Demons” (or “Devils”) are the victims of nihilism and are possessed by a peculiar spirit that is indicative of the coming of the Russian Revolution, its ideology and absence of the process of dialogue. Ideologues do not enter into a dialogue. They rant and make speeches and indulge in soliloquies and impose on others what transpires from this spirit possession. It is depiction of this consciousness, argues Paz that is the sign of Dostoevsky’s authentic writing.   

 I think Octavio Paz’s analysis of the modern consciousness is very correct and appropriate. It needs to be added that in the twentieth and twenty first century this process of fragmentation of the self is further   accelerated by uneven economic development, barriers of cultures and traditions and absence of dialogue and communication.    Whichever way one looks, fragmentation of the self, lack of wholesomeness and   resulting fractured and distorted vision of the world constitutes  a large part of our existence with which we have to come to terms.

 While we can agree with Paz in hailing Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Self in the modern world as very authentic and realistic, we need to mention that Dostoevsky presents many problems to his readers.  Amongst his novels, the “Crime and Punishment” is deep and philosophically engaging, and the “Brothers Karamazov” succeeds in depicting the existential dilemma of living authentically in the modern world. Both these novels and especially “Brothers Karamazov” repose faith in life and warn against abstraction of life. However,   affirmation of life comes so late and through such tortuous path that winds its way through violence, poverty and depravity that one wonders whether Dostoevsky was really aiming for these at all. Moreover, Dostoevsky’s glorification of the strange mixture of Russian tradition and religion, not to say his maudlin and sentimental scepticism of the West leaves one wondering and somewhat confused.    His other   novels, especially  “The Idiot”, present a very garbled vision   of man.  While, therefore, Paz’s fresh insight into Dostoevsky’s writing is welcome,   to an ordinary reader Dostoevsky’ world still appears dark, sombre and ambiguous.

 Was Dostoevsky a nihilist?   Paz answers that he was not.   There is no doubt that as a young person he was a revolutionary. However, as time passed he increasingly came to identify himself largely with the Russian tradition and old Christianity. Much of his writing was critical of not only nihilism but also of the western influences that were trying to undermine the local tradition. Dostoevsky, argues Paz, refuted both, nihilism and western ideas.  Even in “Crime and Punishment”, Raskolnikov, another product of the then extant Russian nihilism, ultimately realizes the value of human life. This again confirms Dostoevsky’s position as a novelist of the modern rising consciousness in the traditional societies that were being assailed by western ideas and modernity.  

 Paz’s essay on Dostoevsky, though at times bordering on oversimplification and at other times deliberately avoiding complexities, is a great testimony to his love for Dostoevsky. But more than that, its vision, lyricism and flow demonstrate with lucidity the   organic relationship between affairs of a nation and its literature.

Paz’s essay on Sartre too is very trenchant and insightful. Though unusually and highly critical of Sartre, the essay has great style and it shows power the pen can wield in destroying myths and reputations.  The essay very directly indicts Sartre, and I have rarely come across writing that demolishes anything so brutally and with such force.    He says that as a philosopher Sartre was certainly very formidable but that also underlined his limitations. Sartre may have been very scholarly, but much of his work was a continuation of others, such as Heidegger for example, without whom Sartre’s work could not have existed independently. As an artist, Paz says, Sartre had his limitations. He did not possess   creative powers and   capacity of a novelist to create the world and to populate it with   characters. His writing was full of abstractions and lacked authenticity. It did not, somehow, connect with the real world.  But he had great passion and emotion with which he debated and argued.  There was so much of passion and emotion in his thought and writing that it removed his writing farther away from reality. His hobnobbing with Marxism turned out to be a serious matter as it lent respectability to Marxism and in a strange way prolonged its tenure longer than was natural to it. Although, later on he admitted his mistakes of judgment in this case, he had already gone so far as to assert that all the leftist autocrats were at heart great non-violent souls and merely carried a mask of violence for the sake of appearances. 

We all  have read writers who have denounced Sartre and showed him up as a hypocrite and a diabolical intellectual machine. But Paz appears to be doing more than this in far less words. Sartre has rightly been criticized from many groups and many sides. And yet I find this assessment of Sartre rather harsh and one sided.  Mistakes of judgements by ordinary people are usually seen as blunders when they are committed by great men. This is what perhaps happened to Sartre.   One feels that before judging Sartre so harshly, Paz should have recorded, for sake of fairness alone, Sartre’s contribution too.    Sartre   revolutionized the whole world of intellectuals and gave it power and prestige.  His intellectual contribution during Resistance Movement during the Second World War was greatly hailed and became a world event.  Sartre was honest, intellectual, philosophical and fiercely independent, not amenable to compromising with powers. He gave voice to intellectuals and demonstrated how intellectuals can speak up to the power.  Had Paz mentioned some of his contributions perhaps the essay would not have looked as prejudiced as it looks!

Paz’s two essays on Alexander Solzhenitsyn too are very remarkable and insightful. Hailing Solzhenitsyn’s work “The Gulag Archipelago” as important he dwells at length on the various threads of Solzhenitsyn’s dissent and explores its anatomy. And in that he offers some very important insights into Russian history.  He argues that Solzhenitsyn’s dissent is not an ordinary dissent of an intellectual reared in western tradition that centres on individualism and   political freedom.  Solzhenitsyn speaks from an ancient tradition, and that his ancientness is that of the Old Russian Christianity that has passed through the central experience of the twentieth century---the dehumanization of the totalitarian concentration camps----and has emerged intact and strengthened.  While agreeing with Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of the Russian regime he also brings out Solzhenitsyn’s limitations especially his partially blind world view that is mired in some typical traits of Russian history.  Paz, in this essay, has done some very skillful tight-rope-walking here; and reading this essay is a tribute to his graceful and lucid writing that tends to seek both, truth and justice.  

I have already said in the beginning that   a few subjects that Paz handles here appear dated somewhat in perspective! And yet I would say the collection of essays is worth reading simply because despite globalization, the world has really not changed as much as we think. The Russian state   has still not been able to extricate itself from the historical clutches of its traditional bureaucracy; if anything Putin’s Russia appears as picturesque as portrayed by Paz.   Hubris and   arrogance of the western democracies that he discusses here have not abated a whit!  And Paz’s observations that the systems of local and traditional beliefs, especially in the emerging Eastern and Southern economies would evoke a strange ensemble and would play increasingly important role in world economy and politics also appear correct!

Even if, therefore, the collection of essays was published in 1986, it still makes sense to read Octavio Paz;  for the wisdom he brings with his essays is rare and unique.