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.