The Burning of the World – A Book Review

There’s a war brewing in Europe.

For years, centuries, millennia these words have been repeated; farmers and peasants and priests and citizens, mercenaries and nobles – Europe has been at war forever. The 20th century saw maybe the worst of it – although only by degrees. The First World War, the 2nd – the cold war, gulags and concentration camps and mass starvation, a war against not only the body but also the mind. The shattering of Yugoslavia – pieces flying every which way. The Armenians – nobody ever talks about them, do they? Not politically correct, I suppose, to mention that genocide.

We in America are obsessed with World War II. It’s probably the grotesqueness of Hitler, the darkness of Nazism, the flagrant evil that didn’t bother to hide. Slaughter, cold and heartless and mechanized. But the reality is that World War I was more existential for Europe. While WWII was about despotism and tyranny, the First World War was the remaking of an old order. The redrawing of boundaries, the fall of dynasties, the final destruction of the “Sick Man of Europe”. Setting the table for all the geopolitical messes for a hundred years – messes we are still dealing with, like Turkey and Palestine and Syria and Jordan. The House of Saud.

But these epic tales of nations are carved all by individual men. We like to think of those men as Churchill or Stalin or Roosevelt – of “Lawrence of Arabia”. But those are just the names we remember. Most are forgotten; “uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes” as Joseph Conrad writes.

“The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914” is about that. It’s the story of Bela Zombory, a poor Hungarian painter and his first year of war. Drafted into the army, he’s forced to the front to fight the Russians – always the Russians. He is injured, and is returned to Budapest to recover. It’s his story – a short story, simple and uncomplicated. But not plain – full of the emotions of a man who does not want to fight, nor does he want to die. It is not a treatise against great powers – it is not a diatribe against war – it is not a self-serving heroic autobiography. It’s just a story of a boy, an artist, and his first year of war.

If you are intrigued by Europe and the wars. If you are a student of war. And if you are a reader – you’ll enjoy “The Burning of the World.”

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The Turtle – An Ancient Arab Parable

There was once a happy turtle who lived in a small lake with two geese. They were the greatest of friends, frolicking together and fishing together the deepness. But time was not a friend to the small pond, and the sun became stronger and the rains began to dry, and the pond slowly receded. The fish became few and strong – and the geese and the turtle became hungry. As hunger set in, they began to fight against each other for the young, tender fish and resentment began to grow. The turtle accused the geese of gluttony, of leaving nothing for him while the geese accused the turtle of sloth, not doing what was required to stay alive. Finally the pond grew too small, and the geese called the turtle, ‘We have been friends for a long time, and our life here has been glorious. But now we must continue on, for what we have now will not sustain all three of us.’

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‘Go, as you must,’ the turtle said without bitterness, ‘but know also that I cannot go with you. You can fly away to find fertile ponds and lush grasses – but me, if I leave this lagoon I will die of thirst and hunger in the desert. Leave me, make a life for yourself. My time is over.’ The geese left to deliberate, afraid for their friend and angered by the situation. They returned the next day ‘what if we were to carry you with us?’ ‘How, I am heavy and none of us have any hands?’ ‘Perhaps’ one of the geese said, ‘we could fly you out on our backs.’ ‘Then how would you flap your wings?’ ‘Perhaps’ the other one said, ‘you could hold onto our feet?’ ‘I am too heavy,’ said the turtle again, ‘you would not get off the ground.’ For a time they thought about this predicament, until at once the geese came up with a plan, ‘we will hold a stick between us with our feet, and you will grab onto the middle of it with your powerful beak. We will carry you that way until we find again a deep pond. But there is one thing you must consider,’ said one of the geese, ‘you must not speak, lest you lose your grip and fall.’

The turtle agreed, holding to the middle of the stick while the two geese lifted him out of the water. They flew over sand and hill, over rock and river always in search of the elusive perfect pond that would be the land of plenty for the trio. The flight was long, and as they traversed over more populous areas the turtle began to become the object of unwanted attention. ‘Look a flying turtle,’ and ‘look how bizarre.’ The jeers and leers rang in his ears long after the perpetrators were over the horizon – for the turtle was a proud old animal. Finally, beside one particularly deep canyon, on the edge a family of squirrels sat starting – and when they realized it was a turtle flying above their tree they laughed and began the most vicious mocking of the turtle’s long life – more it seemed than he could endure. ‘You filthy tree rats,’ he opened his mouth to scream, but when he did he realized immediately his folly for he plunged into the deep canyon to his death.

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Lord Jim – A Book Review

“Time had passed indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes.”

Just wow. With lines like that, who can afford not to read “Lord Jim”? And the novel is full of them – well written and holding closely to the plot without wandering off only to come back thirty pages later after the reader is already left.

Of course that quote was not talking about Jim. How could it be?

Lord Jim is the story about one man’s bad decision at a moment of fear – and his attempt to live down that decision. At the end (spoiler alert) he atones for his actions in that most final of ways; he surrenders his life. Fear – have you ever been afraid? Panic, white and choking, shortness of breath and cold sweat? We never know what we will do in that moment of panic – oh we like to pretend we do; full of bravado and bluster we tell of our courage under stress. But we all know that there’s at least the possibility that we will panic, that we will flee, that we will humiliate ourselves. That the “muscle memory” is not well formed enough to guarantee the appropriate response.

Jim’s bad decision was to jump ship – literally; he was an officer and officers are supposed to go down with the ship. To put the charges before themselves. To surrender to the sea – that’s the covenant. But caught up in the moment, thinking the ship was going down he jumps into the dingy. Except the ship didn’t go down. Oh humiliation – to be tried for dereliction of duty; the mockery of others as stories are told of the ship un-manned found drifting in the sea; the officers all having fled. Wandering the world, looking for a place where the story of his humiliation was not on everyone’s lips Jim ends up in an out of the way atoll in the middle of the pacific. The end of the world – the only white man. There he finds respite for a time; until again the grasping reach of “progress” finds him in the form of another fight and he has a choice. Two times, to run or to stay and fight. The first time he jumped. What will he do the second?

Read this book; for it is one of the greats for a reason.

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“The Passion” as God’s Apology

There’s a scene in H. G. Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau” when the monsters product of Dr. Moreau’s imagination become empowered – learning from Montgomery their warden-keeper through an unfortunate series of events the nature of their captivity and the true source of the good doctor’s power over them. They storm the chalet where Dr. Monroe is hiding and proceed to engage him in conversation, entreating him to explain the reason for their sordid existence. The explanation is ultimately unsatisfactory and Moreau is killed, as is Montgomery and Edward Prendick (the narrator of the story) is hunted through the jungles until he escapes on a raft; where he is picked up traumatized and closed-lipped, silent for life as to his adventures lest some curious future scientist deign to visit the island and continue on the horror or worse – much worse – release it onto the rest of the world.

I’ve always had trouble with “The Passion” story, as it is sold to us by tradition. Let me explain. I am Edward, and have been living for most of my life on Dr. Moreau’s cursed island. I’ve always known that the creator lives in a chalet just beyond reach. But this has had little impact in the daily struggles of the wretched. We steal and murder and fight and fornicate while the “Sayer of the Law”, placed there by Dr. Moreau to keep order stands on a rocky outcropping above admonishing us. “Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not men? Not to suck up drink; that is the law. Are we not men? Not to eat flesh or fish; that is the law. Are we not men? Not to claw the bark of trees; that is the law. Are we not men? Not to chase other men; that is the law. Are we not men?” Until he too is killed, for our great iniquity will suffer no law. LRA making brothers rape sisters. There is no law. Boko Haram sending pregnant women in suicide vests to confuse the guardians. There is no law. Hugo Chavez “expropriating” his once-well-off nation into famine. There is no law. Soldiers running drugs. Public defenders defending only their illicit ways. The apparatus of government turned suddenly and deliberately against us time and again. There is no law.

I have had a front row seat to all of it – and it is an abomination.

Cue the Easter story. We are told each year at this season that we are celebrating the time when God condescended to meet us where we were – in the jungles and beside the streams under banana leaves and in stick-and-mud huts – in order that we would know Him and apologize; thereby sealing our admittance into the chalet.

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We – the terrified inhabitants of the island – apologize to Him? That has always seemed to me a little unfair. Should Dr. Moreau’s monsters be the ones apologetic? Or is it in fact Dr. Moreau who owes the fearsome creatures His words of solace? After all – it was His bad idea that brought us all into existence; we are just trying to make the best of it.

I know – blasphemy. My theology degree gone significantly off the rails; making D. L. Moody push back from the banquet table where I’m sure he’s spends most of his time and burp a little.

I was thinking about all this again this Easter season. Because I think that maybe we as a race have perhaps misinterpreted “The Passion.” Could it be that it was not after all an act of condescension – a powerful God extending an olive branch down to us? Could it be that “The Passion” is in fact an apology? The only way God could think of to make up for the island that He created, oversaw, administered and feels pretty bad about? To suffer Himself, sending His Boy from the chalet into the darkness– so that the bridge between the two was perfected and cemented and made sturdy and – yes I’ll say it and just. God’s apology, to have His Son live on the island for a time until He, too, was murdered by we the monsters. Yes, that does make some more sense, doesn’t it?

And as with every relationship in which trust is broken, restoration comes only through forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do (Luke 23:35)” Jesus said of his torturers as He died on the cross. Now it is up to us – will we forgive Him for our island life?

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Ayn Rand and Hate

“I hate that book. I hate her. I wrote a thesis paper in school about her hatred for people and the human race.” If that’s how you feel, you might have clicked on this link by mistake. No matter – I’m glad you are here! You are welcome and I do hope you stick around. The earlier invective was unloaded on an unwary fellow who dared to answer “Atlas Shrugged” to the innocent question “What’s your favorite book?” Sort of over the top, don’t you think? Have you ever heard statements like that about Barbara Kingsolver? Or Suzanne Collins? Or Clive Cussler?

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Me neither.

But we hear this all the time from different folks about Ayn Rand. And the world really is divided in their response to Atlas Shrugged, or my favorite The Fountainhead. Some see Rand as a Philosopher Queen standing above society; some in her “Objectivist” movement wish to set in place another ‘smelly little orthodoxy’ by establishing a closed system with purity tests and excommunication processes (I think she’d be displeased); while others call her the devil and revile her for telling the story of men and women who dare to stand alone.

That is if folks are even allowed to read her at all these days. The nouveau guardians of wisdom have deemed the works of Ayn Rand a violation of the “safe spaces” they wish to create – and her work is not read as much as it should be in colleges. Those who do acknowledge her find their defense in mockery; attempting to lampoon what they cannot silence. “Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up,” as President Obama once said. The more honest rejection comes from the socialists and their communist cousins who attempt to turn the argument against their centrally planned systems on the Rand-readers. “Ya, it’s nice in theory. A utopian world, and I can see the appeal – but those ideas have never worked in real life. You have to grow out of them.” A friend of mine – who I often look to for insight, as usual has the best response to this assertion, “Free markets are what happens when you leave people alone to produce and trade peacefully without intervention. There is no “perfect free market utopia.” Just like the equilibrium in economics is never a reality, just a tendency. Of course, some libertarians argue differently and that’s why they argue “they didn’t do it right.” Freedom allows people to act on their ideas and to create things in reality and then they trade with each other for what they want; the more freedom the better that happens. No one can guess the end goal, because there is no fixed collective goal. Its apples and oranges to compare a free market to a planned economy, because the fundamental premises are so different.”

And through it all, Rand does find her way – a cult classic that is slipped under doors and handed over at the bottom of laundry baskets in darkened dorms policed by the know-nothings. So again, why the odd reactions to Rand? I don’t know.

But, for fun, I’m gonna guess. My theory is that the reactions are so visceral because of how the books make the reader feel. And those feelings reveal a lot about the reader, to themselves and to others. So I’ll tell you how The Fountainhead makes me feel. Unafraid. That’s the best word for it. Sure, empowered or encouraged could also work. To know that opposition is natural, that popularity is often a front for surrender, that success is not guaranteed, and that we alone must be the judges of our work, of our ideas, of our lives – of ourselves. And that life is a struggle; for our beliefs and for our place and for our freedom. All of these are things that I have felt naturally, that I have experienced in life and that I have seen in the world around me – put to a good if sometimes loquacious prose by a gifted storyteller. That is all.

So why the hate? Since that is not an emotion I share about Rand, I can only make the following educated guess – if Rand makes me feel unafraid, it is likely that the people who hate her do so because reading Rand makes them afraid. For them – I suppose – a world where people are asked to stand alone; a world where “you did build that, you did make that happen,” must be scary because they feel like they are placed at the mercy of others. Now, depending on others doesn’t bother them – that is the heart of socialism, as the comfortable cushion of “somebody else made that happen” proves. What is truly scary however is if they are dependent on people who they need, but who don’t need them in return and know it: and have the audacity to say it, thereby shattering the illusion. Of people who they don’t understand, of instincts they don’t share, of motive power they do not possess. While they feel need – they also feel unneeded. That certainly is scary, isn’t it?

The camera moved to Galt. He remained still for a moment. Then, with so swift and expert a movement that his secretary’s hand was unable to match it, he rose to his feet, leaning sidewise, leaving the pointed gun momentarily exposed to the sight of the world – then, standing straight, facing the cameras, looking at all his invisible viewers, he said: “Get the hell out of my way!” Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

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Venezuela’s Dignity and Defiance

“Sometimes a single act of defiance has enough dignity for an entire country.” So says the Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez about the recent return of Venezuelans to the streets. Defiance, dignity: unfortunately for us they are words – like so many of our words in a country at once over-literate and brutish – which have lost their meaning. Our language is dying for wont of those who would defend her. Defiance is not justifying the destruction of private businesses by donning a little pink hat. Dignity isn’t stripping off all your clothes to parade around immodestly. Those are vandalism, exhibitionism. A temper tantrum of the dimwitted reaching full crescendo is not a #resistance.

Now, women in Iran shedding the dreaded veil, putting aside their fear of the “morality police” – that is defiance. Groups of volunteers entering barrel-bombed buildings to pull to safety a single Syrian child, that is dignity. A young adolescent; angry, shirtless – probably because he gave his shirt vinegar-soaked to a fellow protester to cut the tear gas – pushed down, only to stand and spit at the ‘public servants’ who haven’t served the public in many, many years. That is resistance.

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And Venezuelans have again return to the streets; where they have been for 17 years. Say it out loud – seventeen years. We don’t know what that means, those of us from rich countries, from peaceful countries. From countries where our governments are still more-or-less operating within our consent. A street march for us is putting on our comfortable shoes, stopping by the ATM on our way to some little shindig where we chant disrespectful rants against this or that or the other thing that has caught our limited attention. Sitting on a bench under a tree watching a famous singer spew profanity as the greatest act of enmity she could imagine. Buying a t-shirt, a funny little hat, an obscene bumper sticker – a few minutes before the sun becomes uncomfortable and we sneak away for that $7 beer at the over-priced pub. Oh, but we sure will tell our kids “I protested XX” or “I was involved in the #Resistance”.

“On the streets”, in Venezuela’s case, is the desperate response of people who are nearly spent; but not totally, not yet. “Expropriated” businesses; stolen elections; violence and murder rivaling Syria’s civil war – watching helplessly as their children memorize Che Guevara poems while those in rich countries reach for the moon. “The streets” as the first, the last – the enduring act of rebellion against the infamy.

I’ve often pondered why Venezuelans have lasted this long – why they haven’t organized militias; why they haven’t taken to the mountains; why they haven’t engaged in acts of mass sabotage. Why its always the streets. No, I’m not advocating that they do anything else – I am not Venezuelan, I don’t live in Venezuela. I am American – when our own revolutionaries snuck aboard a Tea Ship or attacked the Redcoats we had our reasons; and nobody could make that decision for us. Enough had quiet obviously been enough. Nevertheless it still puzzles me – humanity’s capacity to endure abuse.

But alas, the street it is – such as it is. They call it “calentar la calle”, heating up the streets. Each time the streets burst into flames I wonder if this isn’t perhaps the end. Yesterday in the town of San Felix they hurled eggs and rocks and bottles at the tyrant. How can the regime last – divorced as it has been for so long from the people’s consent? Questions we social scientists never seem to answer correctly; we who couldn’t foresee WWI, the fall of the wall, the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring certainly won’t predict the end of Venezuela’s ill-fated “revolution”.

Nevertheless, what I do know is that the end is coming; “sin prisa pero sin pausa” as a friend says – steadily and without hurry. The day will come when my friends will be free; when Leopoldo Lopez and Lorent Saleh will be released from prison; and when the street will again go calm. And when it does, Venezuela’s once-defiant protesters will tell their children “I was involved in the resistance”: and that assertion they will have earned.

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Fear

Nothing easier than to say ‘have no fear! Nothing more difficult. How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a specter through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat? It is an enterprise you rush into while you dream, and are glad to make your escape with wet hair and every limb shaking. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Fear – that seems to be the topic of the day. At least for me. Fear; clammy and cold – sweating, staying up at night with that knot in your stomach. It drives decisions; it guides reactions; it robs us of present and taints our past.

Fear

Sometimes in a movie we come across a line or two that makes us think. This morning I shipped my little boy off to school and took some much-need down-time to watch a movie. You see I’ve been afraid; sometimes the world is overwhelming, dark and ominous and foreboding – a place of gargoyles when it perhaps needent be. But instead of shrugging things off, I instead for some reason hunker down, breathe deeply and give in to it. It’s easier that way; fear is the world’s most competent warden. At any rate, I watched a Will Smith movie; a scyfy about the world post-apocalypse. After a plane crash on a hostile planet, he is walking his son (yes his literal son) through a situation of which the boy is afraid. I’m paraphrasing a little, but the idea of the guidance goes, “Son, fear doesn’t exist. It is made-up, because it is your thoughts about something that will happen in the future. A story you have in your mind about how you will deal, what it will be like, how you might respond. Danger is real – but fear? Fear is fiction”. I kind of appreciated this idea; of course because it is true, doesn’t even the book of Luke in the Bible read, “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” But also because I am a storyteller – which is maybe why the fear I create in my own mind is so powerful. I can spin a yarn with the best of them (even if my book sales don’t reflect that) and the first rule of storytelling is that, if you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. The greater the conflicts, the more monumental the adversity – the more engaging the story. J.R.R. Tolkien called these stories “eucatastrophies”; situations where everything is terrible – evil advances from Mordor across the world and the darkness billows like a cloud forcing out the light and the good guys get killed or injured and the great men turn to the dark side until, at the very end, it is all saved by a sudden and dramatic turn of events. Incidentally, this is what the “passion narratives” of Christ are all about.

But who wants to live in a eucatastrophe? Sounds exhausting – Frodo Baggins going from one tribulation to the next in an unending line. No thanks. Besides, those are just stories as well. Like sitting around a campfire in front of a lake, against the backdrop of a dark forest as we seek to fill our hearts with dread to prove that we are still alive.

As I indicated above, I’m almost finished with Lord Jim (review forthcoming) – and it is a story about fear; about the irrational acts that define life, self-fulfilling acts of stupidity product of the little stories we tell ourselves, one after another and another and another and another until we are living among the wreckage and ruins of a world of our own making.

There’s an old adage – if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. If you find yourself afraid and making bad decisions, missing out on opportunities or accepting less than you otherwise would, start telling yourself a different story. When you stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, you often realize that it never does.

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