Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Monday, March 11, 2013


things have changed w/ blogger, so a quick test post..

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Origins of Totalitarianism

I spent the last several months slowly reading The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. Like Eichmann in Jerusalem, this is a very complex work which is difficult to reduce to a handful of sentences. But i'll try anyhow. The Origins is a study of not one but two totalitarian governments in the middle of the 20th century. .. And even already i've put my foot in my mouth, because Hannah goes to great lengths to show that the things we're speaking of when we say 'Stalinist Russia' and especially 'Nazi Germany' were not in fact governments; that they were anti-governments; that their leaders specifically endorsed chaos in order to keep power in their movement rather than in their governments. But that aside.

To illustrate how we came to find ourselves with Nazi Germany, Hannah provides a pretty good history of Europe from about 1500 through 1956 or so, with special attention given to tracing the roots and forms of antisemitism. Along the way she covers colonialism, imperialism, the birth of the nation-state, etc.

I've long wondered what happened between the biblical diaspora and the rampant anti-semitism of europe in the thirties (and russia seemingly forever), and The Origins certainly gives some insights into the history there.

With limited space however, i'm going to skip over the origins of modern anitisemitism and just mention a few of the salient characteristics of totalitarian 'governments', as Hannah sees them.

First, she distinguishes explicitly between totalitarianism and 'mere' tyranny. As i interpret it, the distinction is primarily that the scope of a tyranny is limited to a single nation or possibly a region, but the aim of a totalitarianism is nothing less than total control of the entire world. Expressed best and possibly most openly in the words of Cecil Rhodes: "I'd annex the planets if i could". With this worldview, the "homeland" is in fact merely the first population to be subjugated: hence the horrifying treatment of Germans and Russians by Hitler and Stalin. (Hitler as we all know had plans to gas the old and infirm, once all the Jews, homos, and Gypsies were gone. Extermination was not a means to an end; it was a never-to-be concluded process. The same was true of the Soviet Union: Stalin used starvation as a weapon against huge portions of the population, and new segments of society were constantly being selected more or less at random to step up as good communists and confess to crimes they hadn't committed but which the party 'needed' them to).

The second aspect of totalitarianism which was surprising to me is that its exercise of terror is superfluous to the comprehensible goal of achieving and retaining power. ie, it was not used as a tool for gaining ascendency, but rather as a means of shaping the daily reality of the subjugated homeland. Specifically, in both Russia and Germany, domestic terror actually increased and was at its height only after all vestiges of resistance to the regime had been utterly crushed. There was in fact no resistance at all, but the terror was stepped-up. In my opinion this was to break not only the wills but also the minds of the population by removing the existence of cause and effect: terror stuck at random, and no movement by a person could make one safe.
If lawfulness is the essence of non-tyrannical government and lawlessness is the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarian domination. (p. 464)

.. terror increased both in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in inverse ratio to the existence of internal political opposition, so that it looked as though political opposition had not been the pretext of terror .. but the last impediment to its full fury. (p. 393)

A third thing i had not appreciated fully before was the concept of statelessness, and how it was employed by Nazi Germany. I hadn't known that the Germans first stripped their Jews of property and then evicted them from the country, creating a class of stateless refugees burdening the rest of Europe. When Germany then gathered these people up again to be murdered, the neighboring states were glad to be rid of them, and were thus made complicit in the proceedings. Hanna's chapter on the plight of the stateless is excellent. The stateless are also the right-less; there is nobody who has an interest or obligation in protecting their rights, and as such no law protects them. This is certainly what we are seeing today right before us with Guantanamo and the removal of political prisoners from American soil. The following quote illustrates Hanna's point that a person is better off within the legal system, even as a criminal, than in the lawlessness outside of it.
The best criterion by which to decide whether someone has been forced outside the pale of the law is to ask if he would benefit* by committing a crime. If a small burglary is likely to improve his legal position, at least temporarily, one may be sure he has been deprived of human rights. (p. 286 * - meaning that his legal status would improve)

I'll leave things with one last quote concerning the time-honored practice of secret police of instigating ersatz opposition in order that it may be crushed. To hear this particular story again, once can also read the history of the CIA-led coup in Iran. An excellent source is All The Shah's Men, by Steven Kinzer.
The superfluousness of secret services is nothing new; they have always been haunted by the need to prove their usefulness and keep their jobs after the original task had been completed. The methods used for this purpose have made the study of of the history of revolutions a rather difficult enterprise. It appears, for example, that there was not a single anti-government action under the reign of Louis Napoleon which had not been inspired by the police itself. Provocation, in other words, helped as much to maintain the continuity of tradition as it did to disrupt time and again the organization of the revolution. (p. 423)

If you find this book interesting, you might also enjoy Martin Amis's book about Stalinist Russia, Koba the Dread (Laughter and the Twenty Million).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

LeGuinn, Grimm, Snicket, O'Brien

this is a quick list-style entry before the next, which will be more in-depth.

Am currently reading The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien given to me by Thom Moyles. I'm only a few pages in so don't have a lot to say, but so far it's promising.

Most recently finished Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe Of Heaven. I'm a huge fan of LeGuin. This is one of her earlier works, and i'll admit is a bit more like ordinary science fiction than most of her stuff. It's about a man who's dreams modify reality, and his fear of that. It tries to be a love story as well, but honestly succeeds about as well as Tolkien does. .. Which is surprising, as Le Guin's later works are exemplars of understanding and portraying human relationships. (For example, her 2008 novel, Lavinia.) All in all, i'd suggest leaving this one on the bookstore shelf unless you're particularly into science fiction.

Speaking of Lavinia, i read it recently and it's fantastic. In Virgil's Aenid, the main character is Aenaes, who leads the Trojans home from the war and who's sons eventually found Rome. On the way, he lands on the coast and marries the daughter of a local king who becomes the mother of those sons. Little is said of her, and in fact Virgil gives her no speaking parts. Lavinia is that woman's story, told from her perspective. It's very good. LeGuin deals much with the brutality of war and life during those pre-roman days, as well as with a large variety of interpersonal relationships.

I also recently read the sixth book in the Series of Unfortunate Events, The Ersatz Elevator, by Lemony Snickett.

Am also currently reading Grimm's Fairytales, the 'complete' translation, given to me by Mom. they're pretty interesting. i think the translation is terrible, but it sort of makes the reading more interesting. They're extremely brutal.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A High Wind in Jamaica

Well it's been nearly a year since the last post. Apologies. I'll try to keep the noise down.
Sarah handed me A High Wind in Jamaica and said "you should read this," and i did, and now i'm posting about it here and saying You should read it too. This book is nearly the perfect short novel. It was written around 1928 by Richard Hughes, and follows the mis/adventures of a group of young children ages four to eleven. The story is told usually from the children's perspective, even when using the adult narrator's voice, which i think is masterful. The brand of "children's perspective" here is basically animalistic. Hughes manages to take what might be a light romp and reveal the bestial nature of childhood reality. The book is simultaneously morbid and hilarious, the writing is graceful, and it's only 277 pages. Thanks, Sarah !

Thursday, December 24, 2009

McCullers, Twain, Pratchett, Wodehouse, and not quite Toole and Pamuk

Just a quick jotting.

I re-read two of my favorites by Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding, a story about a young girl in the deep south at the awkward age between childhood and teenagedom, who's dissatisfied with everything in life except the thought of running away with her older brother when he comes back from the war and gets married, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (and other stories). Can someone explain to me what it is i don't like about Wunderkind ? It meets all the criteria for a great McCullers story, but something about it gives me hackles. Perhaps i just don't like the main character. Anyhow, all the other stories in the Cafe are just superb. If you haven't read it you probably should immediately. It's very short, like a Salinger book. I also tried to re-read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but found that the characters were still too fresh in my head, so i had to put it down. Which says something about the power of those characters, since i haven't read it for something like ten years.

I picked up Number Fourty Four, the Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain. It was published posthumously but i believe relatively as-intended, and have to admit i was a bit disappointed. It feels like a series of vignettes somewhat crudely stitched together. It runs from absurdist physical comedy to Moralizing In All Capitals without much consistency. Sadly it reminded me a bit of The Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which has to be a commercial piece.

Vivianna knows i love A Confederacy of Dunces (you either love it or hate it and i love it) and so loaned me a copy of The Neon Bible, also written by John Toole, but i just haven't been able to get into it. I may give it another go.

Sharon loaned me My Name Is Red, by Orhun Pamuk, which, as far as i can tell, is an exploration of historical Turkey, through a variety of shifting and sometimes abstract narrative voices. For example the color red. .. Which sounds exactly up my alley, but i read a chapter or so and some pages at random and again wasn't grabbed. Perhaps i'm just in a light-fare mood.

So meanwhile, thank god for Terry Pratchett. His discworld books are so incredibly formulaic but really satisfying. Like a can of Pringles. This installment was Going Postal, which at first blush seems to be about the post office, but in fact is more about the internet. Just once i would like to see Lord Veterinari play the role of villain.

Currently reading some PG Wodehouse, whom i love. I'm careful to never go on a Wodehouse binge, because thus far there's always been more Wodehouse to read, and i dread the thought of that well running dry. The collection at hand is Blandings Castle, and delicious.

more angela carter

Angela Carter is fantastic. I went on to read a collection of three novels, The Magic Toyshop, The infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and Wise Children.

The Magic Toyshop was written early, and is more or less a coming-of-age story about a young girl mixed with puppetry and strange magic, not always good. It explores sexual politics & power, and is quite good.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman was written in 1972, and is a a psychedelic masterpiece. I feel that TIDMODH is the novel which The Crying of Lot 49 was trying so hard to discover: a rambling heteromorphic journey through psychological landscapes, but where (imo) Lot 49 is one of the world's most annoying and tedious reads, TIDMODH is totally pleasurable. I have to admit i was free with skipping over parts that began to bore me, but the plot os so non-linear and non-representational that it seemed okay.

Finally, Wise Children is the real crowning jewel in this collection. Written very late in her life (1991), when Carter was about 50, it's the story of identical twin sisters reflecting back on their life as burlesque and movie starlets from the vantage point of sixty or seventy. The title refers to the saying (which i hadn't fully grappled with previously) "It's a wise child that knows it's own father", so you can imagine that there's a fair amount of paternity hijinks, and possibly even maternity too. As always, Carter is frank and charming on the topics of sex, and manages to weave an integrated tale of sexuality from childhood through septagenarianhood. The word "menarchy" appears, you may be sure. I can't recommend this story enough, it's fantastic.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ligotti - My Work Is Not Yet Done

Imagine my thrill, my capering joy, to learn that the Ligotti volume My Work Is Not Yet Done was not in fact due out in something like 2010, but was in fact written in 2002 and published in paperback in 2009! For those who may not know, Ligotti is my current favorite author, especially the collection of short stories, Teatro Grottesco. His writing is what i can only describe as "Existential Horror", managing to capture a sense of supernatural revulsion at the very nature of existence itself, at even the possibility of existence. Ligotti's general thesis (which i love) is pretty well summarized by this quote, from the work at hand:

People do not know, and cannot face, the things that go on in this world, the secret nightmares that are suffered by millions every day ... and the excruciating paradox, the nightmarish obscenity of being something that does not know what it is and yet believes that it does know, something that in fact is nothing but a tiny particle that forms the body of The Great Black Swine Which Wallows in a Great River of Blackness that to us looks like sunrises and skyscrapers, like all the knotted events of the past the unraveling of those knots in the future, like birthdays and funerals, like satellites and cell phones and rockets launched into space, like nations and peoples, like the laws of nature and the laws of humanity, like families and friends, like everything, including these words that I write.

My Work Is Not Yet Done is a novella and two short stories which deal with the existential horror of the contemporary corporate workplace which so many of us have become familiar with. The first is eponymous, and deals with the supernatural unhinging of a mid-level manager at a large corporation, which itself of course is revealed to have sinister supernatural underpinnings of its own. The second is titled "I Have a Special Plan for This World", (Ligotti wrote the words to the Current 93 album of the same name) and presents again, an oppressive corporation with supernatural roots. The third is very brief and takes the form of camera directions for a movie.

I have to confess that i was somewhat disappointed by the first two stories. I felt they resorted to simple gore and terror where what i love about Ligotti is his ability to express horror without actually getting down to sort of literary wet-work. My conception of the ultimate Ligotti piece would be a story where in fact nothing scary happens, yet it terrifies the pants and socks off you. I think The Town Manager in Teatro Grottesco manages somewhat more effectively to communicate the cannibalistic nature of corporate existence. The last story in MWINYD contains a vignette where an enormous crowd of slaves waits before a ritualistic platform, upon which are five slaves who are to be ritualistically tortured and murdered. However, when the executioner climbs the platform, he unexpectedly freezes, like a motionless statue. One slave leaps from the crowd and onto the platform. He makes eye contact with the five on stage, but doesn't rescue them. Instead he performs a quick repair on the executioner-automaton and then returns to the crowd. - This, i think, captures much of the modern world quite nicely.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass

I've been meaning to re-read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for some time, and it's great. The last time i read it was probably in elementary school, and needless to say i got more out of it this time around. - Not the least of which is an appreciation of the illustrations, by John Tenniel. The edition i read (the "centenary edition" by Penguin, $4 like new at the Friends-Of-The-Library bookstore at Fort Mason) includes many footnotes, usually concerning how this or that particular scene or line is a reference to some actual event between Carroll and the Liddell family, especially of course, Alice Liddell. (that's her on the cover, at left) This edition also has Carroll's original version of the story, Alice's Adventures under Ground, essentially a compressed (or unexpanded) early version of AAiW. All in all, well worth [re]reading!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Hunger Season

I was once in the process of trying to get a date from a cute bartender i know, and things were going pretty well until she suddenly asked me if i like poetry, which, by and large, i don't. Fortunately however, she turned out to be referring specifically to a man who happens to be both a friend and by far my favorite poet, William Taylor Jr. Bill's second "proper" book of poems just came out, and it's hopeless, hopeful, painful, and beautiful as heck. The Hunger Season is mostly poems about the secret subsocietal world of San Francisco's Tenderloin district, a literary topic i admittedly find enormously compelling. The Hunger Season is also mostly poems about love, relationships, and beauty. I hope Bill won't mind if i quote two of the ones which affect me most powerfully.

along the way

we forget
to be beautiful

and this is where
all other deaths

Her Face, the Sometimes Gentleness

Let's not speak of hope;
whatever it is that gets you
through the day will
have to do for now.

Embrace the hours as best you can;
your failures

and the evil you've done drift out
with the eventual tide

and the void forgives all in time.

Think of her face,
the sometimes gentleness of things;

make the feeling concrete in your mind:
hold it in your fist
tight against your breast

and if you want, you can
call it love.

and i apologize for so much quoting,
but just one more which for me captures so much of what i love about Bill's writing as well as William Vollmann's.

When She Lights a Cigarette and Asks

God is yourself
walking out into yet
another day never knowing
exactly why.

God is the yellow sun
shining down
so uselessly upon everything

because that's all it knows how to do.

God is the laughter
of the girl on the bus
beautiful enough to remind you
why you ever bothered
to exist at all.

God is a story you can't guess
the ending to,

enough change in your pocket
for another drink,

the bright red polish
on the barefoot toe
of the skinny prostitute on Larkin Street.

God is the voice of the old bartender
at the Gold Dust Saloon
as he laughs and tells me he's looking forward
to the beautiful nap.

God is a half-bottle of wine
found in the cupboard at 3 a.m.,

the man
with a handful of pennies
who asks
what I can spare,

and the laundry quarters
I give him simply
because I am too ashamed
to do otherwise.

God is every splinter of light
in between all the darkness

and god is the darkness.

And when she lights a cigarette
and asks why i never
go to church

I can only wonder where it is
she thinks we are.