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Evil Leaders: Book Review of Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

 

Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (Vintage Books, NY, 1993) offers a monumental social and psychological biography of two of the most evil dictators in human history as well as an epic sketch of an era. Although the author specializes in Hitler, his grasp of Stalin is equally impressive. It rivals, in fact, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007) in its thoroughness and depth.

As the title suggests, Bullock alternates chapters on Hitler with those on Stalin.  He reveals how each dictator relied on his powers of manipulation, deception and opportunism to rise to power. They spread totalitarian regimes meant to wipe out the human spirit and large parts of humanity itself across the world.  The book also explains how Hitler and Stalin initially operated within the systems which they later (mis)used for their own selfish and nefarious goals. Whatever their rhetoric and ideology, both psychopathic tyrants ultimately craved power for its own sake, at the expense of everyone else, even the causes (and allies) they initially claimed to support.

Primo Levi famously advances the same thesis as Hannah Arendt expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, 2006): “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” There is no doubt that the Holocaust throughout Europe or the terror in the Soviet Union weren’t brought about by Hitler and Stalin alone. Without coopting tens of thousands of soldiers, functionaries and “regular people” throughout the world, these two evil leaders wouldn’t have succeeded in their genocidal goals, nor could they have implemented totalitarian regimes. Yet the obverse clause is equally true. Without the leadership of psychopathic, power-driven and malicious individuals like Hitler and Stalin the genocides wouldn’t have happened either. The Holocaust wouldn’t have existed without someone like Hitler: namely a highly influential and charismatic psychopathic leader rising to power at a ripe moment in history.

Although Stalin claimed to have an allegiance to the communist party and Hitler to the Aryan race, history proved that their true allegiance was to their own empowerment. As Bullock demonstrates, Stalin only appeared to have a solid allegiance to the Bolshevik movement and to Lenin’s political legacy. In reality, however, he used communist rhetoric to gain control over Russia, then over the countries and territories that became the Soviet Union and eventually over the entire Eastern Europe. To him, the means—shifty allegiances, mass indoctrination, staged show trials, forced confessions as well as torture and murder of unprecedented proportions–always justified the ends, which was absolute control. This goal was only instrumentally related to communist ideology, as Stalin’s temporary alliance with Hitler, his former archenemy, would reveal.

Nor did Stalin exhibit any loyalty towards his supposed friends and allies. He switched political and personal alliances, turning first against the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), then against the right (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky). In his insatiable quest for power, Stalin forged alliances and later broke them. He imprisoned, tortured and murdered former allies. He shrewdly reversed his position and retreated when necessary, only to charge forward again at a more optimal moment. He took everyone by surprise with the extent of his duplicity and ruthlessness.

The human cost of psychopathic dictators, especially during the Hitler-Stalin era, is one of staggering proportions and unimaginable suffering. Bullock documents, “Not counting the millions who were wounded or permanently maimed, the estimated number of premature deaths between 1930 and 1953 reached a figure in the order of forty to fifty million men, women and children. Suffering on such a scale is beyond the imagination’s power to comprehend or respond to.” (Hitler and Stalin, 969)

What makes such human suffering particularly reprehensible, at least from a moral perspective, is that unlike natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and epidemics, the harm was deliberately inflicted, unnecessary and man-made. Granted, the mass murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians can’t be attributed solely to the leaders in charge. The collusion and indifference of many individuals made it possible. As Hannah Arendt demonstrates in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarian dictators are a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation of complex historical, economic and social phenomena. Yet without a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Ceausescu–which is to say, without evil leaders who attain total control of a country–this suffering would not have occurred, at least not on such a massive scale.

Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives gives us a detailed, compelling and extremely informative historical and psychological portrait of two of the most powerful faces of evil in human history. He describes in great detail their rise to power and deadly influence. Hitler and Stalin is an indispensable book for all those who want to understand how totalitarian regimes function and the role psychopathic dictators play in changing the course of history.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


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The Preface to Nat Karody’s The Cube: The Tradition of Speculative Fiction

 Preface to Nat Karody’s The Cube

By Claudia Moscovici

The Cube: A Novel by Nat Karody

Love story, science fiction based on an interesting analogy to the laws of physics, apocalyptic vision and political allegory replete with sociopathic, evil leaders: Nat Karody’s new novel, The Cube, has something to please every taste and every reader. First of all, The Cube is a fascinating “hard” science fiction story. It is unique in the genre in creating an alternative universe from first principles, with all matter oriented along one of the six Euclidian axes—x, y, and z, forwards and backwards—rather than mutually attracted. Matter tends by inertia to rest along a given axis: meaning that matter of differing orientations tends toward steady-state relative motion. This simple redefinition of gravity creates a world which radically departs from the physics of our own world in a manner rationally deducible from the alternative axioms. The Cube develops as a thought experiment in the manner of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, creating a plot centered around the unique attributes of a world in which gravities are transverse. The effect of this change is that celestial bodies are cubic, with matter of differing orientations coming to rest in mutually offsetting formations in space. This new definition of gravity permits a re-imagination of transportation, architecture, power generation, warfare, and lovemaking, among other things.

At the same time, The Cube is at least as compelling as a romance that is as classic in its theme and structure—the forbidden love between a boy and a girl separated by family, politics and war—as Romeo and Juliet. The novel tells the love story of a young couple from adjacent sides, Ivy Morven and Mutt Ogga, who meet at their common edge under mysterious circumstances against the backdrop of a war that threatens to destroy the planet. To give you a sense of the originality and complexity of this tale, I’ll have to reveal a little of the plot without, however, giving too much away. The heroine of the novel, Ivy, is the daughter of research scientists in the restricted weapons facility of Harmour located in Skava, one side of the cubic planet. Mutt is a rural boy from Shivaree, a village in Arland, the other populous side and the dominant power on the planet. Sought by the secret police for the murder of her parents, Ivy leaps over the edge straight into Mutt’s arms to escape her pursuers. His world is a sheer cliff to her, and under her prodding he carries her through the wilderness to safe haven in The Notches, an expatriate community carved into the common edge between Arland and Skava at a forty-five degree angle to the great nations.

In the Notches, Ivy decides that the only way she can escape her fate is to find true love and bear the child of the man she loves. Mutt has no idea of her hidden motivations but she seduces him. Together they have a daughter, whom Ivy names Hope. The story proceeds as a series of revelations of the secrets that drove her from Harmour and led her to seek salvation in the arms of a stranger. The reader learns that Ivy’s superior in Harmour, Tobor Zranga, a Minister in the regime of dictator Muglair Putie, was the first person in history to translate the gibberish of the Oopsah Fajuyt, the sacred text of the planet’s dominant religion. The gibberish is an encoded appendix to the Oopsah believed to contain a divine plan. Zranga learns from the gibberish of the imminent destruction of the planet and of the existence of a sacred being named Celeste whom he is duty-bound to save. He undertakes to prevent the planet’s destruction for the purpose of saving Celeste. When Ivy learns of Celeste she is horrified and resolves to destroy the creature. The novel is organized around a series of revelations of Ivy’s secrets, culminating with an answer to the question: Who is Celeste?

If you read this spellbinding tale, you find out how far the heroine, Ivy Morgen, will go to stop Tobor Zranga from realizing his evil destiny and how this alternative universe is bizarrely structured so that the most rational acts are the most extreme. The Cube is, ultimately, an inspiring story of the triumph of other-regarding love over the sociopathic lovelessness that dominated Ivy’s life in Harmour. Both Mutt and Ivy learn that to experience love, they must commit unconditionally and be willing to sacrifice anything for the other’s well-being.

The novel also explores in depth the philosophical implications of determinism. The cyclical nature of the Cube—caused by the repetitive destruction of the planet and subsequent reformation every billion years—is unique in science fiction in offering a mechanical explanation for a time loop. The notion of time cycles, or the Eternal Recurrence, has ancient roots in eastern religion, the philosophy of Pythagoras and Nietzsche, and more recently in drama and science fiction such as Groundhog Day and Battlestar Galactica. The concept has never before been given a rational, easily understood physical mechanism. The Cube’s contribution to this tradition is both logically consistent and provides a surprising explanation for the mystery of prophecy that pervades the story.

The Cube will therefore appeal both to fans of hard science fiction and romance. The uniqueness of the plot, including the Flume and the Oopsah Fajuyt, the originality of the physical setting with its oriented matter and transverse gravities, and the compelling romance of Mutt and Ivy, make this a novel that stands out in the genre. Beyond the fascinating description of alternative laws of physics; beyond the machinations of feuding sociopathic leaders; beyond the political allegory of democracy’s confrontation with totalitarianism, what will ultimately capture readers’ hearts and imaginations is the romantic relationship between Ivy, the savvy girl escaping from a classified weapons facility with terrible secrets she refuses to share, and Mutt, the rural boy who literally catches her when she leaps over the Edge. This novel will keep readers at the edge of their seats, unraveling a mystery that is only matched by compelling psychological characterizations of heroes—and heroines—whose destiny we are curious to discover. This combination of fantastic story-telling and realistic characterizations is a trademark of great literature that squarely places Nat Karody’s The Cube in the rich and enduring tradition of speculative fiction. 

The tradition of speculative fiction: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury and Atwood

There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.

Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society.  In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.

While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen.  To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror.  Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled  with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949,  p. 272)

Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated.  The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).

By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction.   Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either.   Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks.  The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.

Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.

1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.

2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.

3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998

Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s.  Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.

4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.

5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.

6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia

A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.

The Cube as Speculative Fiction

Nat Karody’s The Cube represents the best in the tradition of speculative fiction. Although set in a parallel universe with different laws of physics that are only analogically related to our own, this novel, like its precursors, sketches what has happened in our world and how things could get a lot worse. The technocratic mastermind of the totalitarian dictatorship, Tobor Zranga, reminds us of a Himmler: a sociopath with great manipulative powers who works behind the scenes of the dictatorship and even machinates against the totalitarian ruler. Muglair Putie, the evil dictator, echoes the strategies used by Hitler and Stalin: tyrants who have wielded power to destructive ends and ruthlessly sacrificed tens of millions of people in their quest for total control. We find such dictators throughout human history and, unfortunately, if we don’t learn from the past, we will also encounter them in our future.         

Even democracy isn’t immune from Nat Karody’s sharp critique, as Arland, the democratic superpower, engages in a war with Skava, the totalitarian state, which risks destroying not only its enemy, but also the world. Last but not least, the Cold War that escalates into a world war in the novel centers around a problem that we face today more dramatically than ever: the limited natural resources—in this case water—that drive so much of our global politics and will determine the future of the world. As you read Nat Karody’s The Cube, a novel written in the timeless tradition of speculative fiction, you’ll discover the hidden dangers and the irresistible temptation of experimenting with alternative governments, social organizations and ways of negotiating our limited resources on a precarious and intriguing Cubic planet that is uncannily similar to our own.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXP7xYtrVeU]
http://www.amazon.com/Cube-Novel-Nat-Karody/dp/0761859829/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1350085632&sr=1-1&keywords=Nat+Karody+The+Cube

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon


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The Cube has landed (in bookstores)! Nat Karody’s new science fiction novel

The Cube by Nat Karody

The Cube, a new novel by Nat Karody, has landed (in bookstores)!

 

Were you disappointed by the ending to the series Lost? What follows is a story with as intricate a mythology as Lost’s but with an important difference: in the end it is all explained mechanistically, without resort to mysticism or religion. At the conclusion of the novel, the following summary of the core mystery, taken from the opening chapter, will be perfectly sensible: The Oopsah told a story, a majestic, exalted, beatific story of the coming of the end times and the rise of the Controller.

He learned how the world would end, who would destroy it, and how he, Zranga, could prevent it. He learned that he had been appointed by destiny – by the Controller himself – to carry out this mission. But above all he learned of the existence of a perfect being, the demigod Celeste, trapped beyond time in a cycle of eternal death. Only Zranga could rescue her, and to do this he had to place a giant door on the bottom of the Silent Sea, and kill the Great Man. Read on to found out how far Ivy Morven will go to stop Tobor Zranga from realizing his destiny, and how this alternative universe is bizarrely structured so that the most rational acts are the most extreme.

The Cube is well-written, ingeniously crafted and has great character development. Although clearly a science fiction narrative, The Cube also transcends its genre, to attract a broad audience. It tells the Romeo and Juliet story of a  young couple from adjacent sides of a  cubic planet who meet at an edge and develop a relationship in the midst  of a war that threatens to  destroy the planet. The story is unique  in creating an alternative  universe from first principles:  all matter is   oriented in one of the six Euclidian directions.

This simple deviation  from our own universe leads to the creation of cubic celestial bodies and   allows a reimagination of  transportation, power generation, warfare,   architecture, and lovemaking, among other things. As an example, the  political conflict   leading to war is that both inhabited sides of the   planet generate hydroelectric power by draining a large body of water on   one side   through edge sluices, a cheap and easy source of energy that will ultimately destroy the planet if the water is drained too far.

What  drives this story is the relationship of the two main characters,  a girl  escaping from a classified weapons facility with terrible secrets she   refuses to share, and a rural boy who literally catches her  when she leaps   over the edge and soon learns he is the target of international espionage.   The novel is organized around a series of   revelations of the girl’s   secrets culminating with an answer to the ultimate question — who is  Celeste?

As you can probably tell even from my brief description, The Cube is a multidimensional narrative (pun intended!) that could simultaneously described as a science fiction novel as well as a moving love story and a dystopic utopia fiction,  similar  to George Orwell’s 1984.  You can discover this alternative universe, governed by different laws of physics but similar political motivations and machinations for power as in our world, on the links below:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXP7xYtrVeU]

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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Filed under book review, Book Review of The Cube, Book Review of The Cube: A Novel by Nat Karody, book reviews, books, Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, love, love story, Nat Karody, new fiction, novel, novels, online fiction publisher, science fiction, The Cube, The Cube has landed (in bookstores)! Nat Karody's new science fiction novel, The Cube: A Novel, The Cube: A Novel by Nat Karody

Remembrance of Things Proust: Alain de Botton, William Carter and Michael Norris

 

As a fan of Marcel Proust’s fiction, I’d like to write today about this timeless writer who reflects upon the nature of time. With the centennial of  A La Recherche approaching, it’s interesting to reflect why–despite the arcane nature (and length!) of his sentences, his philosophical, speculative inclinations and his controversial lifestyle–Proust continues to remain so popular today. I believe that his writing is kept current partly by the process of canonization itself. Influenced by the great nineteenth century writers–Stendhal,  Flaubert, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy—Proust became one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. However, his novels are also kept alive thanks to the biographies, books and blogs written by literary critics who straddle perfectly the divide between intellectual/scholarly publications and writing for the general public.

I’m thinking, first of all, of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, which discusses Proust’s life in an engaging and witty manner that grabs the readers’ attention (whether or not they were, originally, Proust fans). You can see his writings both on his personal website (below) and, more recently, on the art, literature and culture Romanian blog started by Miheala Carlan, Catchy.ro.

Rather than putting Proust on a pedestal, De Botton humanizes this legendary figure, alluding to his many challenges and neuroses (his asthma, ambiguous relationship to his mother, and fear of mice) that makes a bridge between contemporary readers and Proust. Botton’s “philosophy of everyday life” in general takes somewhat arcane philosophical and literary subjects that are usually relegated to the scholarly sphere and brings them to the general public. Isn’t that what being an intellectual is–or should be–about?

The well-known American biographer of Proust (and my good friend), Professor William C. Carter, also makes Proust and his life more accessible to a general audience in his biographies, Marcel Proust: A Life and Proust in Love.  Accurate, clear, engaging and without sparing us any details—including details about Proust’s sexual obsession with rats, his hypochondria as well as, of course, his various paramours—these two biographies are essential reading for anyone interested in Proust the man. Recently Professor Carter has launched an online course about Marcel Proust and his fiction, which, like his biographies, are aimed at a general audience as well as students and scholars.

www.proust-ink.com

This online course is a high-tech enterprise that includes comments from subscribers, live webcams, filmed posts of 30 lectures on Proust and monthly short films of the life and work of this timeless writer.

Furthermore, if you’re interested in engaging discussions of each of the seven novels that form A La Recherche, I’d suggest that you take a look at Michael Norris’ series of articles about Proust and his work on one of my favorite literary blogs, litkicks.com.

http://www.litkicks.com/ProustIIIb

Last but certainly not least, for the main image (above) I chose a digital photograph called “Proust Gazes Upon Olympia” by my fellow blogger and friend, Alex Bustillo.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Seducer-Novel-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/0761858075/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326297451&sr=1-1


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Dystopic Utopias in Speculative Fiction and Art

There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.

Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society.  In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.

While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen.  To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror.  Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled  with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949,  p. 272)

Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated.  The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).

By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction.   Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either.   Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks.  The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.

Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.

1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.

2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.

3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998

Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s.  Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.

4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.

5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.

6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia

A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.

 Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

 

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Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini mandated that all Iranian women must observe an Islamic dress code, which included wearing the veil, under the threat of death for those who refused to abide by these laws. This happened at about the same time that the totalitarian leader of my own country, Nicolae Ceausescu, was starting to impose draconian measures on Romanian women. Between the years 1979 and 1989, Ceausescu instituted a series of laws that controlled women’s sexuality and reproduction by banning birth control and abortion. This was part of his narcissistic fantasy of doubling the population of the country, so that he could have more power. Eventually, as I described in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism, such measures lead to tens of thousands of unwanted children, many of which were placed in unimaginably bad conditions in the infamous Romanian orphanages. To my mind, both measures—in Iran and in Romania–represented a way of establishing power over women rather than being a reflection of religious or ideological (communist) values.

Having been sensitized early in life to these displays of totalitarian power, many years later, when I read Azar Nafisi‘s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), I was especially moved by the author’s critique of the uses of the veil to control Iranian women’s bodies. I was also very impressed by her creative allusions to Anglo-American literary history—the book is divided into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen–to launch her compelling cultural critiques. Many of you have probably already read this book, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, about a sociopathic sexual predator whose fetish is prepubescent girls functions as Nafisi’s main metaphor for Iranian laws, which, she states, imposed “a dream upon our reality, turning us into figments of imagination.” These female figments are objects of simultaneous control and temptation: temptation through prohibition by hiding the female body.

Recently, I ran across the images of an artist who, I believe, launches an equally powerful and creative critique of the veil by unveiling women. Majeed Benteeha is an Iranian-born photographer, poet and aspiring film producer. Moving back and forth between Tehran and New York City, he simultaneously combines and clashes both worlds, in a spectacular mix that challenges cultural assumptions on both fronts. His images often feature veiled women posing nude in an iconic fashion that seems more sacred than profane. Benteenha’s strikingly original photography violates religious orthodoxies–about feminine modesty, about the religious and social connotations of the veil–only to show us another way to respect women and all that they represent: love, maternity, sensuality, desire, intelligence.

His images are simple, beautiful, erotic and dramatic. They include symbols associated with the Muslim faith, but also seem very European in many respects. Perhaps unwittingly, Beenteha’s photography alludes to works like L’Erotisme, by the French anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille, which presents the sacred as inextricably related to the profane: not just for Muslim societies, but for all cultures in general. Bataille famously states: “The essence of morality is a questioning about morality and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.” It seems that is precisely what Beenteha’s artistic short film below underscores, in its mirroring and contrast between a universal modernity and Muslim tradition; between light and dark; between masculine and feminine; between tenderness and predation; between desire and contempt. You can view his photography and artistic films on the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici#p/a/f/0/Mv3P-3kPfzo

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


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Review of The Geneva Affair

 If you're into Romanian culture and cuisine, you may already be familiar with Nicolae Klepper's writing. His nonfiction book, Romania: An Illustrated History, offers one of the best historical introductions to the country; while his cookbook, Taste of Romania, is a bestseller. Recently, Nicolae Klepper published his first novel, The Geneva Affair
 
Its hero, Dan Stevens, is an American executive caught in the dangerous web of Michelle Sardou, a French femme fataleStill reeling from the loss of his job and vulnerable from his recent divorce from Nicole (his younger wife who left him for a French movie producer), Dan falls into the trap set up by Michelle, through a potent combination of seduction, deception and flattery. He falls head over heels in love with her, despite uncovering some of her lies and spotting flagrant inconsistencies in her stories. But even as he discovers Michelle's penchant for manipulation and deceit, Dan doesn't heed the warning signals. On the contrary, he grows even more intrigued by her once he begins to realize that this sexy French woman is not who she claims to be. He becomes obsessed with finding out her real motives and identity.

As Dan follows a trail of clues, strange things happen to him. He's called for a police interrogation even though he did nothing illegal. Thugs pursue him in a hotel parking lot. Worse still, after stringing him along and playing hot/cold games with him for several months, Michelle suddenly disappears. Drawn to her sex appeal and aura of mystery, Dan is determined to get to the truth: even if it means putting his new job--as well as his sanity--in jeopardy. If you're a fan of John le Carré or simply enjoy reading spy thrillers, The Geneva Affair is the novel for you. 
 

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon


http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1




			

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Filed under book review, book reviews, books, contemporary fiction, new fiction, Nicolae Klepper, novel, novels, thriller