Night by Elie Wiesel

December 28, 2010

This is a book of humbling power. Reading it changes a person. Like Cynthia Ozick’s short story The Shawl, Night feels like a portal into the abyss. Among the cruelest things the Nazis managed was to show how any of us can be broken, how unimaginable cruelty can force a mother to scream into a shawl while her baby is thrown into an electric fence or a son to wish, if only for a moment, that his father would die so he, the son, can focus only on his own survival.

As in Ozick’s short story, the writing in Night is spare. The focus is not on evoking place, though you will shiver with cold. Elie Wiesel does not try to unmask the tormenters, rather he bears witness to the moral failings of humans placed in inconceivable conditions. Most of us who have been spared such cruelty comfort ourselves with the notion that, if ever tested, we would pass. But no one passes.

The basic story is that of fifteen year-old Elie Wiesel. He and his family live in a small town, Sighet, in Transylvania, Hungary. The story picks up in 1944. Nazi Germany is being pushed back on all fronts and, so, the Jewish community in Sighet believes they have been spared the worst. They are wrong. Elie is transformed from a studiously religious boy who wants to study the Kabbalah into a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the greatest concentration of evil Europe has ever seen.

Many books are called essential. Few truly are. This one is.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children who bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The edition of the book on our shelves reproduces Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. I do recommend reading the speech after (or before) the book. The book itself is not about redemption or even survival. There is only horror. Elie Wiesel’s speech is a welcome counterbalance to the despair inherent in reading Night and it is an impetus to a more involved, more caring, more decent life.

[O]ne person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

The take away for me is not how I would have lived as a Jew or a German or a Frenchman or a Pole or any other race, religion, or nationality during the Holocaust. The question is: how do I live this moment and the next.


The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

July 23, 2010

He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.

Niccolo Machiavelli is widely known for this work in particular, a work which he wrote in an effort to gain the favor of the then-ruling Medici family. The same Medici who had him tortured and imprisoned. Machiavelli did, at least, practice a bit of what he preached. He bore no grudges where the grudges did not serve a purpose. Of course, it would seem the Medici already knew some of the lessons Machiavelli had to teach, for they never gave him the new benefit of a position in their government, but left him crushed and impotent (but for his writing).

The translation I read is an old one (1908) by W. K. Marriott. He includes a somewhat defensive introduction in which he praises Machiavelli and downplays the extent to which this work was an effort to curry favor with the Medici. His introduction and translator’s note are, themselves, interesting. He sets forth a great deal of Machiavelli’s biographical details for readers unfamiliar with them.

The work is an attempt to set forth principles on how princes may obtain and keep principalities. He gives a great deal of advice, often demonstrating his points with ancient or contemporary examples. I have not read any of his contemporaries, but his insights into political machinations sound like they are the result of watching cable television and modern-day politics. Neither men nor politics have much changed.

If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them…But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

And, so, Machiavelli was first of all a pragmatic man, both in his own life (flattering the Medici) and in his writings. He did not exactly shun or ignore morals, but believed that living a morally blameless life was a good way to lose a kingdom.

[F]or a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.

There is more here than only the reputation. The book is short, but packed with biting insights and wit. I could quote the thing at length, but then there would be little else for you to discover. Machiavelli does present a very jaded and cynical view of man and politics, but that is precisely why it is so brilliant. You need look no further than the reports that British Petroleum (BP) allegedly advocated for the release of one of the Lockerbie terrorists to see a present day example of pragmatism overriding any sense of ethics or morality. Name a politician and I will find you a quote that describes his rise or downfall. Pull a quote and I will show you a modern-day politician who provides the anecdotal evidence of its truth.

This is not, I would say, a guide to how to live. It is atrocious for that. Unless, of course, you aspire to power and glory. In that case, I suppose you could do worse. For the rest those of us more interested in literature than in elected office, however, Machiavelli had a novelist’s eye for capturing and pithily dissecting human nature.


Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

April 27, 2010

John Self beat me to a review of this book and did an exceedingly good job of it. No surprise in either of those facts. I will try not to repeat what he has said and to be brief.

Zeitoun (pronounced “zay-toon”) is the surname of Abdulrahman and Kathy, the people whose “view of the events” before and after Hurricane Katrina the book captures. John Self points out that Abdulrahman is “portrayed more or less angelically”. I would emphasize the more. For instance, the primary faults he displays are determination, unyielding fidelity to other living things, and the desire to be where the action is. These are his tragic characteristics which prove his stumble, if not his downfall.

Most readers will be familiar with the events, both real and reported, following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. We know, then, where the weather portion of the book is going. Eggers had no easy task in setting up the Zeitoun’s story with sufficient details about the hurricane and reports to keep everyone onboard but not so much that it bores. His characters, too, walk the line between oblivion to the scope of the coming disaster and knowing too much:

Nagin told residents that the Superdome would be open as a “shelter of last resort.” Kathy shuddered at the thought; the year before, with Hurricane Ivan, that plan had been a miserable failure. The Superdome had been ill-supplied and overcrowded then and in ’98, with Hurricane Georges. She couldn’t believe the place was being used again. Maybe they’d learned from the last time and better provisioned the stadium? Anything was possible, but she was doubtful.

Of course, the reader already knows what happened, so Kathy seems a little prescient in her misgivings. I have to wonder whether relating the Zeitoun’s pre-Katrina fears on these types of policy matters is either accurate (surely everyone thinks they saw the disaster coming now) or helpful (even if accurate, the reader is almost invited to question the accuracy of the recollection). To me, these glimpses into the Zeitoun’s thoughts distracted from their story, rather than added to it. We have already been shown that Abdulrahman is a great guy, that Kathy is an outstanding mother, that they both work hard and live right. Must they also have such penetrating foresight?

This is really a minor annoyance; these examples crop up only a few times. Eggers does a great job relating the Zeitoun’s story with a building sense of danger, while helping us get to know the family. The bigger problem is the one touched on earlier. The Zeitoun’s seem almost like a sit-com family. I liked them, but I kept wondering if there was more to their story. While there are all-around great guys with all-around great wives and children, it was too neat, too Brady Bunch.

The strengths of the book are many. Abdulrahman’s experiences during the flood, rescuing people, dogs, and property, are particularly well-crafted and evocatively written. The same is true of flashbacks to Abdulrahman’s childhood and early adulthood. The man lived an interesting life and had an intriguing family. All of these aspect draw in the reader and give a strong sense of how Abdulrahman arrived where he did.

The climactic events are disturbing. The pain and confusion are captured in unadorned prose which only adds to the story’s power. This is the story of human tragedy amid natural disaster. The climax is strong and poignant. The reader cannot help but ask questions about how things could go so wrong in, as the characters say, America of all places. These types of things are not supposed to happen here. Of course, they do.
I was disappointed in the denouement, the aftermath. Too little information is provided regarding what happened to the other men with Zeitoun; each of the police officers and National Guardsmen who were involved are given a paragraph after the are tracked down by Kathy and the Zeitoun’s attorney.

There is no doubt that this tells the story of a breakdown in civil society and a personal tragedy for Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. The book does not provide a complete picture, but only the experiences of the Zeitouns as related by them. Issues of Islamaphobia are present, but there were non-Muslims with Abdulrahman who, it appears, were treated no better. It also seems like a definite link is invited between Kathy’s later health problems and these tragic events. And, yet, in some ways the link feels too forced or speculative and, to me anyway, detracted somewhat from the larger issue. The systemic failures would not be less troubling if Kathy had suffered no physical deterioration.

The book is troubling, but imperfect. It is not wholly convincing. I am very happy to have read it and am quite troubled by the treatment of the Zeitouns and the other men with Abdulrahman that day. Like John Self, however, I would be interested in a different book that provided other perspectives. Not only to see the situation from the perpetrators point of view, but also to gain some necessary distance.

SPOILER ALERT

Zeitoun was clearly shaken by the events that day. His faith in America was understandably lost. His was not the kind of experience you merely remember; it was an experience which forms your world view. I came across an interview with Abdulrahman Zeitoun in which he states that, in America: “Muslims have no rights.” This is, to put it mildly, hyperbole.

Mr. Zeitoun’s statement suggests that there is a stronger, more powerful book, that is not limited to the perspective of the Zeitouns. Their close experience with injustice is an excellent case study in systemic failures in America; they are not necessarily the best witnesses. I would have preferred either a more novelistic approach to the subject or a more thorough investigation of events from multiple perspectives. Things went terribly wrong in the treatment of Abdulrahman Zeitoun. But it is not as simple, as he points out, as a few “bad apples”. Neither is it as simple as “Muslims have no rights.” As many members of ethnic minorities can attest, this type of problem is not limited to Muslims. As many poor or otherwise socially disadvantaged people can also attest, this type of problem is not limited to religious or ethnic minorities. Rather, the system either allows or creates incentives for this type of abuse. The extraordinary natural disaster that led to the particular example of the Zeitouns certainly exacerbated the problems of either unprofessional conduct by individuals and/or features of a criminal justice system that allow (or encourage) the abuses Abdulrahman and the other men arrested that day suffered.

Eggers did an excellent job of telling the Zeitouns’ story. He could have done more. The Diary of Anne Frank is compelling partly because she did not know what was going to happened, but the reader does. In Cold Blood is compelling because, while told largely told from the viewpoint of the criminals, it is not limited to their perspective. Eggers does not manage to escape the post-event perspective of the Zeitouns. The lessons the Zeitouns learned are not necessarily the right lessons. Their interpretation is, frankly, not as important as their experience. Eggers does manage to relate that experience, but it is a little too tinged with their interpretation to be an unqualified success. I do recommend it as a qualified success.


The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

September 25, 2009

I read this book as part of an ongoing discussion on theism/atheism with a friend of mine. He suggests a book, then I suggest a book. My suggestion was Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker, but my friend wanted to read this one instead. I had not read either and, obviously, this book had received a fair amount of press. I went along.

TheGodDelusionI have not read any of the recent books of this type (e.g. Hitchens’s god is not Great, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation), so I cannot provide any opinion on the relative merits of this book versus those. What I can give you is my opinion regarding whether Dawkins succeeded with this book. Ultimately, I think he did not.

Dawkins is an outstanding scientist. He has been involved in many battles with creationists over the course of his career. I think these battles have probably colored his opinions for the worse. Dawkins is not simply an atheist, he is an anti-theist. This book is not so much a discussion of why he does not believe in a god, but why he thinks no one should and why he thinks belief in a god is an active evil. At least, that is almost certainly the only thing his purported audience, theists, will get out of it.

Dawkins is strongest in conveying his passion for science, which is why I would strongly recommend The Selfish Gene (an excellent book) SelfishGeneor one of his other science-focused books, rather than this book if you want to read something by Dawkins. In The God Delusion, he seems primarily to be venting his frustrations with theists and creationists rather than presenting a dispassionate argument regarding either the existence of gods or the net benefit of religion regardless of its truth.

An example is his devotion of six of the first eight pages to re-capturing Einstein for the atheist side. There is no doubt that Einstein is often invoked by theists as one of their own. This is generally due to quotes such as “God does not play dice” and the like. Dawkins is right that Einstein had, if anything that can be called religion in the sense theists use the term today, a Spinozan awe of nature. He did not believe in a personal, interactive god. Anyone remotely curious about this could discover the truth of the matter with only a little digging. But whether Einstein was a militant atheist or a fundamentalist Christian is absolutely irrelevant to the question of whether anything supernatural exists. This particular appeal to authority should have been beneath Dawkins.

If keeping score of which famous person is an atheist and which a theist were limited to the initial chapter, it would be forgivable. It is not. Dawkins spends far too much of this book determining who belongs on which side. He knows as well as anyone that the truth or falsity of a particular religious claim is not affected one iota by who holds that particular belief. The resolution of where on the religious spectrum Albert Einstein, Stephen J. Gould, Thomas Jefferson, Stephen Hawkings, Joseph Stalin, or Adolf Hitler fall is absolutely irrelevant to argument regarding the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being. Unfortunately, Godwin’s law applies. Dawkins loses by being baited into these sideshow debates by theists.

Dawkins does have good points to make. The problem is that the well-made points are (1) likely to already be known by atheists and (2) unlikely to be noticed by theists because the theists will be hung up on his discussions of personalities and whether the actions of certain men or groups are representative of either atheists or theists generally. Neither audience is likely to find the book edifying.

“The God Delusion” is not a scientific text, but a polemic. It is entertaining, if you have an interest in these theist vs. atheist wars, but it is a poor introduction to the arguments regarding the existence of the supernatural. It is even worse as a contribution to any discussion regarding the question of whether religion is a net positive or net negative. Dawkins even speculates, at one point, as to what research might someday show if a rigorous experiment were carried out. The prediction is foolhardy, because I would gander it is not far from an even question whether Dawkins is right. More importantly, he cannot win. Proof will not be helped by his own speculation. Conversely, if he is disproved, he will have achieved for the atheist side one of those self-inflicted wounds he so often bemoans.

I wonder whether Dawkins’s true purpose was to pen a call-to-arms rather than to persuade theists of their error. I do not think the book succeeds if the former, it is largely a failure if the latter. Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, but he is an unconvincing anti-theist polemicist.