Thursday, January 31, 2008

Quick notes on Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

Willa Cather’s first novel, O Pioneers! is full of priceless gems. Cather displays a remarkable ability for direct, concise sketches that last only a few lines but tell us volumes about her characters. She shows the same skill in her descriptions of the natural world of late nineteenth century Nebraska, where she grew up. Cather belonged to a community of Swedish immigrants who struggled to farm and eke out a living in the seemingly stark, unforgiving prairie. The experience informs many of her stories and novels.

O Pioneers!, too, is set in Nebraska, and tells the story of the determined, intelligent, hard-working and fair Alexandra Bergson, who defies all odds and prejudices of her time to establish a successful farm business. We learn about Alexandra's personality from the moment Cather introduces her on the second page:
“[Alexandra] was a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man’s long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round, plush cap, tied down with a thick veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face, and her clear deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance, without seeming to see anything…”
That resoluteness, that confidence in Alexandra is her hallmark and it stays throughout the novel. Alexandra is the inspiring heart and soul of the book.

I won't formally review O Pioneers! Instead, I shall give an example – one among many – of how Cather’s prose moved me.

Marie is Alexandra’s neighbor. She is a beautiful and young. When she was only sixteen, she fell for a handsome young man and married him. She later finds him to be dour and jealous but is resigned to her fate. As her affection for her husband fades, Marie realizes that she is in love with Emil, Alexandra’s brother, whom she has known and played with as a child. Emil loves Marie too. They meet whenever they can, and chat excitedly as childhood friends will. But both are slowly becoming aware that the playfulness and joy of each others’ company has suddenly in adolescence transformed itself into a different kind of longing. It is a longing they cannot pursue for it brings only pain.

Frustrated, Emil leaves to Mexico City to work. He writes regularly to Alexandra from there; and Alexandra always shares these letters with Marie. What does Marie feel about these letters? Cather tells us in this poignant piece of prose:
Marie knew perfectly well that Emil’s letters were written more for her than for Alexandra. They were not the sort of letters that a young man writes to his sister. They were both more personal and more painstaking: full of descriptions of the gay life in the old Mexican capital in the days when the strong hand of Porfirio Diaz was still strong. He told about bull-fights and cock-fights, churches and fiestas, the flower-markets and the fountains, the music and dancing, the people of all nations he met in the Italian restaurants on San Francisco Street. In short, they were the kind of letters a young man writes to a woman when he wishes himself and his life to seem interesting to her, when he wishes to enlist her imagination on her behalf.
So true! Great literature is full of these moments: moments that we have known and experienced in our lives, but have never been able articulate successfully. And when someone expresses it beautifully, as Cather does above, we feel a intimate connection with the characters; we feel it is a marvel that someone from a different time and place could share the exact same subtlety.


And finally, to end, here are some great quotes from the novel:

1. “Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.”

2. “A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than things themselves.”

3. “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

4. “There is a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon.”

5. “There are only two or tree human stories and they go on repeating themselves as if they had never happened before; like larks in this country they have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.”

The Willa Cather picture, taken in 1936, is from here. Here's a link to my post about the landscape of the Great Plains. And here's a post on Willa Cather from The Middle Stage.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Parag Khanna's The Second World

Parag Khanna writes in this long but engrossing essay in the New York Times of the new multi-polar world order that is taking shape. The article summarizes the principal thesis of his upcoming book. What Khanna states comes as no big surprise. But his conclusions are based on his travels to what he terms 45 crucial “second world” countries: countries that are on their way up, but that still carry with them significant problems with regard to poverty, development and oppressive regimes. Ukraine, Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam, Iran and Libya are some examples.

Khanna argues that it is in these countries that key shifts in global currents can be noticed. His approach is to analyze them with respect to the influences of the three major power blocs: the waning US bloc, which seems to lost its capacity for engagement; the emerging European Union, which is slowly accommodating many countries at its periphery, and which many are willing to be part of; and the East Asian Chinese bloc, already in the middle of a tremendous expansion aided by a enterprising diaspora, and whose quest for energy and mineral resources is propelling it to far-flung places – consider for instance its engagement in Africa.

Interestingly, Khanna does not think India is anywhere close to being a global player like China or the EU, though it still wields influence. Check one of the questions in this interview to see why he feels so.

I very much look forward to the book, which is out in March. The geopolitical shifts about to happen in this century are fascinating and they will impact all of us. So I do hope the book is readable and gives a good glimpse of what is to come.

As a sample, here are Khanna’s analyses about China's growing influence, and Turkey’s strategic efforts at development:
The East Asian Community is but one example of how China is also too busy restoring its place as the world’s “Middle Kingdom” to be distracted by the Middle Eastern disturbances that so preoccupy the United States. In America’s own hemisphere, from Canada to Cuba to Chávez’s Venezuela, China is cutting massive resource and investment deals. Across the globe, it is deploying tens of thousands of its own engineers, aid workers, dam-builders and covert military personnel. In Africa, China is not only securing energy supplies; it is also making major strategic investments in the financial sector. The whole world is abetting China’s spectacular rise as evidenced by the ballooning share of trade in its gross domestic product — and China is exporting weapons at a rate reminiscent of the Soviet Union during the cold war, pinning America down while filling whatever power vacuums it can find. Every country in the world currently considered a rogue state by the U.S. now enjoys a diplomatic, economic or strategic lifeline from China, Iran being the most prominent example


Turkey, too, is a totemic second-world prize advancing through crucial moments of geopolitical truth… Roads are the pathways to power, as I learned driving across Turkey in a beat-up Volkswagen a couple of summers ago. Turkey’s master engineers have been boring tunnels, erecting bridges and flattening roads across the country’s massive eastern realm, allowing it to assert itself over the Arab and Persian worlds both militarily and economically as Turkish merchants look as much East as West. Already joint Euro-Turkish projects have led to the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, with a matching rail line and highway planned to buttress European influence all the way to Turkey’s fraternal friend Azerbaijan on the oil-rich Caspian Sea.
I learned of the book and the article through a post by Ethan Zukcerman. And here's Nitin Pai's insightful take on the book at The Acorn. Nitin's point - and I think it's very plausible - is that Khanna has deliberately couched his thesis as a wake-up call for the US.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Binyavanga Wainaina on the Kenyan situation

The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, famous most for his scathing essay How to write about Africa, provides an intelligent assessment of the uncertain political situation in Kenya. (You'll need Quicktime player to watch this. If you don't have it, here's a New York Times article on the same subject by Binyavanga.)

Paz and Naipaul quotes on monotheism

Here's Octavio Paz - whom I quoted extensively in this post - again from In Light of India, this time with some thoughts on monotheism:
Monotheism has been the great unifier of peoples, languages, races, and cultures. It has also been a great divider of people and the source of endless and terrible intolerance. The relative disaster of Islam in India - it tried to convert millions, but the majority remained faithful to their old beliefs and gods - is proof of the double face of monotheism: when it does not unite, it tears apart.
And this reminds me of Naipaul's view:
The two great revealed religions, Islam and Christianity, have altered the world forever, and we all, whatever our faith, walk in their light. Over and above their theology, these religions gave the world social ideas – brotherhood, charity, the feeling of man for man – which we now all take for granted. They are the basis of our political ideas and our ideas of morality. Those ideas didn't exist before. It may be that these two revealed religions have done their work and have little more to offer.
I am sure Sam Harris would disagree with Naipaul, especially with the morality bit.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From hunter-gatherers to farmers - Quick thoughts on an Economist article

Agriculture is so pervasive and necessary in sustaining populations that it can seem a natural accompaniment to humankind, something that has been there since time immemorial. The notion is so strongly rooted that we tend to forget that agriculture - which, in essence, is the domestication of wild plants and animals for human benefit - was one of the great innovations in history: our ancestors gradually perfected it by constantly experimenting with the natural world. And they did this only some 10,000-12,000 years ago. That's fairly recent if we consider that for countless millennia before the advent of agriculture, as far back as 85,000 years ago, we were all hunter-gatherers.

The agrarian lifestyle is a radical shift from that of a hunter-gatherer because food production is much more efficient. As a consequence, farmers can dedicate themselves to producing food while others can carve their own niches: warriors can spend more time fighting and training; builders can ponder longer over architectural nuances; artists can mull over their masterpieces; and priests can go about invoking gods. Specialization of this sort does not run deep in hunter-gatherer societies.

With agriculture, in other words, come the trappings of a complex, organized society.

Was this shift good for us? Population densities increased; wars and weaponry got more sophisticated; increased interaction with domesticated animals meant that diseases could more easily jump from cattle to humans; the natural environment around us was altered to suit our purposes; and – for those of us conscious of egalitarianism – there was certainly more inequality. While all these aspects have broader dimensions to them, they are generally used to highlight the negative aspects of an agrarian society.

But this recent article in The Economist poses an excellent counterpoint: Was it really a peaceful Eden when we were hunter-gatherers? Did we really live in harmony with our environment as is often claimed? The hunter-gatherer societies of today - !Kung of the Kalahari, the Inuit of Arctic, the aborigines in Australia – are constantly involved in tribal conflicts with high death rates. This might be an effect of modernity, but then perhaps not – Steven Pinker thinks not in his well articulated TED lecture.

And it appears that hunter-gatherers wreaked much havoc on the environment as well. Sample this from the Economist article:
Returning to hunter-gatherers, Mr LeBlanc argues (in his book “Constant Battles”) that all was not well in ecological terms, either. Homo sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of the megafauna in North America 11,000 years ago and Australia 30,000 years before that. The mammoths and giant kangaroos never stood a chance against co-ordinated ambush with stone-tipped spears and relentless pursuit by endurance runners.

This was also true in Eurasia. The earliest of the great cave painters, working at Chauvet in southern France, 32,000 years ago, was obsessed with rhinoceroses. A later artist, working at Lascaux 15,000 years later, depicted mostly bison, bulls and horses—rhinoceroses must have been driven close to extinction by then.
So maybe the time before agriculture should not be seen as an Eden-like continuum. Rather it should be seen as a time when we were faced repeatedly with ecological crises of our own making – just as one seems to loom upon us now – and when we innovated ceaselessly to get ourselves out of these crises. I’ll leave readers with these two closing paragraphs from the article, which provide a great perspective on human history over the last 80,000 odd years:
Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of this progressive change. It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern Africa 80,000 years ago. At 15,000 years ago people first domesticated another species—the wolf (though it was probably the wolves that took the initiative). After 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually.

There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We have been solving them, too. Pessimists will point out that each solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists that no crisis has proved insoluble yet. Just as we rebounded from the extinction of the megafauna and became even more numerous by eating first rabbits then grass seeds, so in the early 20th century we faced starvation for lack of fertiliser when the population was a billion people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, there will be another issue waiting for us.

The first picture shows one of the many brilliant paintings in the caves of Lascaux. The paintings are about 16000 years old.
The second picture is from the Economist and credited to the Bridgeman Art Library. In the article the picture appears with this interesting caption: "Another fine environmental mess we've got ourselves into."

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Quotes from The Brothers Karamazov

The image to the left is of the first page of the first edition of the novel; I stole it from here.

I am about halfway through the dense, tedious and long-winded The Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky's last novel (Constance Garnett’s translation). Though reading it hasn't been easy given Dostoevsky's style - which essentially consists of long, digressive and sometimes vague conversations between characters - there still are some splendid themes and quotes in the novel. Here are a few. The first two are by the novel's narrator, while the rest are by Dmitri and Ivan, two of the three Karamazov brothers .

1.“As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.”

2. “There is a silent and long-suffering sorrow to be met with among the [Russian] peasantry. It withdraws into itself and is still. But there is grief that breaks out, and from that minute it bursts into tears and finds vent in wailing...But there is no lighter a grief than the silent. Lamentations comfort only by lacerating the heart still more. Such grief does not desire consolation. It feeds on the sense of its hopelessness. Lamentations spring only from the constant craving to re-open the wound.”

3. Dmitri Karamazov, the eldest of the three brothers says in the novel: “Man is broad, too broad. I’d have him narrower.”

4. Ivan Karamazov, the most learned and intellectual of the brothers, makes this excellent point on how we often tend to express things stupidly because stupidity is sometimes more truthful and direct:

“Russian conversations…are always carried on inconceivably stupidly…the stupider one is the closer one is to reality. The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.”

5. Ivan Karamazov again - from the famous chapter The Grand Inquisitor, which has the toughest prose I’ve plodded through in recent times - on how the Roman Catholic Church is about capturing God’s word, and allowing God to have no say at all. The Catholic Church, in short, reigns supreme and is the authority on all matters practical and divine. Dostoevsky was critical of Catholicism.
“One may say it is the most fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism, in my opinion at least. ‘All has been given by Thee [God] to the Pope,’ they say, ‘and all, therefore, is still in the Pope’s hands, and there is no need for Thee to come now at all. Thou must not meddle for the time being, at least.’”

6. And Ivan yet again: this time commenting on how beasts are unfairly accused of depravities that are very uniquely human:

“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as man, so artistically cruel.”


Two other of my Dostoevsky posts are here and here.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A strange tree

It’s not a cactus, and it isn’t a regular tree either. What is it then? It’s the very special looking Joshua tree! Here's a description from an information board at the wonderfully rugged national park in California that is named after the tree:
Explorers, naturalists, and writers have described the tree as a strange, grotesque, peculiar, bristly, stiff, ungraceful, repulsive, bizarre, endlessly varying and spine-studded and spiteful looking. How would you describe it?

Both pictures from my Christmas trip last year to the Joshua Tree National Park.

And this is a good time to wish all readers of Thirty letters in my name a very happy new year!