Skip to content

Hudson University

I have mentioned before that I have something of a soft-spot for (often) ridiculous television dramas. Some I legitimately like, others feed bad habits without demanding anything of me in return, including not requiring money. The latest addition to my routine has been Blindspot, an FBI, spy mystery that revolves around deciphering tattoos on Jane Doe’s body and, by extension, figuring out who she is and why she came to the attention of the FBI. Usually I wish they would do more with this sort of character story rather than using the same hook for a new semi-procedural of discovering and then resolving corruption throughout the city. This week’s episode traipsed into a cliche that sits on my list of pet-peeves: the college campus.

One tattoo is revealed to contain significant digits for Hudson University’s highly lucrative football program national championships and seem to point to NCAA scholarship violations, so the agents wander to campus to speak to a coach who denies any knowledge and, on their way out, stumble across a school shooting. It turns out that the shooting is perpetrated by former (and current?) players who have rigged many several doors in a (student center?) building next to the football field with explosives and are now marching through the building with assault rifles in order to kill the coach because he molested them as children; the scholarship violations were hush-money to keep the scandal under wraps. The story is a clumsy retelling of the Jerry Sandusky saga at Penn State garnished with the school-shooting epidemic.

There is a lot that could be unpacked about the inconsistencies of the story. The shooters insist they are only after the coach, but nevertheless rigged doors in a student building with explosives. The coach evidently goes into the building a lot, but this sort of hand-wavy treatment of the college campus is frustrating. The student center of this fictional school contains a) cafeterias, b) classrooms, c) an auditorium, d) labs, and the whole thing is set particularly close to athletics facilities. At a small school this could certainly happen, but at a school large enough to have a nationally-competitive football program it is highly improbable. Instead of offering any sort of specificity, the writers offer vague snapshots of “college” and expect the viewer to be able to fill in the gaps. This is not particular to Blindspot, and Hudson University is a common setting for a large number of television shows when they need a stock-college.

At some level, though, this is a function of the medium. College is still a fairly ubiquitous experience for most people in America and that school is a convenient setting for a story rather than the point of the show, so vague snapshots suffice. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these snapshots help perpetuate stereotypes about the academy. (Perhaps office shows perpetuate stereotypes about offices, etc, but these shows seem to dally with the academy in a way similar only to entertainment industries.)

I don’t like how colleges are portrayed on TV, but have only one, tangentially related suggestion. Even if none of these other stereotypes are resolved, can we at least move them to a more believable location? The last time a New York school with a football program won a national championship was Army, in 1946. The show wants to be set in New York for a variety of reasons, but also to tap into the national obsession with football–two things that hardly go together.

The Struggle for Sea Power, Sam Willis

I have said in the past that if I was not studying ancient Greece there is a short list of other subjects that I would study. One of those is 18th and 19th century naval history. I have a print of a watercolor rendition of the USS Constitution on my wall and used to eat up stories about Horatio Nelson, of whom I own a two-volume biography, Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, and many, many more. I did eventually move away from simple fascination with adventure stories and became more interested in the social and economic aspects of naval powers and a personal favorite in my library is the history of the British Navy by N.A.M. Rodgers, volume two, The Command of the Ocean. Two weeks ago I saw that the library received a copy of a brand new history of the American Revolution, The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Willis’ central claim, that the conflict known as the American Revolution was fundamentally determined by and ultimately about maritime power, is aptly shown. Here is a presented a catholic definition of naval power to include the rivers, lakes, and bays of America in addition to the seas from the Caribbean to India and Willis notes that the success of most major land campaigns were determined by the abilities of sailors accompanying the fleet. Similarly, from his perspective, nearly all British campaigns during the war were a projection of naval power from a handful of port cities along the American east coast. But the war in America was just one part of a larger conflict that drew in The Netherlands, Morocco, Spain, France, Russia, and the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali. For Americans, sea power was a means to receive supplies and impede the British ability to persecute the war, but Willis shows that there was a broader concern among the other powers, namely whether it would be possible to wrest control of the seas from Britain for their own use.

Covering such a broad sweep, Willis frequently boils success and failure of operations to clashes of personality. The inability of commanders, whether between political parties, between nations, or between land and sea, to work in concert frequently determines the course of the action, perhaps even to too great an extent. Other than the individual merits of the commanders, Willis is keenly aware of the perils of sailing, including the deterioration of ship, the need for local guides, and dangerous storms, all of which appear. Willis draws together a wide range of specialized studies, on the navies of the different colonies, on the European navies, and more, and is thus able to weave in issues of naval funding, nutrition, and technology. The last is particularly notable in that the ironic twist to this story is that the American Revolution was a defeat for the British, but the innovation and mobilization meant that they emerged from the conflict in an even stronger position on the seas.

Even being predisposed to liking this topic, I enjoyed The Struggle for Sea Power, though its language was at times overly casual for my taste. To give one example, there were several examples of people being “shot in the balls.” I also wanted to know more about some of the more picayune aspects of technological development and the like, but I can’t hold those against Willis since the point of the book is how those played out during the American Revolution, which is adequately discussed.


Next up, I am still reading (and enjoying) Palace Walk, but recent events have caused my reading to slow. I am also irrationally excited for the arrival of my newest book order, which includes an Indonesian novel Man Tiger and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Plato would have run a SuperPAC?

In The Republic, Plato warned of the dangers of unchecked democracy, in that it can open the door to chaos, tyrants and demagogues.

It is an apt warning in the midst of one of the muddiest campaign cycles in American history.

Plato’s caution was that democracy is vulnerable to the manipulation of those who care more for personal power than public good.

USA Today ran an op-ed this week arguing, nominally in the name of Plato’s Republic, that campaigns financed by small donors are bad for democracy because they encourage a turn to base demagoguery in order to bring in the big bucks. Of course, as Charlie Pierce points out, “Plato didn’t say fck-all about campaign finance.” Pierce nicely mocks the central argument of the op-ed, namely that the grassroots campaigns of Obama and Sanders lead directly to the media circus that is the Drumpf campaign (with or without small donors), but I want to add a few words about Plato.

I am not an expert on Plato or his political philosophy; in fact, one of my biases is that I dislike Plato. However, I do know something about politics in the ancient world. The editorialist is not wrong that Plato was not fond of democracy as a form of government, and he even provides a link to a website that has the citation to the Republic that, by and large, offers an accurate representation of the perils of democracy. Nor is Plato alone in this, with the cycle of constitutions (Monarchy-Oligarchy-Democracy-Monarchy) appearing in the work of Aristotle and elsewhere. It reaches a particularly full form in the start of Polybius’ Book 6, where he argues that there are six varieties of constitutions, each form having a higher and lower variation and the cycle going from one viable type and degenerating into a corrupted type. The solution for Polybius, anyway, is a mixed constitution that will be stable. Plato has a less practical solution to provide stability by reordering society.

The contention made in the editorial about SuperPACs is that the large donors can hold a candidate accountable for his or her actions—-going so far as to say that:

if a campaign is wasting money on frivolous expenses, they can object. If a candidate says something overly hateful or extreme, they can walk. They often serve as an executive board of sorts, challenging campaigns to act worthy of their investment.

Without explicitly saying so, the author offers SuperPAC donors as the Guardians of Plato’s city. He admits that this is not a popular argument, but it is blatantly in favor of oligarchy. If one were to take Plato’s utopian society where everyone is treated according to his or her capabilities and serves the proper purpose, including the absolute impeccability of the guardians this might be viable. As it stands, not so much.

The editorial is designed to be anti-Drumpf, arguing that there needs to be a check on demagoguery. Fine, though Drumpf certainly benefits from the bottom line of cable companies that give him oodles of free airtime, too. What this piece misses is the underlying assumptions of ancient political thought. The fact that Drumpf is not accountable to donors would have been considered one of his greatest strengths. Drumpf might be the best demagogue of the current crop and therefore resembles Cleon, supposedly the bloodiest man in Athens, but the problem elites had with Cleon was that he used public funds to effectively purchase the support of the masses, not the other way around. In a similar vein, the problem with oligarchs is that they create laws that support oligarchs and have a tendency to punish citizens who stand in their way. If one is to look to Plato, it may be appropriate to look a bit more widely. Plato came from a wealthy aristocratic family and his relative Critias was the most vicious of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic board that ruled Athens in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War.

So would Plato have favored SuperPACs? Quite possibly, in all likelihood, but not because they ensured high-minded election cycles, but because they would have benefited him as a political being.

Mephisto – Klaus Mann

…hidden in every real German isn’t there a little of Mephistopheles, a bit of the rascal and the ruffian? If we had nothing but the soul of Faust, what would become of us? It would be a pushover for our many enemies! No, no—-Mephisto, too, is a German national hero. But it’s better not to go around telling people that.

Hendrick (neé Heinz) Höfgen is an actor in Hamburg, a provincial star who dreams of stardom in Vienna or Berlin and lords over his local cast. He rebuffs the advances of “little” Angelika and Hedda, who has intimacy but no relationship, he torments the young National Socialist Miklas, and he perpetually puts off the opening of the “revolutionary theater” planned by his communist friend Otto. The year is 1930. The directors lament that Hendrick is overpaid, but he remains the star and they tolerate his moods and eccentricities. Hendrick draws his energy from his “dancing lessons” with Princess Tebab, his black Venus, and waits.

His patience pays off, his fame builds, and he manages to convince the daughter of a privy counsellor, his “good angel” to marry him. But things really take off when Hendrick excels in the part of Mephistopheles during a performance of Goethe’s Faust and catches the eye of the Prime Minister. (The person is Hermann Göring, but just like with Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, the three prominent Nazis to appear in the book, Mann never mentions them by name, a point I will come back to below.) With this patronage, Hendrick rises to the top of society and is able to reject his past associations with revolutionary communism, his marriage to a political dissident of “questionable” lineage, and his African mistress—-even over the objections of the Propaganda Minister. However, while Mann portrays Hendrick as complicit because of his obsession with ascending the ranks as an actor, he also shows that Hendrick must still face the moral consequences of his actions; he is a consummate actor and hardly consistent, but seems to have had legitimate political sympathies and affections for people now deemed impure and thus with fame becomes ever more tortured.

Loosely based on the career of the author’s brother-in-law, Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is an interesting mixture of surreal beauty, insightful analysis of the rise of Nazi Germany, and rote polemic. It is not that Mann offers this as a hackneyed retrospective, since it was originally published in 1936, but many of the critiques have since become commonplace.

What Mann did particularly well in Mephisto was to give a panorama of the rise of the Nazi state and the subsequent fallout. For instance, both Hendrick’s friend Otto and his nemesis Hans Miklas come to unfortunate ends, Otto (twice) for dedicating himself to fighting against the Nazis and Miklas for being a true-believer betrayed by the system that still manages to reward Hendrick. Similarly, Mann accounts for the trajectories of Jewish actresses, dissident ex-wives, and deported mistresses to show how Hendrick’s rise and the system that enabled it affected those around him. I also appreciated the depiction of the top Nazi officials, who Mann described as demigods of the underworld who extended their benevolence to mortals.

In this portrayal, it is of little surprise that Hendrick so fully embodied Mephistopheles, who he characterized as “a tragic clown,” a “rascal,” who “knows mankind.” Hendrick is Mephisto. Mephisto is Hendrick. More independent than evil, ever ingratiating, and more than a little lucky. In this case, however, he is also torn by powers stronger than he, torn asunder by the very lack of willingness to stand for anything other than himself. This is not the banality of evil, but something in the same vicinity where personal ambitions of even a person with a conscience can cause him to betray almost everything in his life, whether he believes in those things or not.

I liked Mephisto, though not as much as Klaus’ father, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which was published more than ten years after this book. It has been too long since reading the latter to really compare the two, but perhaps if I reread it this summer I will have to think about this more deeply. That said, I am not in a hurry to jump into that project since I am once more feeling burnt-out on depictions of totalitarianism in Europe.


Next up: I am currently reading Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz and still working on The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Tun-Huang – Yasushi Inoue

What can set in motion a chain of events that will, in hundreds of years, lead to a remarkable archeological find? More concretely, what can set in motion events that will cause a man to bury hundreds of pages of buddhist scripture in isolated caves?

This is the question that Yasushi Inoue answers with his work of historical imagination, Tun-Huang, so named for the caves where the monk Chao Hsing-te will end up burying the scrolls. The story opens hundreds of miles away. Hsing-te comes from a bureaucratic family and studied for years to take the civil service exam except, after cruising through the first two rounds of testing, he falls asleep in the waiting area and sleeps through the final round of testing. Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the next round of testing and being devastated, Hsing-te wanders through the market and chances into a merchant selling a Hsi-Hsia woman, one body part at a time. Moved by the spectacle, Hsing-te her freedom, and then sets out to see her homeland. Along the way he becomes a warrior, falls in love with a princess, becomes associated with a dangerous and violent merchant and a Hsing-te officer of Chinese origin with a near-suicidal mania for throwing himself into battle. All of these events are formative, but, ultimately, the most important development is that Hsing-te converts to Buddhism and dedicates his living to saving the documents before the flames of war consume them.

Tun-Huang is a book on which I am torn. The text forms the backbone of an epic story, and Inoue mimics the form of historical narrative from a detached vantage point. It is an epic in two hundred pages. Hsing-te’s transition is a worthy subject, and the Chinese soldier Wang Li, the merchant Kuang, and the Uigher princess are viable, if somewhat shallow, supporting characters. The book moves, and I agree with one review I read that compares the story to the form and style to that of the movie Western, but I still found myself dissatisfied. My problem was the sense of predestination in that, while not in form, the story is built to start with the end and then builds back the events that led up to it. As a result, individual scenes were moving–the sacrifice of the princess, the greedy merchant pawing through the ground for riches–but in part because I found the characters hard to connect with, I suspect because of the style, the overall the story lacked sufficient drama for my taste.

ΔΔΔ
Next up I am currently reading Klaus Mann’s Mephisto about actors and theater in Nazi Germany and The Struggle for Sea Power, a global naval history of the American Revolution.

The Dispossessed– Ursula K. Le Guin

Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what my world must be like?

The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, The Dispossessed has its faults, but is a revelation nonetheless. The novel, subtitled “an ambiguous utopia,” follows Shevek, a physicist across two timelines, brilliantly interweaving the themes and events of the two toward the seminal events of the story, a departure and an un-narrated return. This is a narrative technique I have a fondness for and Le Guin executes it well, but the brilliance lies in that the technique mirrors Shevek’s research on Sequency and Simultaneity. Content and form are matched, but I am getting ahead of myself.

At its heart, The Dispossessed is a story of exploration. Shevek is raised on the “anarchic” moon/world Anarres where, a hundred and fifty years before the story, the most fervent followers of the revolutionary preacher Odo fled to found a new society. Their language is constructed to do away with prejudices and superstitions, their names assigned by a computer, and their society based on the principles of individualism and equality. Society is governed by economic “syndicates” that are voluntary associations for people to pursue vocations. While everyone is free to do as they wish, the behavior is regulated by community and traditional pressures. Everyone pursues what is best for them and their community and everyone makes sacrifices. Shevek finds out that there may not be a hierarchy, but some people are able to exert power over others as he is repeatedly thwarted in his scientific pursuits by a petty, conservative scientist. Even beyond influentially located opponents, he comes to realize how much power the entrenched bureaucracy has. This may not be problematic for the individual who can seamlessly integrate into society as needed, but is devastating for one whose social fabric requires being knotted with a particular set of people.

When Shevek tries to live the revolution, he learns that there are social consequences–particularly when he decides that his purpose includes becoming the first person in nearly 200 years to go back to the land of the “profiteers,” Urras, whence their ancestors fled all those years ago. Yet, once he manages to make this journey, Shevek finds that his study of temporal physics is easier, but also that there is gross inequality and that there are as many or more limits on his personal freedoms.

The Dispossessed is bursting with ideas. In the Anarres timeline, there are questions of love, family, and intimacy in a society based on extreme socialization, the problem of communal subsistence and sacrifice in times of hardship, power and influence in a society formally without hierarchy or religion. In the Urres timeline, there is an issue of gender equality, inequalities based on wealth, and money. Spanning the two are the ultimate issues of freedom and happiness, combined with the way in which language governs how people interact with the world around them. Framing all of these, as well as the story as a whole is the very basic idea of walls. The story begins:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the port of Anarres…It was in fact a quarantine…It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

Though he never addresses it directly, Shevek seems to hate the wall, but nevertheless must decide which side he wants to be on.

I have owned this book for a while now, but had it independently talked up by several people whose literary opinions I respect, so I moved it up my list and was immensely rewarded. I was swept away by The Dispossessed, which quickly became one of my favorite science fiction novels. That said, there were times that I found Urras, the Earth-analog, to be a little bit too on the nose with its Cold War parallels (the novel was first published in 1974). Le Guin does transcend this in the end, and notably manages to tell the story from the point of view of an outsider plopped down into the middle of the conflict, while also positing a different sort of stalemate between the two worlds, both of which sometimes refer to the other world as their “moon.” Shevek has his preferences between the two, but both may be considered an “ambiguous utopia.”

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I am about halfway through Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-Huang, which is fine, but not nearly as exceptional as a lot of what I’ve read this year thus far. My expectations might be high at this point, but it is disappointing me nonetheless.

Beer in the Snooker Club – Waguih Ghali

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Perhaps our culture is nothing but jokes.”

Told from the point of view of Ram, the scion of a Coptic family in Egypt’s elite, Beer in the Snooker Club is a window into the upper crust of Egyptian society in the wake of King Farouk’s ouster in 1952. The revolution is forcing the rich to give up much of their money, but they remain diverse–coptic, jewish, muslim–and live blindly within their clubs, ignorant of the wider world around them. Ram, short for Ramis, is disdainful of his myopic peers, and refuses to play nice with them in order to ensure his own comforts, instead preferring to leech off wealthy friends and live gambling windfall to gambling windfall. In general Ram gets by because of his charm and connections, but uses his education to mock most of his peers, and particularly his cousin Mounir to his face.

The story, with Ram as narrator, consists of two settings. The first, which comprises both the opening and the closing, is Cairo, with its gambling clubs and family residences. Sandwiched between these, however, is a partially narrated stay in England, in the immediate buildup to the Suez Crisis. Ram goes to England with his friend Font and their teacher, benefactor, and (for Ram) lover, Edna, a jewish heiress some five years their senior. The trip is significant for their relationships, including offering struggles at the consulate, with former British soldiers, with money, and with Ram’s descent to bitter flippancy, but Ram only describes the falling out with Font and Edna, not any of the potentially more significant events that transpired, including the actual outbreak of the conflict or his deportation.

Ram describes his situation as “suspended between eras of civilization.” Farouk’s monarchy has fallen, Nasser’s revolution has proven inadequate, and Egypt remains at the mercy of American fact-finders and British whims, which now cater to the new ruling elite. The old cosmopolitan ruling class is beginning to fall apart. One of the main tensions in the story is what it means to be Egyptian and whether one should consider themself as a citizen of a country or a citizen of humanity; Ram looks to the latter, but most do not.

Beer in the Snooker Club is a tight little love story centered on, as Edna once calls him, “lonely” Ram. This part of the story was fine, though I liked the women Ram liked more than I liked Ram, who was sort of a petty man who would claim he thought about the greater humanity, but really thought about immediate, simple pleasures. At least in this particularly retelling where there is a sense of both supreme ego and also self-loathing. What made it remarkable to me, however, was not the story itself, but what the story danced around. Major events, either for the characters or for the world, were not narrated, but happened offstage only to have their consequences come to bear in the personal relationships. To whit, Ram is deported from England (but has a major development while there), Edna receives a nasty scar across her face from a whip, Font goes off to fight at the Suez, and all of these events inform the action back in Cairo. Perhaps most importantly, Ram becomes involved in a scheme to publicize the brutality of the new regime. The question is will his political beliefs or his interest at immediate satisfaction win out.

I read that this book is a semi-autobiographical work by Waguih Ghali, and I suspect that another of the tensions alluded to in the text is a result of this. Beer in the Snooker Club was originally written in English and thus the (anti)hero has an English education and is somewhat dismissive of those Egyptians with their hoighty French education and describes Arabic as a language for the common Egyptians. This stood out particularly because the French-educated Albert Cossery took a similar approach to describing jokes as central to Egyptian culture and it was the Arabic-language author Naguib Mahfouz (several of whose books are on my to-read pile) who won the Nobel Prize. I prefer Cossery of those I’ve read thus far, but they tell different stories and are coming from different parts of Egyptian society.

Ghali published only the one book, having committed suicide in 1969 before finishing his second novel. There were points at which this narrative seemed to skip around, but, ultimately, Beer in the Snooker Club is a moving story about Ram’s maturation and subsequent dissolution. I may not hold with his actions, beliefs, or entire world view, but I felt for him and in this sort of story that is sufficient.


Next up, I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s Nebula, Locust, and Hugo award-winning novel The Dispossessed.

Social Media and an Academic Conference CAMWS 2016

Last weekend I attended the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) annual meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is a conference I have been to before, but, for a variety of reasons, some of which are the topic of this post, I had a different interaction with it than usual. For a compilation of the tweets I sent during conference, see here.

I went into the CAMWS meeting figuring that I would be at least somewhat active on Twitter; my posts there ebb and flow depending on a number of offline factors, including an internal debate over what I want the platform to be “for.” But I am active on Twitter and figured, as is my wont, that I would post something. I was not going to make an attempt at live-tweeting sessions, knowing my attention span, but I thought I’d do some posting after the fact. This was facilitated because, for once, the venue had fast, free, widely available wifi.

Then a funny thing happened: early in the conference a debate popped up on Twitter from people who couldn’t make it to the conference asking why there was an apparent zone of silence over the conference. More and more often conferences and meetings are pushing toward digital interaction, often establishing a conference hashtag right up front and, in at least one instance that I saw (on Twitter), offering to put a member’s Twitter handle on the name tag. I think CAMWS was interested in this being a thing at the meeting, but to the extent that the information was there it was somewhat buried.

There are certainly an issue of ethics when it comes to live-tweeting a conference, and the debate on Twitter moved in that direction, including one person arguing that, if done well, this sort of publication actually protects copyright because the idea is linked to the name. For whatever reason, the media presence from this particular CAMWS meeting was limited to a small handful of people.

Partly inspired by this debate, my Twitter “agenda” changed over the course of the meeting and thus my interaction with the meeting changed. Originally I was only going to do sporadic posts, but because of the external debate, I decided to do recaps of papers I saw. A lot of these tweets were developed back in my hotel room in the evening or in the airport waiting for a flight, but I was more assiduous about taking notes while in the sessions knowing that I intended to post them online later. Even so, I found myself struggling to find a consistent format on Twitter, particularly once I was posting more than one comment per paper, and trying to find a way to link the tweets about a given paper together. This was easier once I storified the whole thing, but I wanted to find a way to link on the main feed. Yet another reason to avoid the algorithmic timeline.

I almost called this post “Two Days of Minor Internet Celebrity,” because my conference tweets were picked up by Classics twitter writ large, including Rogue Classicist. This gave me ten new followers and spiked the “impressions” from a few hundred a day to fifteen thousand in two days. Those have since subsided somewhat now that I am falling into more usual patterns of activity, but it was nonetheless an interesting experience, no doubt aided by relatively few people tweeting from the conference and a relatively large number of interested parties who couldn’t make it.

As much as this was a good experience for me, I wish I had been more organized and prepared to tweet from the outset. I did put my twitter handle on my handout, but with so few people doing anything with it, I’m not sure this made an impression. This is not to say that I won’t put my twitter handle on future handouts, but that I might want to call attention to it, either myself or in the introduction in the future. As for the conference as a whole, there could have been a more concerted effort to foreground the hashtag and other social media opportunities in the program and packet. I heard belatedly that there was this information, but I was using the online program and often found myself searching in the page for names or topics, or otherwise skipping around, rather than reading it in a linear way. Similarly, if there had been hashtags associated with particular panels (as Hamish Cameron was adding to his live-tweeting, I think), then there would have been greater awareness that the conference endorsed social media outreach. That said, the conference had the single most important thing for this sort of engagement, which was wifi.

This is the first time I offered dedicated tweets from a conference, but it won’t be the last. As long as I am going to be part of this academic world, I plan to make the most of it.

Basti – Intizar Husain

The more the turmoil increases outside, the more I sink into myself. Memories of so many times come to me. Ancient and long-ago stories, lost and scattered thoughts. Memories one after another, entangled in each other, like a forest to walk through. My memories are a forest. so where does the forest begin? No, where do I begin? And again he was in a forest…When he As he moved along in the darkness and encountered a bright patch, he paused, but again moved on, for he wanted to arrive at the moment when his consciousness had first opened its eyes. But he couldn’t grasp the moment. When he put his finger on the memory, dense crowds of other memories drifted along in its train.

Other people’s history can be read comfortably, the way a novel can be read comfortably. But my own history? I’m on the run from my own history, and catching my breath in the present. Escapist. But the merciless present pushes us back again toward our history.

Afzal, a friend of the narrator of Intizar Husain’s novel Basti, keeps a running list of virtuous men in the world inscribed on a sheet of paper. He laments that the number is small and is ever diminishing.

Basti, the title of which means “place,” is a chimerical tale that charts the creation of “modern” Pakistan and the evident dissolution of civil society. When the story opens, the earliest memories that Zakir reaches back for, his fictional hometown Rupnagar is peaceful, with Hindus and Muslims living side-by-side, the primal forest and old buildings dominating the town. South Asian mythology lives here. Zakir’s family holds a prominent position in the town, with his father a member of the religious elite. But, even before the trauma of the partition of India in 1947, there are signs of the world changing when electricity comes to Rupnagar, the wires kill monkeys. After the Partition, Zakir and his family move to Lahore.

The narrative takes place in two sequences, blended together in Zakir’s retelling. The “present” plot takes place in 1971 during the war between Pakistan and India that created an independent Bangledesh. Lahore is given over to protests and air raids that disrupt the schedule of the college where Zakir teaches history. Instead, he spends more time at cafes, which are increasingly depressing. The “past” plot are Zakir’s daydreams of Rupnagar and of earlier adventures with his friends in the heyday of Lahore’s cafe scene. The days are not perfect, but they are better—and can never be recaptured.

Basti is part of a genre that recounts the coming of modernity and upheavals within a community. Zakir is part of a younger generation that certainly makes the transition more easily than do their elders, but as one of his friends puts it, Zakir peddles a drug no less potent than the religion of their fathers:

“I’m telling you, you’re responsible for this defeat. And you, Zakir.

“How?” Zakir asked innocently.

Salamat said wrathfully, “You imperialist stooge, do you play innocent and ask how? Haven’t you thought about what you’re teaching to boys? The histories of kings. Opium pills! Yes, and your father is responsible, who every day feeds my father an opium pill of religion!…”

Zakir is a man out of time, but, interestingly, Husain implies that his backward-looking personality is a character trait rather than simply a consequence of the times he lives in. His memories, in particular, are infused with Hindu and Muslim, usually Shia, lore, for which there is a glossary in the back. However, though Salamat accuses him of teaching an overly optimistic version of history, one of the things Zakir’s daydreams make clear is that while the past might sometimes be easy to envision as a peaceful place free of responsibility, it is also filled with tragedy and suffering.

The only memories that escape this universal truth are those from his childhood and about the woman he loves. Contributing to Zakir’s pain and disillusionment, though is how his primary love interest is forcibly kept apart from him such that he goes years without knowing whether or not she is even alive. Other loves are foiled by his own naïveté, but the elusiveness of love, combined with the tenuousness of male friendships, forms a backdrop for the novel, as well as the actual human interactions between people who are powerless before faceless threats and changes.

I picked up Basti a few months ago because I like the New York Review of Books Classics editions and because the story looked interesting. It also had the advantage of being originally written in Urdu appealed to my interest in reading world literature. The book jumped to the front of my list because Husain just recently passed away (it was published in 1979, and the translation in 2012). It was one I was looking forward to reading and was not disappointed. Basti has its issues, but the prose is beautiful and there is always beauty within the desolation of the modern world. There is a simple solution to the problems, Basti implies: work hard, live simple, and be virtuous.

Three things debase a man: a woman when she is not faithful, a brother when he asks for more than is his right, knowledge when it comes without hard labor. And three things deprive the earth of peace: an ignoble man when he rises to high rank, a learned man when he begins to worship gold, a master when he becomes cruel.

Easier said than done.


Next up, I am currently reading Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dosteovsky

Life is paradise; we all live in paradise, although we don’t want to see it.

One family, two love triangles, four brothers, and a murdered father. Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is a sprawling, yet shockingly contained, meditation on faith, science, religion, love and devotion.

The Brothers Karamazov is a type of book that defies succinct synopsis, at least without gross over-simplification. It is structured as an account of the events that led up to a notorious patricide trial in rural Russia, and this arc forms the backbone of the novel. The story focuses on the dysfunctional Karamazov family, including the miserly sensualist father Fyodor, the profligate sensualist eldest son Dmitry, bitter intellectual middle son Ivan, angelic youngest son Alyosha, and the frustrated and conniving bastard (literally) Smerdyakov, who works as Fyodor’s servant. One of these young men murders his father. However, the story also draws in a wide and memorable cast of characters from the surrounding town, including Elder Zosima, the young socialist Kolya Krasotkin, Dmitry’s fiancée (and woman Ivan pursues) Katerina, and the flame of many hearts Grushenka, pursuit of whom fuels the conflict between Dmitry and his father.

This is a book that has so many themes that it is easy to imagine that one could return to it with a focus on a different character and theme each time through. What stood out to me on my virgin read were the eternal tension between reason and religion, individuals and communities (in a catholic sense, in both cases), and “modernism.” These themes are related, naturally, and the prospect of describing them at any great depth is intimidating. That said, I want to give several examples.

First, one of the recurring issues that underpins the novel, though not featuring directly into the main arc is the conflict between reason and religion. Characters may be described as pro- or anti-religion, but, for the most part, the depiction is significantly more nuanced than that. For instance, Alyosha is an acolyte in the monastery, but not a true believer, and his conflict is mirrored by his brother Ivan, who is a devotee of “modern” reason, and yet is plagued by the presence of the divine. Further dividing the categories are how characters envision the world and the place of human beings within it. Ironically, the quote that opens this post is declared by a man seen by others to be entirely mad and on his way toward death. But is he insane or actually seeing things clearly? Is the world a vicious, cruel place or is it largely so because people mistreat each other? To make matters worse, pride and shows of pride (as well as greed, avarice, lust, etc) lead the inability to reconcile people in such a way that they may all be bettered. This is particularly true of a nasty pack of young men, but certainly extends beyond their youthfully energetic pettiness.

Second, the tension between tradition and modernism appears in a number of guises in the novel. In once instance:

“If you want my true opinion about Greek and Latin—-they’re just a way to police people. That’s the only reason they’re taught…They were introduced in school curriculae to dull the students’ intelligence. It was already pretty boring before, but they felt they had to make it even more boring; it was already senseless. And so they dragged in classical languages. That is my sincere opinion and I hope I never change it….deep down in my heart I have nothing but contempt for the whole swindle.”

“Why do you call it a ‘swindle’?”

“Just think: the classics have all been translated into modern languages and so we don’t have to study Latin to read them. We study them only because it dulls our senses and makes us more susceptible to police control.”

This exchange takes place between the thirteen (almost fourteen!) year old self-described Socialist Kolya and Alyosha, in a truncated debate about education and values beside the sickbed of another boy. This novel was published in 1880, but the debate is eerily familiar, whether one thinks that arcane languages are designed to hide information or, like Kolya, to indoctrinate people. The claim is that, since there are translations it is time to move on to things bigger and better. Ironies abound, not least of which is that the debate is itself in a translated version of The Brother’s Karamazov. Even deeper, though, is that translation is itself a form of interpretation into which a mimetic aesthetic has been created—a particular challenge when the languages themselves often push a different form.

The payoff to the extended build-up in The Brothers Karamazov is an intense courtroom drama in which one man is put on trial and concerns over what actually happened one the fateful night lose all meaning. In a room where the women believe one thing, the men another, the judges a third thing altogether, Truth has no place and everyone is in it for him- or herself.

I am going to end my reflection on The Brothers Karamazov here because, like the novel, I feel myself wandering hither and thither, without really pulling my thoughts together (which is one of my main goals with these reviews). This is a bear of a book to read and certainly a commitment that reflects the values of a changing, “modernizing,” society and the intellectual movements of its days, but the payoff is entirely worthwhile.


I finished Intizar Husain’s Basti on the trip I took this weekend, and am now halfway through Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club. I really liked Basti and plan to write a review in the coming days.