Monday, October 12, 2015

Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov

Alexandra Popoff’s Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov is a fascinating tale adding much needed insight into one of the world’s most complex writers and thinkers.  

Tolstoy, in his later years, had a group of followers who exercised a wide influence on him.  According to Popoff, the greatest of these was Vladimir Chertkov, a man who eventually wrestled control of Tolstoy’s legacy from his family after he died, for monetary gain and personal prestige.

Popoff paints Chertkov as a very unsavory character: mercurial, dictatorial, flattering, lazy  ­– he still had a certain charm and charisma.  For certain people, Chertkov was irresistible. This was the case with Tolstoy.

Popoff’s plots the many ways Chertkov was able to manipulate the great writer.  Tolstoy, in turn, appeared to need something in his relationship with Chertkov, which he continued to the day of his death.  This man greatly attracted Tolstoy.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Chertkov’s control was the idea that Tolstoy’s wife prevented the writer from living the ascetic life he preached.  Popoff shows how Chertkov purposely crafted this perception to gain posthumous control of Tolstoy’s image and to make it acceptable to Soviet propaganda.

This fascinating book is clearly written and provides great insights into Tolstoy’s life and legacy.  It  plots both the complexities of Chertkov and Tolstoy, and the gives the reader an excellent picture of the historical and political context in which they lived.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order

Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order by Philip Coggan is timely, informative, clearly written, and utterly depressing.  Coggan takes us through the history of money, credit, debt, illustrating the various ways people give credit and take on debt, and how this dynamic has changed with history, location, and circumstance.

The New World Order in the subtitle is just that: we are on the verge of a debt cataclysm, probably to be enacted in stages, and from this will develop a new monetary system.  It will be just as radical a change as after the Great Depression, or World War II and Bretton Woods; it will most likely benefit China, the world's largest creditor.

The sky will not fall down (at least forever), people will still buy and sell, establish credit and take on debt, but America’s preeminent role as the world’s largest economy and most stable monetary system will be gone, according to Coggan.  The system will fail as most do: the very dynamics that made us wealthy, paper money no longer pinned to a gold standard, will cause it to collapse. The wealth we easily gained will cause from printing money will cause the system to devolve. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

In Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, the author is careful to state, near the end of the work, that “terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.” 

If that statement sums up the book, the lesson is a sobering one. Fighting terrorism is always depicted as a moral battle which a superior force is bound to win.  Yet in Hoffman’s historical examination of the right-wing Jewish terrorist groups the Irgun and Lehi and their struggle against British rule in Palestine, he makes a good case that terrorism, and violence generally, is the most effective means to solve intractable political problems.

Yet if we look at this phrase carefully, there are many caveats. There must be the “right conditions” in this case, a British administration in Palestine that was underfunded and demoralized, backed up by a financially bankrupt country depleted by two world wars.  There must be “the appropriate strategy and tactics” and as Hoffman shows, Lehi, and in particular the Irgun and its leader, Menachem Begin, knew how to hit the symbols of British control in Palestine for the maximizing demoralizing effect to the occupiers.  Then, terrorism may succeed “in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”  Here, 'some' is the operative world.  The Irgun and Lehi had grand designs for the Jewish state, and most of them were not realized.  The Irgun became a political party after independence, and did not have substantial power in the State of Israel until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. Yitzhak Shamir, the head of Lehi, did not have significant power in Israel in the 1980s

So, Hoffman leaves us with a disturbing vision.  We don’t want violence, especially terrorism, to achieve its goals, yet in the example of the Irgun and Lehi, Hoffman makes a good case that the departure of the British from Palestine in 1948 was if not caused, than at least hastened the end of British rule.  But much of the fault also lay with Great Britain.

Hoffman examines a trove of documents relating to the British government and the governance of the Palestine during the Mandate, and it is apparent that Britain fell far short in two key ways: 1. it failed to have a consist policy on Palestine regarding Zionism, and 2. In the face of the urban terrorism of the Irgun and Lehi, the British intelligence service, police and military were particularly inept.  They simply did not have the drive or creativity to fight effectively, and to fix Palestine, and we live with the legacy of their errors to this day.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Greater Consummation: Salter's A Sport and a Pastime

Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime… –Koran, LVII19.  

James Salter’s 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime has this Quranic quote as an epigraph.  Given the book's content, it is hard to know if Salter is wielding these words as irony or cautionary tale.  In this book of total sensual immersion of both main characters, a sexual oblivion that orders reality in a mysticism light, it appears to convey both meanings.   Dean and Anne-Marie's story of love and eroticism, although successful, ultimately fails as it encounters the rock bottom of the human physical and spiritual trajectory.  This books shows how the great oblivion which sex and love seek and often find is easily swallowed up in the greater consummation of death.

Monday, September 21, 2015

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser sheds light on the not always exciting or racy framer of the Constitution and fourth president of the United States.Brookhiser paints a portrait of a man both idealistic and practical, caught somewhere in the middle of the reality of how things are, and his dreams of how things should be.  

This is fitting with Madison’s position among Americas first leaders: he was young during the revolution, and was among the second wave of leaders to came after the mighty Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton.   Yet he was never completely overshadowed by them, even if he did not share their gifts.   He lacked Washington’s martial prowess, Adams’ aristocratic bearing, Jefferson’s philosopher’s detachment, or Hamilton’s business acumen. 

Or, if he had these qualities, they were always measured against the men who came before.  In that sense, Madison gets shafted in the historical record.  But in quite another the Madison which Brookhiser provides us is often a small man, concerned with petty ideas and political dealings. Brookhiser stresses that he was America's first true politician.

So, we get many Madisons in Brookhiser’s biography.  This, perhaps, is the greatest measure of this man complex man.  His ideas evolved over time to meet the exigencies of the moment.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Song of Longing

Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey is part travelogue, part memoir, and part coming of age tale of a young scholar in search of intellectual and emotional fulfillment.  It is also the story of the degeneration of a country; its plunge into chaos, war, and famine. 

Shelemay went to Ethiopia in the early to mid-seventies to study the Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia (which she calls Falasha throughout the work).  In the process, she met her future husband, a scion of a wealthy Adenite Jewish family living in Addis Ababa.

This book evolves into an exploration of some of the more distant areas of the Jewish diaspora, but is also about the gathering together of Jews.  Shelemay, an Ashkenazim, marries a Sephardi man as she makes contact with the Beta Israel.  During her studies of Beta Israel and Christian liturgy (mainly through song), she is one of the originators of the origins of the Beta Israel, a theory which still holds currency among scholars today.

She is one of the last witnesses of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia before their immigration to Israel, and their complete evolution to Ethiopian Jews.  As such, her well written book is invaluable. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Holy Whistle

This High Holiday season I have been reading a book on “hanhagot,” or acts of personal piety. So far, this is the best I have encountered:

Once, Rebbe Zusya visited the holy genius, Rabbi Mordecai, who gave him a room for the night. After midnight, Rabbi Mordecai heard how Rebbe Zusya woke up and jumped around the room. After doing this for a while he called out, “Master of the World, I love You! What can I do for You? I can’t do anything!” Then he… repeated the same thing a number of times… [and]… ran around the room until he said, “I know what I can do! I can whistle for you!” He began to whistle with such fervor that Rabbi Mordecai said to his comrade who was standing near him, “Let us leave here quickly before we get burned by the breath of his holy mouth.” ----from Ohel Elimelech.