April 2009

2009 04 29
Recently read: The Mycenaean World

Posted by in: Books, Classics, History

John Chadwick. The Mycenaean World

The Mycenaean Greeks flourished on parts of mainland Greece and on Crete and a few surrounding islands from about the sixteenth to the thirteen centuries B.C. We don’t know why their civilization collapsed, one city after another, at the end of this period, but when it did Greece entered a period of decentralized, impoverished chaos. The Iliad and the Odyssey were put together around 800 B.C., as Greece began to emerge from this dark age. Both hearken back over the centuries (often anachronistically, as I’ll point out below) to the dimly remembered golden age of the Mycenaean world.

The Mycenaeans wrote, but mainly on perishable substances, like parchment. Parchment falls apart eventually; as far as I know, not a scrap of parchment with the Mycenaean script on it survives.

Fortunately, the Mycenaeans also wrote on clay tablets, a cheap and easy way of keeping temporary records. These were discovered at several sites, the most important of which were at Knossos, on Crete, and at Pylos, on the Western prong of the Peloponnese. They would certainly have crumbled away long ago, but fortunately (for us) both sites were ravaged by fire for some reason and never rebuilt. The clay tablets baked in the fires, turning the temporary writing surfaces into items sturdy enough to survive to the present.

For many years, the Mycenaeans were known to us only through the efforts of archaeologists, who had only the mute relics of this era to assemble theories about it. We had the tablets, but the Mycenaeans did not use the Greek alphabet that we’ve all come to know and love. Indeed, for some time a firm majority of scholars insisted that whatever the tablets meant exactly, the language employed on them was not Greek. We call the script “Linear B,” and for years it was a tantalizing mystery.

The problem was not cracked by mainstream scholars, most of whom were hooked on the “not Greek” theory. Instead, a brilliant and eccentric British architect named Michael Ventris made the most important breakthrough in 1952, shortly before his untimely death at the age of 34 in a car crash. He was soon joined by the Classicist John Chadwick, who contributed a number of breakthroughs of his own, and then wrote a series of foundational works on the subject. Linear B was Greek after all, though a very archaic form of it.

If you were hoping for great literature, the surviving texts in Linear B are a grave disappointment. But they are not without their uses:

At first sight their contents are deplorably dull: long lists of names, records of livestock, grain and other produce, the account books of anonymous clerks. Here and there a vivid description of an ornate table or a richly decorated chariot breaks the monotony. But for the most part the tablets are drab and lifeless documents. Their one virtue is their utter authenticity, for they contain the actual words and figures noted down by the men and women who created the same civilization that has yielded such splendid treasures to the archaeologist’s spade.

With the decipherment of Linear B, we could finally supplement, modify, and correct many of the aspects of the picture given to us by archaeologists working on the period. Although The Mycenaean World is alive to the archaeological evidence at every step, it’s central mission is integrating this rich trove of written evidence into our view of the Mycenaeans.

The Mycenaean World is a work of consummate scholarship about a fascinating, remote era. I would guess, though, that a nonspecialist would require a fairly strong degree of antecedent interest in the subject to get through it. The book is well-written, but it offers a level of detail that could easily wilt the curiosity of most readers. How much do you want to know about the Mycenaean system of weights and measures? If the answer is, “several pages, at least!” then by all means, this is your book. Otherwise, you might want to stick to Homer for a glimpse of this distant world. On the other hand, you should know that by doing so you’ll be sacrificing authenticity for action. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in The Mycenaean World, “Homer the pseudo-historian,” points out how dimly the period was remembered by the time Greece finally started to climb out of the dark ages that separated the Mycenaeans era from the vibrant renaissance that began several centuries later.

Howls of outrage (4)

2009 04 28
On shooting yourself in the head

Posted by in: Books, Odds and ends

Tom Bissell had a appreciation in the NYT recently of the book length version of a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace that I was complaining about in the comments earlier in the month. Jacob Silverman riffs on the piece here at the Virginia Quarterly. Both spend some time mulling over the apparent removal of an allusion to suicide in the published version of the speech:

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Bissell writes of the excision:

It is not difficult to understand why. Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace’s work (and there are many: the patriarch of “Infinite Jest” is a suicide; Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” is narrated by a suicide) now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it. These are craters that cannot be filled. The glory of the work and the tragedy of the life are relations but not friends, informants but not intimates. Exult in one; weep for the other.

Silverman argues that excising such passages is a mistake.

[Update: As Bissell points out in the comments, he's left a comment at the Virginia Quarterly site clarifying things: The line in question wasn't in the original written version of the speech, on which the book is based.]

[Second Update: Oh, check out the correction to Bissell's piece in the NYT.]

Setting aside the personal tragedy it reminds us of for a moment, I think it’s worth pointing out that the text is better off without the passage because the point it makes is so transparently idiotic. People shoot themselves in the head because (provided you don’t miss, as some people do, unfortunately), it’s the quickest and most painless way to kill yourself with a gun. Where the fuck else are you going to shoot yourself, if you’re going to shoot yourself? Your liver?

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 04 27
Recently read: Fear and Loathing

Posted by in: Books, U.S. politics

Hunter S. Thompson. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72

“What I would like to preserve here,” Hunter S. Thompson writes in the opening pages of Fear and Loathing, “is a kind of high-speed cinematic reel-record of what the campaign was like at the time, not what the whole thing boiled down to or how it fits into history.” This conveys fairly accurately what Fear and Loathing includes, as well as what it leaves out. Except in the most general terms, there is almost no discussion of policy in this book—what the candidates stood for in the presidential race of 1972, whether their platforms were realistic or feasible, how they differed from one another. This isn’t a book about that kind of politics. It’s about the daily horse-race in the polls, about spin and counterspin, about the tedium of campaigning, and the thrill of high-stakes convention maneuvering.

It’s also very much a book about Hunter S. Thompson. “Gonzo journalism,” Thompson’s brand, allowed him the freedom to insert himself in all his frenetic, drugged up glory right smack into the story he was telling. Since Thompson is so consistently strange and funny and out of control, this adds interest to what is already a pretty interesting, if sad and frustrating, story: the rise and fall of George McGovern from an obscure unknown at the outset of the primaries to the crushing defeat he suffered against Nixon on election day.

It wasn’t supposed to end that way. Nixon was a polarizing figure in a time of widespread discontent, committed to an unpopular war, and facing 25 million new potential voters, who could be expected to skew against him. Watergate had only started to penetrate the national consciousness, but there were considerable forces arrayed against Nixon already.

The setting convinced many that the Democratic nomination would be harder to win than the Presidency, since any Democratic nominee was expected to have great odds against Nixon. The Democratic nomination went to McGovern, who beat out party insiders Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie in the course of a grueling struggle through the primaries by campaigning as a principled outsider, a refreshing and authentic voice for substantive change in a party that many felt offered a poor alternative to the Republican option.

But after a promising start, the McGovern campaign crashed in a messy convention, and a string of disasters that kept the campaign on the defensive right up until the vote. The worst of these was McGovern’s decision to back Thomas Eagleton, his (first) Vice-Presidential running mate, “1000%” after the news broke that Eagleton had been hospitalized several times with fairly serious psychiatric difficulties (for which he had undergone shock therapy)—only to reverse course later and dump Eagleton in favour of a new running mate. The stunning reversal following an agonizing period of indecision badly tarnished McGovern’s image as an unusually candid politician. It was a terrible shame. As Thompson points out a number of times, McGovern was a decent candidate whose faults and considerable missteps were hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the sins of his opponent in the White House.

After years of complaining about horse-race coverage of political campaigns, I was a bit chagrined to find Thompson’s account of the ’72 campaign so gripping. The superficiality of the approach makes it a poor substitute for a serious discussion of how a society ought to organize itself. But there really is a place for accounts of the machinery of political life and for accounts of life on the campaign trail, especially when they’re this strange and original.

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2009 04 18
Recently read: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Posted by in: Books, Classics, History

Andrew George (translator and editor). The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation

About 2800 B.C., long before Moses led the Israelites from Egypt, long before the walls of Homer’s Troy went up*, there lived a man named Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, a Sumerian city in the South of what is now Iraq. After Gilgamesh died he slipped into legend. A tradition of oral poetry grew up around his life, and then a body of written poetry in both Sumerian and Akkadian. Around 1100 B.C., this tradition of written and oral poetry was brought together into a version of Gilgamesh’s life that is now referred to as the “standard version.”

The standard version of the Gilgamesh epic opens to reveal a restless, unrestrained young Gilgamesh. He is a tyrannical ruler, relishing his seigneurial rights, forcing the young men of Uruk into ceaseless contests for his amusement. What Gilgamesh lacks is a companion, an equal who can advise him and moderate his conduct. Accordingly, the goddess Aruru fashions a man out of clay and sets him down in the wild. The man is Enkidu, and he will be Gilgamesh’s companion, but not until he is tamed and brought in from the wild. This happens after Enkidu is spotted by a hunter, who reports the sighting to Gilgamesh, who has dreamed of Enkidu already. Gilgamesh dispatches a harlot, Shamhat, to civilize Enkidu. She tracks Enkidu down, and:

For six days and seven nights
Enkidu was erect, as he coupled with Shamhat


She also removes his hair and teaches him to eat and drink in the human way. The animals who had been his companions now flee at his sight. Enkidu also seems to have acquired a human sense of justice at some point. Although they are destined to become friends, Enkidu first comes to Uruk in anger, when he learns about Gilgamesh’s practice of sleeping with the women of Uruk before their husbands. He challenges Gilgamesh, blocking his path, and the two wrestle. The fight breaks off with Enkidu’s acknowledgement of Gilgamesh’s supremacy, but Gilgamesh emerges from the challenge with deep respect for Enkidu. They become inseparable, just as the Gods planned.

Gilgamesh now has a friend to counsel him, but that doesn’t incline him to take all the advice he’s offered. He wants to take cedars from the forests of Lebanon, which are guarded by the fearsome Humbaba. Enkidu urges him not to do this, then accompanies him anyway when it becomes clear that Gilgamesh cannot be dissuaded. Together the two succeed in slaying Humbaba and removing the cedars. Together they also slay the Bull of Heaven, sent by an angry goddess Ishtar, whom Gilgamesh has scorned.**

These two outrages—the theft of the cedars of Lebanon and the defeat of the Bull of Heaven—provoke the Gods, who decide that one of the two friends must now die. They choose Enkidu, who sickens and then dies.

For six days and seven nights, Gilgamesh refuses to surrender Enkidu’s body for burial, only giving it up when it begins to decompose. His grief propels him from society, and he abandons his responsibilities as a King, wandering in the wild wearing the skins of animals. He is mourning his friend, but he is also frankly and unambiguously disturbed at least as much by the revelation, prompted by Enkidu’s death, of his own mortality:

For his friend Enkidu Gilgamesh
did bitterly weep as he wandered the wild:
‘I shall die, and shall I not be as Enkidu?
Sorrow has entered my heart.’

Gilgamesh’s lament alternates between these two sources of grief:

How can I keep silent? How can I stay quiet?
My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay,
My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay.
Shall I not be like him, and also lie down,
never to rise again, through all eternity?

Gilgamesh sets out to find Uta-napishti, who has received the gift of immortality by the Gods. After much trouble, he succeeds in finding Uta-napishti, who tells him that death is inescapable. Uta-napishti relates the story of how he survived a deluge sent by the Gods, using an ark which he loaded with animals. (This part of the story has many parallels with the story of Noah and his ark, and is clearly a precursor to it.) Uta-napishti challenges Gilgamesh to go without sleep for six days and seven nights. When Gilgamesh fails at this, he sees that death will be impossible for him to conquer if he is even unable to go without sleep.

Uta-napishti’s parting gift to Gilgamesh is to tell him about a sea plant that will restore him to youth. Although Gilgamesh succeeds in harvesting some of this plant, he leaves it on the side of a lake on his way home, where it is discovered and devoured by a snake. It is lost forever. He returns home, and in spite of his failure, exults in the grandeur of his city’s wall.

There are many translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is partly because such a monumental text in the Western canon is bound to draw scholars wanting to take a crack at it. But it’s also because we’re constantly finding new pieces of the text, and so updating our understanding of it. New discoveries aside, there is also simply the fact that the scholarly issues involved in the reconstruction and translation of the texts are tricky enough to leave room for a wide variety of approaches.

There’s no easy answer regarding how to present such a text to a popular audience. I first encountered the epic when I was about 16 in a different translation (I think it may have been David Ferry’s version, but I don’t have it handy to confirm this), and was surprised later to learn just how much the translator had smoothed over. The text of Gilgamesh, unfortunately, is fragmentary and broken in many places. Even well-preserved tablets have rough patches where words need to be conjectured or filled in using the many clues left by the text’s frequent repetition of clusters of lines. Behind the standard edition too, as I mentioned above, stands a long, equally fragmentary textual tradition in several languages that, however imperfect, allows us to supplement the gaps in the standard edition.

Andrew George’s edition of the epic strikes a very nice balance between giving the non-specialist an accessible and readable story and allowing her to appreciate the actual scholarly foundation on which the translation rests. This is accomplished in a variety of ways: Gaps in the standard version are filled in using supplementary evidence so that the reader can follow as smooth a narrative as possible, but the supplements are also clearly marked so that the reader isn’t misled about the nature of the evidence. Conjectures and reconstructions are also clearly but unobtrusively marked (as they are not in the quotations above), with the difference between firm and uncertain conjectures also indicated. A helpful appendix, “From Tablet to Translation,” aims to give the reader a sense of the various challenges involved in putting together the edition. And finally, the edition includes a number of other fragments (not nearly as gripping as the standard edition, but interesting nonetheless) about Gilgamesh, including much older Sumerian and Babylonian texts, to round out the evidence. Although I’m obviously not in a position to say anything about the quality of the scholarship, I can say that George’s presentation of the epic appeals to my own taste much more than a version that conceals too many difficulties from the reader in an attempt to be accessible.

Even if the actual story of Gilgamesh were boring, it would be an object of real interest simply on account of its great antiquity. But, as it happens, it isn’t boring at all. The outline I’ve given above is only a lean summary of the 100 pages it takes to set out the standard version in my edition of the text, and so omits many of the twists and turns in the tale, as well as most of its rough poetry. For all the talk of Gods and monsters, at its core the story is about a man who loses a friend and, for a time, simply can’t deal—either with the original loss, or with its implications for himself—and who then, after a long struggle, learns to accept, and to take pleasure in this world again. It may be among the oldest stories, but in this respect it could have happened yesterday.

* The Troy of the Illiad is only one of a number of successive settlements on the same site, the earliest of which predates even the historical Gilgamesh.

** Gilgamesh points out that Ishtar’s previous lovers have not ended up having a good time. Unfortunately, refusing Ishtar’s advances hardly improved your chances of survival either. After Ishtar approached one Ishallanu with what I assume is a standard pickup line for a Goddess—”let us taste your vigour: Put out your ‘hand’ and stroke my quim***!”—and he turned her down, she turned him into a dwarf.

*** Such are the perils of a British translator.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 04 13
Recently read: Consider the Lobster

Posted by in: Books

David Foster Wallace. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays

A collection of essays exhibiting the author’s characteristic range and depth: from a trip to a porn industry exhibition to meditations on the lobster to some (even now) fascinating reflections on John McCain’s failed bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. DFW trains his considerable intellectual firepower on these topics, with notable success. Without meaning to detract from DFW’s thoughts on these subjects, what is most remarkable to me about these pieces is how tremendously rhetorically effective they are. DFW was clearly a humane, decent person, but so are lots of people. What is extraordinary about his essays is how effectively he manages to communicate those qualities. One measure of how deft his touch is is how gracefully he manages to smooth over tensions that would be more apparent in the work of a lesser writer: acknowledging Feminist criticisms of pornography on the way to quickly setting them aside, for example, or somehow managing to be the unassuming, unthreatening dude-next-door while sending you to the dictionary more frequently than any other author you’ve ever read. Good stuff.

Howls of outrage (14)

2009 04 12
Recently read: Zen Meditation in Plain English

Posted by in: Books, Buddhism

John Daishin Buksbazen. Zen Meditation in Plain English

A beginner’s book about zazen in Zen Buddhism, the practice of “just sitting.” The book focuses on breathing meditation, and gives practical tips (with sketches to help) about posture, breathing, and dealing with various obstacles encountered in meditation. I found it among the most helpful books I’ve read on this subject. The book has very little to say about Buddhism as a philosophy, emphasizing that the practices of meditation described in the book are compatible with a number of different religious traditions, as well as with atheism.

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2009 04 11
Recently read: My Horizontal Life

Posted by in: Books

Chelsea Handler. My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands

The author, a stand-up comic and television personality, regales us with stories about her many one-night stands. I could complain about the alcohol soaked nihilism, the reduction of everyone in this book, including the author, to the shabbiest stereotype; could point out that it’s redundant to speak of “chances” as “probable,” that “inference” doesn’t mean the same thing as “implication,” that the same lame Michael Bolton joke twice in the space of less than fifty pages is two times too many—I could go over all these criticisms and more, but you’d probably reply that what is even more pathetic than reading a book like this is reading it from cover to cover and then having the cheek to assume an air of moral superiority while discussing it. And so I will limit myself to this: For a man of exquisitely refined sensibility, a man such as myself, getting to the end of this book, which I did solely so that I could report to my readers whether it is worth reading (it is not), required an almost heroic perseverance.

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2009 04 10
Recently read: Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

Posted by in: Books, Buddhism

Damien Keown. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

Keown manages to pack quite a lot into this very short introduction. It’s been popular in the West to see in Buddhism a rational religious alternative that is compatible with a modern secular outlook. While acknowledging that there’s a lot in Buddhism and the Buddhist tradition that lends itself to this treatment, Keown emphasizes just how much of Buddhism this approach manages to sweep under the rug: reincarnation, a belief in spirits, miracles, charms, and so on. Buddhism has a number of schools, and a rich, complicated set of traditions associated with it. This book gives a nice sense of some of that variety.

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2009 04 09
Recently read: The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books

ed. Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi. The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

A collection of academic papers about the Taliban movement, past and present. These are by scholars and written, I think, for scholars. But the wealth of detail and insight here makes it worth the trouble for a non-specialist if she wants to move past a lot of superficial reporting about the region. Topics include the causes of the rise of the Taliban; the intersection of the Taliban’s religious fanaticism and Pashtun politics; the Taliban’s anti-modern approach to the private sphere; and the present day neo-Taliban. This last issue is of particular relevance to the situation in the country today. The media often speaks about the Taliban, but the movement splintered after its defeat, with multiple spokesmen issuing conflicting demands and threats with little apparent coordination between them.

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2009 04 08
Recently read: The Great Brain

Posted by in: Books

John D. Fitzgerald. The Great Brain

I used to read and reread books in the Great Brain series with enthusiasm when I was a kid. The books draw on the author’s childhood in Utah at the beginning of the 20th century. J.D., as he was usually called, looked up to his older brother, Tom, whose great brain has a starring role in most of the stories, whether it’s working out some way to make money or rescuing some kids lost in a cave. I must have reread this book a lot as a child, since I still remembered good chunks of the stories here.

If Yoon and I replicate, I’ll probably make sure we have copies of these books handy, though the sensibility of a kid’s book published in the 1960s and set more than half a century earlier doesn’t quite match the sensibility you’d expect these days: in these relentlessly male stories, parents are pleased that their sons can “whip” other boys, life is slow enough that Tom can get away with charging other boys to watch a man dig a hole in his yard, and the language clearly belongs to another era. Still, good times.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 04 07
Recently read: More Than Just Race

William Julius Wilson. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City

At the heart of this book is a distinction between structural and cultural causes of enduring inter-generational poverty and social marginalization. Structural causes include our institutions and our social and economic policies, in so far as they impact the life prospects of the less advantaged. Cultural causes include those collective understandings and behavioural scripts shared by members of some group which arguably play a role in perpetuating the lower status and achievements of that group.

Liberal and conservative opinion in American political cultural has tended to put practical and rhetorical emphasis on one or the other of these causes of poverty, with liberals favouring structural explanations for enduring, inter-generational poverty and conservatives favouring cultural ones. Liberals tend to argue that conservatives’ preference for cultural explanations end up “blaming the victim,” with conservatives responding that liberals miss an important dimension of the dynamics of poverty. These debates have been particularly sharp when they focus on the fate of black Americans in American society, and the reasons for the continued marginalization and poverty of significant numbers of them.

Wilson wants to reintroduce culture as a respectable explanatory factor in the story of poverty and marginalization in black communities, albeit only one among a complex and interacting set of causes. But as a black liberal scholar and a veteran of these debates, he’s well aware of the rhetorical and substantive risks of doing so. So in spite of his stated aim of reintroducing culture as part of the explanation for poverty, much of his book reads as a sharp rebuke to the many attempts to use cultural explanations to explain the social and economic marginalization of black men.

When Wilson finally gets around explaining how cultural causes might play a role in comprehensive explanations of poverty, it’s clear that it’s often by mediating the impact of structural causes of poverty, and that the best social science available suggests that culture is of much less importance than structural causes. Some of the most interesting passages in the book debunk popular attempts to draw a connection between culture and poverty in the black community. In the end, however, Wilson sees real value—substantive and rhetorical—in acknowledging the limited ways in which culture matters in the perpetuation of poverty and marginalization. In Obama’s rhetoric about race, especially in his remarkable March 2008 speech (“A More Perfect Union”), Wilson finds these two themes of culture and social structure brought together in an analytically effective and rhetorically persuasive combination.

This is a good and worthwhile book. There are a number of points in the book at which Wilson might have signaled his main themes more clearly, since they sometimes get lost in the blizzard of qualifications, counterarguments and on-the-other-hands. Wilson’s prose style is also a bit dryly academic, which may unfortunately get in the way of the wide readership his book deserves. Although Wilson is very interested in reintroducing cultural explanations for poverty, in the American context the most valuable thing about this book will be its vigorous and cogent defence of the relevance of structural causes and its equally effective rebuttal of lazy cultural explanations.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 04 06
Of Rawls and Self-Improvement

In the growing-up department, I still have a long way to go. Many of my habits are bad bad bad, and I have myriad tendencies that I don’t endorse and that leave me feeling full of self-reproach if acted upon.

But I must say that I felt some sense of pride when I saw this and felt revulsion at the thought of reading it. (The fact that it exists at all, in published form, is more than a bit nauseating, as well.)

There is some hope for me after all, I guess.

Howls of outrage (5)

2009 04 06
Recently read: Sexual Fluidity

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Lisa M. Diamond. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire

Sexuality fluidity is “situation-dependent flexibility in . . . sexual responsiveness.” It turns out that, for whatever reason, women exhibit more fluidity in their sexuality than men. This makes them more likely to fall in love with same-sex friends, even when they identify as heterosexual. Sexual fluidity, although it results in attraction to both men and women, is not be confused with a bisexual identity, or indeed with any orientation. Rather, “[t]he variability introduced by sexual fluidity is variability around” the “malleable core” of a sexual orientation.

Sexuality fluidity has been long neglected by sexuality researchers, who have tended to focus their attention on subjects with relatively fixed sexual identities. Diamond’s book aims to correct this unfortunate bias, and presents the result of following almost 100 women over ten years to track changes in their sexual identities and the genders of their partners. It’s a good book: a careful academic study of an interesting subject. Although it’s not written for a popular audience, I imagine it will be of interest to many readers outside of academia.

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2009 04 05
Recently read: Personal Days

Posted by in: Books

Ed Park. Personal Days

Personal Days is set almost entirely in NYC in an unspecified company in an unspecified industry. The industry is as unimportant to the plot as it is to the characters, who spend their time watching their lives seep away, gossiping, procrastinating, fantasizing, and swinging between soul-crushing boredom and terror at the probable layoffs around the corner.

Park’s writing is a bit uneven, but he certainly has his moments. I’ve never worked in an office, but I imagine that survivors of dysfunctional corporate environments will especially enjoy his skewering of contemporary corporate language and mores. The front cover of this book features a quotation claiming that “[i]f P.G. Wodehouse worked in a modern-day office, he might have written this hilarious book.” This is a stunningly inapt comparison. If you’re looking for a British author to compare Park to, I think Will Self might be closer to the mark. For better or worse, Personal Days shares something of Self’s manic hyperbole. This can be a bit much at times, but there are a few funny moments in the book, and I enjoyed reading to the end, curious to find out how it would turn out.

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2009 04 04
Recently read: Taliban

Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books

Ahmed Rashid. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia

At the end of the 1990s, Ahmed Rashid finally got around to distilling two decades of reporting about Afghanistan into a book. It turned out to be an valuable resource, an insightful and crisply written account of the rise of the Taliban. It was a good bet when it was published in 2000, however, that the book would end up as ignored as the troubled country ruled over by the Taliban. But of course in the fall of 2001 the world found itself suddenly riveted by the country and the movement that had not long ago consolidated power over most of it. I think it’s safe to say that Taliban ended up selling more copies than anyone anticipated when it was first published.

I got my hands on this book after finishing Rashid’s more recent (and excellent) Descent into Chaos. Once you get over the oddness of reading about the Taliban as if they are still in power, there’s a lot here of continuing relevance and interest. The book is divided into three sections, the first devoted to the history of the movement, the second to the relationship between Islam and the Taliban, and the third to what Rashid calls “The New Great Game,” the struggle for power and control of the valuable resources in the region by oil companies and regional governments.

There is no doubt that the Taliban showed ingenuity and cunning in their rise to power. As others have pointed out, it’s not sufficient to explain the rise of the Taliban by pointing to their fundamentalism, their backing from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and their promise of a resurgence of Pashtun influence in the country. For other movements led by other leaders (the best example is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader and founder of the Hezb-e Islami) had these things in spades, and nevertheless failed to match the Taliban’s achievements.

These achievements notwithstanding, the overriding impression of the Taliban one takes away from the book is of a group of dangerously ignorant fanatics, ill-equipped not just to provide even the most basic services for the people they claimed the right to rule over, but even to interpret the religious texts they claimed implausibly as the basis for their demented style of rule.

The most frustrating moments in the book for me were those chronicling the futile attempts of aid organizations to secure permission from the Taliban to provide aid to the displaced and the widowed and the orphaned. Having forbidden the education of women, the Taliban then forbade women to see male doctors. After aid organizations responded by hiring a number of foreign female Muslim doctors to provide desperately needed care, the Taliban then decreed that these foreign Muslim female doctors would need to be accompanied at all times by a close male relative. True, this was infeasible, but Allah would provide. (Unfortunately, Allah usually did not get around to it.) As Rashid points out, this sick set of priorities runs contrary to both the letter and the spirit of Islam.

This book would have been almost as upsetting to read in 2000 before the full tragedy unleashed by the Taliban and their guest, bin Laden, became apparent. Afghanistan was in a desperate position when the Taliban began their rise in 1994, so much so that they were often welcomed as an alternative to the squabbling warlords who tore the country apart in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. By the time Rashid published his book in 2000, the Taliban were themselves, he suggests, on a course to collapse into hostile factions, and were deeply feared and resented in much of the country, especially the North. The Taliban were able to consolidate their rule over much of the Pashtun-dominated South, but they had a much harder time holding territory in Northern parts of the country, where different ethnic minorities saw them as illegitimate occupiers. Looking ahead from 2000, Rashid sees only a few faint glimmers of hope.

Looking ahead from 2009, it’s not clear how much more hopeful the situation really is today. It’s not just that former members of the Taliban, or groups sympathetic to the general aims of the Taliban, are still at war with NATO and the government in Kabul. It’s that the basic conditions for chaos and instability which led to the rise of the Taliban persist to this day. These were formed over a decade of resistance to the Soviets and a decade of fighting after the withdrawal; they are not intractable, but they discouragingly close to it.

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