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The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism
The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential book for understanding the Nazis and the Holocaust, September 2, 2011
This book, which documents a seemingly obscure place and time, is in fact the long-lost key to the origins of one of the two great catastrophes of the twentieth century.

Since the end of the Second World War and the revelation of the scale of the criminal obscenity of the so-called Final Solution, the question has been debated, is there a meaningful distinction between Nazis and Germans? Was the German nation in effect the first victim of the Nazi Party, or did the Nazi Party represent authentic aspects of the essence of the Germany of its time?

Let's just say that THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST makes it clear that all the essential structures, instruments and procedures of the Holocaust (except for those which had been not yet been invented in 1906 - 1907) were road-tested and perfected under Kaiser's Wilhelm II's reign in the genocide perpetrated against the Herero and Nama peoples, whose tragic destiny it was to be inhabiting the German colony of South West Africa (modern Namibia).

It is a painful tale, brilliantly and judiciously and calmly recounted, and as such this book is essential reading for anyone with either a specialty in Modern European History or an interest in Twentieth Century History.

THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST clears up many misconceptions and confirms obscure but essential connections:

- It is widely known that the British under Kitchener were responsible for inventing concentration camps during the Boer War (infamy shared with the Spanish and arguably the Americans), this book demonstrates that Imperial Germans actually liked what the saw happening in the concentration camps and immediately applied the concept to their new colony of South West Africa;
- The idea of luring captive peoples to their doom with false promises, and then forcing them on death marches or transporting them in cattle cars, was applied first by the Germans in South West Africa;
- Insuring the concentration camps turned into death camps by working their inmates to death was first implemented in South West Africa;
- Many of the most infamous killers in South West Africa became senior figures in the Nazi Party, and frequently in the management structure of the Holocaust (Goering's father, for example, served in South West Africa);
- Even the Brown Shirts of the SA were surplus uniforms from South West Africa.

At a very fundamental level, THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST reveals the deep racism and violence inherit in the colonial ideal that was central to European global strategy in the 19th century. There are other brilliant studies, like John Ellis's THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE MACHINE GUN and Isabel V. Hull's ABSOLUTE DESTRUCTION, which show the link between unfettered European supremecist ideas and the tragedy that unfolded in the Second Thirty Year's War of 1914 - 1945. And there are other great studies that focus on the specifically German pathology, like Fritz Stern's THE POLITICS OF CULTURAL DESPAIR and Kevin McAleer's DUELING: THE CULT OF HONOR IN FIN-DE-SIECLE GERMANY, which depict the gathering nihilism and brutality of the mood of Germany's ruling classes and structures during the Wilhelmine period.

But nowhere else is such a clinical, logical, piece-by-piece connection made between the development of political and military practices in Wilhelmine Germany and their counterparts under National Socialism. It must be said that hanging over the entire period like the smell of a corpse is a mis-application of the new science of evolutionary biology, which begins with Darwin himself, to justify the systematic subjugation and mass murder of what were considered "lesser" races. Once accepted, this concept was easily applied to the Jews and Slavic peoples enveloped by the German armies in their great thrust East under Operation Barbarossa.

Many learned and highly intelligent scholars have focused on National Socialism as something quite distinct from broader German society. Milton Himmelfarb's formulation "No Hitler, no Holcaust" is a classic attempt to draw a clear distinction between Nazis and the rest of the Germans.

But unfortunately, many books make clear the breadth and depth of the pagan barbarism and cruelty that saturated the culturally sophisticated and highly technological society of 19th and early 20th century Germany. These studies include John C. G. Roehl's YOUNG WILHELM which shows how cruel and violent German women in the highest levels of aristocratic and royal circles could be, Isabel V. Hull's THE ENTOURAGE OF KAISER WILHELM II 1888 - 1918, which shows how complex and saturated the psychological and cultural manifestations of pseudo-masculinity and hyper-violence had become in elite German society before the First World War, and Ernst Juenger's classic memoir of combat in World War I, STORM OF STEEL, which is nothing less that a metaphysical celebration of violence, killing and violent death.

Where in Hell did this culture come from? Who knows, but THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST proves that all its essential functioning components were already in place a generation before Hitler's rise to power.

The killing squads and murder factories of the Final Solution were merely the next administrative step in order to apply the playbook perfected in South West Africa under Kaiser Wilhelm II.

THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST is often heart-breaking, but it is a book that is absolutely essential to read.


Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness
Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness
by Daniel Maier-Katkin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.75
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought, forgiveness and secrets, May 1, 2011
I'd recommend reading Robin Friedman's review as an excellent assessment of this book. My review has a different purpose: to address an issue related to both Arendt and Heidegger which Maier-Katkin addresses from several angles, very illuminatingly, but about which a bit more might be said.

Since the publication by Reinhard May's HEIDEGGER'S HIDDEN SOURCES, it has become generally known that Heidegger was deeply influenced by Daoist and Buddhist texts and thinkers, and that in fact Heidegger directly incorporated--without attribution--sections of THE BOOK OF TEA into BEING AND TIME. It also seems clear that much of what seemed new to his students and readers in the 20th century, including to Arendt herself, was in fact Heidegger's adroit integration of East Asian concepts into his own work, which itself was founded on Greek philosophy.

Arendt almost certainly didn't know this. Moreover, the influence of East Asian thought on Heidegger is not mentioned by Maier-Katkin. So why bring it up in this review?

The reason to do so is because Arendt's own thinking seems to have been influenced by the East Asian elements imported into German philosophy by Heidegger, but because she was not consciously aware of it, she seems to have been headed towards a dead-end in her thinking towards the end of her life.

Arendt, instructed by Heidegger and informed by her own research, depicted reality as a present that seems tranquil and motionless but is in fact continuously slipping at great speed from the future into the past. The present moment cannot be slowed, much less stopped, and it is very elusive. Both her PhD thesis LOVE AND ST AUGUSTINE and her great book THE HUMAN CONDITION discuss this, and Maier-Katkin does an excellent job of summarizing this concept and its significance in Arendt's thought.

According to Arendt, forgiveness is the power that allows humans to escape the tyranny of the past which is imported into the present through memory, and it is the power of promise that helps humans create "islands of certainty" in the great "ocean of unpredictability" we face in the future.

Arendt's description of the present could also fit reasonably well into an East Asian understanding, but with the difference that the present is perceived with "clear awareness", without discriminating between what is desired and what is feared, and that this perception of the present emerges not from the ego, ie the inner voice one constantly hears in one's mind, but from a deeper level of consciousness that ultimately one shares with all other humans, and shares in fact with Being itself.

Whether one accepts or not the East Asian structure of consciousness, the fact is that many of its ideas are embedded in Heidegger's thought, although he twists them and orients them towards death. Arendt, by focusing on forgiveness, promise, the blessing of the new and undreamed of, and birth ("natality") rather than death, was actually travelling intellectually towards a truer rendezvous with the original sources of Heidegger's East Asian sources than she ever could have imagined. Her famous--and unjustly notorious--concept of the banality of evil is itself understandable as a Daoist (as well as a related Buddhist idea) about how good and evil are products of the ceaseless confrontation of yin and yang which generates the evolution of Being in the universe.

The sad thing is that, partly as a result of the hostility and partisanship that resulted from her book EICHMAN IN JERUSALEM as well as the general souring of the American cultural climate during the Vietnam War, Arendt was driven away from her unconscious encounter with the underlying East Asian sources which she had unknowingly imbibed from Heidegger. Attacked from many sides, she began to focus on the importance of judgment, even though she understood its deep conflict with her concept of forgiveness. A fundamental idea of East Asian thinking is that bliss requires a person to transcend this inclination to judge and therefore to "grasp" what pleases us or "avoid" what doesn't please us. But Arendt hoped that judgment would offer a clue to how to prevent the very "banality" of evil from insinuating itself into a human's decisions.

More profoundly, she circled back to Plato's idea of thinking as a dialogue one has with one's self (see Maier-Katkin pages 307 - 310)--which is arguably one of the most devastatingly destructive legacies of Western philosophy, esp. once Cartesian doubt petrified this inner dialogue into a doubting "subject" and an unknowable "object". Anybody who has read Tolle's THE POWER OF NOW--which is an excellent introduction to practical Buddhism--will understand the trap that Arendt strayed into late in her life: the other voice in this inner dialogue is one's ego, and it is guaranteed to be a source of deception and misery.

But was Arendt unhappy towards the end of her life? From the evidence offered by Maier-Katkin: the relentless work schedule, the two-pack-a-day smoking habit, etc. it seems so. Of course, this is understandable given her sadness in the wake of the death of her husband, her dear friend Jaspers, Auden, and other old friends. But reading Maier-Katkin's moving account of this brilliant, passionate thinker of fearless integrity, it is sad to think of her late in her career and life, essentially alone, groping for a lost truth that had almost been in her grasp decades before.

PS. Anyone trying to assess Heidegger's culpability should read the short, indispensible book DEFYING HITLER by Sebastian Haffner to understand the atmosphere of the early 30s amongst cultivated, educated people living in Germany and how clear the danger posed by Hitler actually was.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 4, 2011 11:55 PM PDT


Too Loud a Solitude
Too Loud a Solitude
by Bohumil Hrabal
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.58
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful, witty and tragic novel, March 20, 2010
This review is from: Too Loud a Solitude (Paperback)
To read the great Czech writer Hrabal is to be reminded that Shakespeare's longest play, HAMLET, contains less than 30,000 words, and that THE GREAT GATSBY is just over 47,000 words. Hrabal's novels are short.

Yet Hrabal is able to bring to life unforgettable characters and situations in his brief novels. He wrote TOO LOUD relatively late in his career--it was published when he was 63--and it is a masterpiece.

The protagonist and narrator is Hanta (ignoring the Czech accents) who labours in a basement compacting books that the Communist regime has ordered to be destroyed. He has become a formidable auto-didact by saving and reading the great books that have been doomed by the regime, and thus Hrabal concocts the tragi-comic voice that conducts us so deftly and poignantly through this short, sad, beautiful book.

Hrabal wears his metaphysics more lightly than his more famous Czech colleague Milan Kundera, but in fact Hrabal's worldview is more profound than Kundera's. In fact, it appears to be a sort of disillusioned response to the transcendent vision of the great Czech playwright, essayist and statesman Vaclav Havel.

I've found myself quite disturbed and unsettled after reading TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE and Hrabal's early novel CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS in the past few days. Hrabal's tragic vision is compelling and persuasive and it's difficult to understand exactly how he weaves his spell in TOO LOUD, when he was clearly at the height of his powers.

Part of his technique is Homeric repetition: "For thirty five years now I've been in wastepaper, and it's my love story" . . . . "For thirty five years now I've been compacting old paper and books" . . . . "For thirty five years I've been compacting it all in my hydraulic press" . . . . "For thirty five years now I've been compacting old paper in my hydraulic press" . . . . and so on. Instead of Homer's repeated phrases "wine dark sea", "rose-fingered dawn" and "grey-eyed Athena", Hrabal's use of the technique functions as both parody, and as the novel unfolds, amazingly becomes a persuasive claim to gravitas, adding a calm dignity to Hanta's voice. Interpolated into the story ever-so-subtlely are religious and philosophical images and ideas that become glowing and molten as Hrabal profoundly re-imagines them and stirs him into the precious alloy of Hanta's voice.

All through the novel are Pynchonian conceits and whimsical riffs which seem much more human and emotionally evocative than analogous passages in the work of the American writer. The excellent review of Hrabal's work by James Wood in THE GUARDIAN'S Book Review (which long ago surpassed the New York Times Book Review as the best book review published by an English language newspaper) approvingly quotes one of these passages and considers it to be unassailable proof of Hrabal's greatness, and I agree. I agree because Hrabal is so human however technically dazzling his techniques may be, and his characters, however eccentric, comic or idiosyncratic they may be, are also heart-breakingly human.

Heart-breaking because Hrabal evokes and dramatises unforgettably a deeply tragic worldview; a key phrase in TOO LOUD that is also the subject of Homeric repetition is "neither the heavens are humane nor is any man with a head on his shoulders".

The narrator Hanta has a clear, pure moral vision but it only serves to give him the clarity to indict himself as also being somebody who, try as he might--repeatedly--to do the kind, civilised, healing thing, he is also fundamentally cruel and destructive--however inadvertently.

There are holes in Hrabal's case in his early novel, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS, but TOO LOUD is pretty compelling in this respect. Its great saving grace is that Hrabal has brought to life in his character Hanta such a unique, amusing, precious voice--and the story and situations are so exuberantly imaginative and witty--that a reader refuses to believe, ultimately, that a world capable of bringing forth a novelist like Hrabal who is capable of writing a book as wonderful as TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE could possibly be as devoid of humane regard for sentient beings as the world depicted so amusingly and so tragically in TOO LOUD.


Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary
Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary
by Bertrand M. Patenaude
Edition: Hardcover
92 used & new from $0.01

11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving and insightful account of Trotsky's final struggle, August 25, 2009
I was delighted to see this book appear, because I've always wanted to know more about the last several years of Trotsky's life, when he had been exiled to Mexico, the last country on earth that would give him asylum, and was holed up with his wife, grandson, and bodyguards in a house owned by the artist Frida Kahlo.

Trotsky owed his safe haven to the direct intervention of Kahlo's husband, the great muralist and revolutionary firebrand, Diego Rivera.

Of course, Stalin's GPU was on the hunt, and it was only a question of time before the assassins closed in, and Trotsky knew it. I don't think I'm giving much away by saying that Trotsky was brutally assassinated with an icepick blow to the head by a GPU operative who had insinuated himself into the confidence of the Trotsky household.

Patenaude has done a superb job with this material. His sensitive, insightful, and well-written account is so replete with irony, pathos, and tragedy that there really isn't much point to adding more to this review except to say that Trotsky has found the biographer he deserves in Patenaude.


Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953
Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953
by Jonathan Brent
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.76
75 used & new from $0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A master class in the use of manipulation and terror, August 25, 2009
I agree with the reviews that cite serious flaws in this book: "tedious", "ruminative", "repetitive". However, I consider STALIN'S LAST CRIME well worth reading, because the authors have produced an analysis with a high degree of granularity that illuminates the actual mechanics of Stalin's use of terror.

The weaknesses in the book are the obverse of its great strengths: teasing out the many subtle filaments that Stalin wove into his hideous plots requires sustained intellectual concentration, for example. The intense focus on seemingly minor details--which is the only way to detect the subtle discrepancies that are the only clue to the presence of something monstrous--can be tedious, and also tends to distract from the panoramic perspective required to get the structure right.

So it is only on pages 66 - 67, for example, that we learn what Stalin's motive for inventing the Doctor's Plot was. It would have been handy to have the scene set right up front before taking the reader into the bewildering labyrinth of accidental screw-ups, lies, denunciations, misunderstandings, and confessions extracted under torture that were the building blocks of the Doctor's Plot. Stalin's motive was his need to retain total control of the Soviet Union after World War II, when the victory over Nazi Germany, and the experiences of many Soviet soldiers and other Soviet citizens with countries where much higher standards of living prevailed, reduced the atmosphere of crisis and ignorance that had produced the abject national obedience to Stalin that he had enjoyed in the first part of his reign.

This theme is then fully illuminated only on page 105, when the authors quote the letter that the doomed Bukharin wrote in prison to his colleague and former friend Stalin in 1937, shortly before Stalin had him shot in the Great Terror: "There is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge . . . . people inescapably talk about each other and in doing so arouse an everlasting distrust in each other . . . In this way, the leadership is bringing about a full guarantee for itself."

Only a deeply cynical man--or a total fanatic--like Bukharin could admire the logic of Stalin's decision to poison an entire society with distrust and fear in order to provide a "full guarantee" for himself and his comrades at the top of the Soviet pyramid. But this was still a possible reaction in the Great Terror of the 1930s; it was no longer so easy to traumatise an entire society again by using systematic deception to invent an artificial crisis.

And this is what Stalin was up to--he needed to create instability again throughout the Soviet Union in order to confirm his personal position on top, and to do so he began to weave together the most obscure threads into the elaborate image of a widespread conspiracy that had a false political meaning he could exploit to persuade the Soviet masses of his indispensability.

What makes this book so interesting is that it was much more difficult for Stalin to pull this off in the early 1950s, despite the comparative ease with which he had done so in the mid- to late-1930s. Spare a thought for his dilemma when he tried to kick off a new conspiracy by putting the members of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee (mainly a bunch of poets, theatre producers, and other cultural types) on trial for their lives in 1950: "despite the painstaking collection and falsification of evidence, the merciless interrogations, physical torture, and threats of death, the government could not extract the necessary confessions from the defendents (Pages 173)."

Of course, the defendents were all found guilty and shot, but unlike the Great Terror of the 1930s, when senior Communists had publicly confessed to fantastic crimes that they could never possibly have committed, the JAC members refused to do so in 1950, so the trial had to be kept secret to avoid embarrassing public recantations of confessions extracted under torture.

Stalin had to work much harder to spin his web in the 1950s, and this is what makes this book so interesting. Of course, all the usual ironies, tragedy, and almost over-whelming examples of absurdity and futility that one has become accustomed to in the best books about the Soviet Union abound in this one.

But what makes this book special is that the authors seem to have successfully reverse-engineered Stalin's development of the Doctor's Plot, and as a result, this book is truly a step-by-step master class in the techniques of manipulation and terror.

Why is this important? Why does it make this book worth reading despite its flaws? Because much of the manipulation and gratuitous deception portrayed in this book, minus the Lubyanka torture chambers and firing squads, is a recognisable feature of the corporate and institutional world in the 21st century. And all indications appear to suggest that this atmosphere is only going to get worse with globalisation. The cant, the hypocrisy, the jealousy, the perversion of language, and the Schadenfreude that was keyed up to a murderous degree in Stalin's system is recognisable everywhere in large organisations today, from the corporate to the government sectors to the transnationals and the NGOs.

If for no other reason than as self-protection against the ambitious mediocrities who always seem to thrive in large organisations (and Trotsky doomed himself by calling Stalin the "outstanding mediocrity of the Revolution"), read this book.


The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander
The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander
by Pete Blaber
Edition: Hardcover
37 used & new from $5.60

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A guide to life on the edge, August 25, 2009
This excellent book is really about how to thrive out on the edge of a high-risk, high-profile career. It's not a book for armchair experts or backseat drivers of whatever stripe, because one of Blaber's key teachings is how to circumvent the kibbutzers and second-guessers in positions of authority, ignore their distractions and overcome their interference, and accomplish the mission.

In fact, while it's a great title, the equation of the "mission", his "men" and himself "me" gives the misleading impression that Blaber may be a bit of a prima donna. In fact, the "Mission, Men and Me" framework is applied whenever Blaber is being pressured by a senior commander to take an action that Blaber is convinced will result in damage to the mission or needless harm to his men. When forced into these dilemmas, if the only consideration is his personal or career interests, than Blaber always puts "Me" at risk to assure the best outcome for the Mission and his Men.

The realism of the book can be conveyed by observing that Blaber needs to apply the Mission, Men and Me framework fairly frequently!

The book, which is officially divided into Parts One - Four, is thematically structured into three sections:

(1) The first section is a series of very helpful lessons and mental frameworks for handling intense, stressful and complex situations. Blaber has benefited from the kind of resources the US Government can afford to pour into its best and brightest, and an unbelievable amount of cutting edge cognitive, psychological, sociological, and other areas of research have been reduced to practical learnings and made available to the operators of Delta Force, and Blaber makes them available to readers of this book. Just the insight into chronic insomnia provided by a Delta psychologist (page 70) from which I and many people I know who work in high stress professions suffer, is worth many times the price of the book. This section comprises Parts One and Two of the book;

(2) The second section is a realistic, clear-eyed critique of the organisational pathologies that are running rampant in the US Government, and which clog the arteries of any large institution. This is a very alarming section. This is where Blaber's Mission-Men-Me framework, while nominally one of the key tools he explains in Section 1, is used again and again. Blaber has very insightful comments to make about risk aversion, the tactical foolishness of the helicopter assault concept, and the counter-productive stupidities that have been institutionalised through high bandwidth modern telecommunications technology. Two examples of this are (a) the way deeply rear echelon senior commanders, at one end of a data feed 10,000 kilometers away, over-ride combat participants because of the communications capabilities that give the Generals access to two-dimensional video imagery and real time voice contact--and therefore the illusion that they are across all the information required to make tactical decisions during combat, and (b) the second example is the pervasive abuse of the VTC (Video Teleconference), a subject all its own, and how the VTC has allowed the Staff Planning function to engulf and just about devour actual war-fighting, at least in Blaber's account--which is persuasive. This second section is Part Three of the book.

(3) The third section is a live example of Blaber's experiences in combat in the conquest of Afghanistan and the sudden collapse of the Taliban. This is exciting material on its own, but Blaber includes it with a view to illustrating the frameworks he explains in the first section and the kinds of organisational irrationalities he critiques in the second section. This third section is compelling at all levels, but I must say my blood boiled from time to time at the account of the self-serving careerist officers and senior authorities driven by their own egos who repeatedly interfered with the mission and the best interests of the brave men in harm's way.

While this book could be considered an unusually useful management resource there is a broader vista that opens up in its pages, and that is a vision of horizon-to-horizon mismanagement and incompetence in the US Government. I really hope plenty of people in a position to push through much needed reforms are reading this book . . . we need to embark on root to branch institutional reform across the US Government before it's too late . . . 9/11 and the operations described by Blaber were one symptom, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was another, and the Global Financial Crisis (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the SEC, etc.) was yet another . . .

How many of these shocks can we sustain? I hope many people read Blaber's book--and then do something!


C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems
C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems
by Daniel Mendelsohn
Edition: Hardcover
35 used & new from $12.93

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A feast of poetry, August 2, 2009
This is a feast of a book.

Thirty years ago I acquired the translation by Keeley & Sherrard, who were friends of the great Cavafy scholar George Seferis . . . at that time, Cavafy was one of those forbidden pleasures like the PARIS AND NEW YORK DIARIES OF NED ROREM, and OUR LADY OF FLOWERS by Jean Genet that were available in serious LA and New York bookshops of the period.

I was bored by Rorem and Gide, but there were a few great Cavafy poems, it seemed to me at the time, for example "Waiting for the Barbarians", that set apart this late 19th century-early 20th century Greek speaking poet who lived in Alexandria, Egypt from the other merely transgressive, but certainly not transcendent, purveyors of illicit literary pleasures.

I almost didn't bother to pick up the Mendelsohn translation when I saw it in a Sydney bookstore this week, because in my mind I had long ago pigeon-holed Cavafy as a second tier poet of historically subtle poems and of ardent, but somewhat tiresome, gay eroticism.

I am so glad that I bought this book. Reading Cavafy in Mendelsohn's translation is a revelation, a rebirth of a splendid poetic sensibility, and also one of the sure signs of the maturity and stature of American culture in the 21st century, for Mendelsohn is an American. This edition is not simply an accidental conjunction between the poet and a scholar who happened to have a relationship with figures close to Cavafy, it is the union of two complementary and deeply sympathetic spirits, that of Cavafy himself and Mendelsohn. We seem to be emerging from a generation-long desert of American cultural mediocrity imposed upon us by the spiritual tyranny of Theory.

Everything about this edition is first class and saturated in learning and great artistic insight. The scholarly apparatus is extensive but non-intrusive and always edifying. Mendelsohn seems to be that rare scholar who is generous in spirit, repeatedly referring in the text by name to colleagues who have made contributions he considers significant to understanding Cavafy--rather than relegating them to footnotes. The way he has chosen to organise the poems, with characteristic thoughtfulness and sympathy, is far superior to the order in Keeley & Sherrard.

I have found it a deeply moving experience to read Cavafy's poetry in this edition. Please note this review doesn't contain even a hint of the wonders of the poetry itself: I want to preserve that as a pristine pleasure for anyone who choses to read Cavafy in this edition


Reflections On A Mountain Lake: Teachings On Practical Buddhism
Reflections On A Mountain Lake: Teachings On Practical Buddhism
by Tenzin Palmo
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.16
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As good as it gets--a spiritual classic for the ages, February 4, 2009
This book is a spiritual classic, instantly and deeply meaningful to any reader who is looking for real guidance on the path towards meaning and purpose in life.

Although REFLECTIONS ON A MOUNTAIN LAKE isn't the global best seller that it deserves to be, Tenzin Palmo herself is fairly well-known as the Englishwoman who lived in a cave in the Himalayas for 12 years. She says several times that living in a cave for 12 years is not necessary to achieve enlightenment, but she herself emerged as a truly remarkable human of great wisdom, compassion and insight into the human condition.

One is constantly reminded of St. Augustine's CONFESSIONS and Plato's DIALOGUES as one reads this collection of her talks, which includes question and answer sessions with her listeners. It really is in same class as these works, along with others such as the TAO TE CHING and the IMITATION OF CHRIST.

It is such a wonderful book, not only for its first class intellectual content, but because Tenzin Palmo, good Tibetan Buddhist that she is, is concerned primarily and repeatedly with sharing practical advice on meditation and day-to-day living. She wants to make a real, positive difference in the lives of her listeners and her readers.

A minor issue is Palmo's occasional, mild, swipes at other religious traditions; she seems to be unaware of the convergence of her own insights with those, for example, of Catholic monasticism. This is a minor issue, and one that is easily corrected by reading Merton's THE SILENT LIFE, for example.

But despite its minor flaws, its only peers include the best books, in the next class directly below the sacred texts themselves, spanning the millenia of recorded human inquiry into spiritual experience. I hope REFLECTIONS finds many readers today . . . I am confident that it will be read for many generations to come.


Dante: Poet of the Secular World (New York Review Books)
Dante: Poet of the Secular World (New York Review Books)
by Erich Auerbach
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.55
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An indispensible work for any writer or cultured person, January 19, 2009
This neglected and almost unknown work, to which we have access only thanks to the New York Review of Books' quixotic and impeccably chosen list of forgotten classics, is the most fundamental metaphysical defense of literature ever written.

And the great thing is that it is totally practical, an inspiration for the working writer. Since Plato, imaginative literature has had a bad conscience, and in English words like "fiction" don't even bother to disguise the association of imaginative literature with lies, deception, and mere tales.

Of course this is frustrating for those of us who believe that literature tells human truths that cannot be revealed by any other method. But there it is.

Actually, however, Erich Auerbach cracked the conundrum many years ago, right in the middle of the robust, high-coloured good health of the Scientific Age (ie before all our supposedly neutral and quasi-divine scientific knowledge had produced nuclear weapons) and he set forth in this book, which he wrote out of a unique understanding and an intimate love of Dante's work, the ultimate defense of literature and the truth of literature.

Auerbach starts out with the pre-Socratic Heraclitus (thereby neutralising the later Plato's critique in THE REPUBLIC) and his dictum "A man's character is his fate." Auerbach elaborates this insight to show how each of us, each actual human being, attracts characteristic sorrows, challenges, and other experiences the way a magnet attracts iron filings. And out of our decisions and actions in confrontation with these characteristic experiences, which are unique to each of us in the historical drama of our individual life, our inner being is revealed. Nietzsche had a very similar insight when he observed "If one has character one has one's characteristic experience which recurs again and again."

But Auerbach then generalises this insight to account for the selection process required by practicing writers to create literature. A novel can only have so many characters, so many incidents, and so many details, and these must be rigourously selected from the vast richness of life and incorporated into the limited space of a work of art. And to do so an artist must possess some principal for making this selection, an understanding of the inner working of reality which is embedded in the underlying plot and which reveals itself in a fully satisfying work of art. Auerbach shows how the basis for literature, from its very beginning, is an evolutionary interaction between a sentient being and its environment, an interaction which is unique and which changes both the creature and its environment (ie the bee adapts towards the flower and the flower adapts towards the bee). The premise for this is a deep cultural belief in a living order of reality which adapts and changes, not in some deterministic and mechanistic way, but uniquely and unpredictably, simultaneously following the laws of nature while reserving the mystery of an inviolate virgin contingency in every pristine new moment of the constantly arriving present, and this change occurs as a result of the passage through life of each living being and the interaction of that being with its surrounding historical reality.

Of course, modernism was committed to chaos and randomness and therefore it literally lost the plot . . . but Auerbach shows us how to return to the plot, by rebuilding its philosophical base from the ground of the unconscious back up into the light of a fully realised artistic work.

This is only one of the many treasures contained in this brief work. In the same chapter Auerbach shows how the example of Jesus--told in a new kind of story with a surprising plot in short books we now call The Gospels--detonated the foundations of the classical ideal of the Gentleman. By destroying the gentleman as an ideal of a civilised life this new kind of story jumped the rails of historical development and set the world in motion towards an entirely new destiny. These 400 words--and that is about all they amount to--should be required reading in the high schools of the civilised world.

And then, and only then, does Auerbach begin his brilliant discussion of Dante.

Honestly, reading this book left me breathless. Turning the pages was like watching a new galaxy come into view. It is one of the most important books I have ever read. Literature will begin a new, not necessarily golden, but certainly less dross-like age, if more writers read this book, and it is not too much to suggest that the world would be a better place, if poets and other artists truly are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, and if they read this book and then went forth and did likewise, as Auerbach suggests that Dante did.

He has certainly shown us what to do . . . the rest is up to us.
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The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
by Jeff Sharlet
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.12
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690 of 985 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dangerously misleading . . . a missed opportunity, January 17, 2009
This book was given to me by my father-in-law, a retired Church of England minister who had numerous clashes in his career with narrow-minded Christians in and out of the Church hierarchy. He has understandable concerns about what he reads about the "Religious Right" in the US, and given the book's uniformly excellent reviews in Australia, he gave me Sharlet's THE FAMILY.

I was riveted from the first chapter: Sharlet was welcomed into the core of an organisation devoted to extending the influence of evangelical Christianity throughout the United States and the world, and he lived at their headquarters, which has the sinister name "Ivanwald". Sharlet's reporting talent is apparent from the opening sentences with their vivid depiction of typical American suburban and ex-urban communities and their earnest, basketball-playing, but possibly unconsciously intolerant residents. His thesis is that Doug Coe, the leader of a shadowy and pervasive organisation called "The Family" gives pep talks comparing his methods to those of Stalin and Hitler.

It is all deeply disturbing, esp. since Coe's supporters include many prominent Republican and some Democratic politicians. So I settled in for a good read on a vital current issue, ready to start writing cheques to the Anti-Defamation League and any other organisations I could identify, once I had finished the book, that might be on the front lines of stopping this scourge in American political life.

But starting with Page 56, Sharlet called his own credibility seriously into question. He begins a long discussion of Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth century New England minister to whom Sharlet traces the phenomenon of The Family. And Sharlet's discussion of Jonathan Edwards is unrecognisable. Puzzled, I went to the footnotes, where Sharlet writes that despite the "great many biographies of Edwards, my method of research for this account of his life was to rely primarily on original sources, which I tried to filter through my own half-secular mind and as I imagine a Family man might".

On the evidence of his interpretation of Edwards, Sharlet is one sick puppy. I actually took down from the shelf my copy of the most recent biography of Edwards, by the Notre Dame (hardly a centre of the Religious Right) scholar George M. Marsden, as well as my copy of Patricia J. Tracy's JONATHAN EDWARDS, PASTOR: RELIGION AND SOCIETY IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY NORTHAMPTON. Sharlet's grotesque description of Edwards is really shocking, and I wanted to confirm that my understanding of Edwards was founded on something other than my failing memory of these books.

It was with relief that I can report that Sharlet is basically free-associating in his discussion of Edwards, and that the lurid and disturbing claims he makes about Edwards in THE FAMILY come from the part of his psyche responsible for what Sharlet "imagines", rather than what he reads.

I returned to reading THE FAMILY with new scepticism, and then I came across Sharlet's discussion of Richard Halverson, who apparently was once in line to lead The Family before its current leader Doug Coe was appointed.

Given the late Halverson's private and public record, Sharlet has to struggle to criticize him, but his patronizing innuendoes about Halverson offer a good example of his entire method in THE FAMILY: "Halverson would help to build one of the world's largest relief agencies, World Vision, a Christian outfit that supplies food for the starving and medicine for the wounded and gospel tracts only to those who ask. Although it has been plagued by accusations of serving as a CIA front, World Vision's verifiable record is admirable . . . Halverson, in other words, was an imperialist of the old school, bringing light to the natives and clearing the way for other men to extract a dollar . . . "

The text offers plenty of clues to the alert reader about the presence of some agenda in Sharlet's book. But in the case of Halverson, as in the case of Edwards, I have my own independent information.

When I was a child, my family attended Fourth Presbyterian Church in the DC area, where Halverson was the minister, and he was a family friend. I saw him last in 1991 when he was Senate chaplain. Halverson recounted at that meeting how he and his colleague, the rabbi working with him in a pastoral capacity to the US Senate, had become very close, and that when the rabbi expressed astonishment some years before that their religious outlooks were so similar, Halverson responded "I've never heard you say anything I didn't completely agree with!" This is the man whom Sharlet paints as a sinister senior leader of a totalitarian, anti-Semitic organization plotting to take over America. I know that allegation to be false.

In fact, THE FAMILY itself is an irresponsibly written book, one of those books whose good qualities--its reporting of ordinary day to day facts that create the appearance of a vivid atmosphere, Sharlet's fluent prose, his catchy chapter titles, and so on--all serve a negative purpose, creating unfounded fear and exacerbating the already-excessive divisions in American social and political life today.

The number of works written out of either ignorance (a phenomenon not uncommon in evangelical publications) or out of bad faith and a willingness to fit the facts to one's personal agenda (what Sharlet has accomplished in THE FAMILY) is one of the chief obstacles in today's world to achieving world peace and understanding. In the aftermath of 9/11 I had long talks with an Australian woman who is a Shiite Lebanese by origin. Married at 12 and giving birth to her first child at 13, she never had the chance to pursue an education. She is highly intelligent, however. Our talks convinced me of how dangerous books such as THE FAMILY can be in this confused and hate-filled world of ours. She relied for much of her information on the Arabic-language press and radio, and a portion of that media was devoted to insane, hate-filled conspiracy theories and outright lies about the Israelis, Americans, and Jews in general. She had no way of filtering that information except through her discussions with me, and that was when I realized that her intelligence, fueled with disinformation, was very dangerous.

The 20th Century was soaked in blood, we know understand, because highly intelligent intellectuals sincerely believed that their knowledge gave them the ability, and the right, to govern others, even when their decisions contradicted age-old ethics and morality. At their core, that is where Communism and National Socialism are essentially the same. What we need to understand in the 21st century is how dangerous intelligent people with false information can be. And we need to take a stand against those who recklessly spread falsehoods masquerading as the truth. We need to speak and write the truth as we know it, so that others at least have the chance to consider both sides of an issue.

Sharlet claims to have uncovered an old form of danger to world peace and understanding: the all powerful conspiracy. In fact, he himself represents a new and powerful challenge to global understanding: those who use their positions to pollute the ocean of truth. How can my Australian father-in-law have any idea if what Sharlet writes about events in the Washington DC area are true or not? Sharlet has broken faith with readers like my father-in-law, and millions like him around the world. Alice Kaplan does an excellent job of discussing the issues surrounding reckless intellectuals who abuse their rhetorical abilities and media access in her book THE COLLABORATOR: THE TRIAL AND EXCECUTION OF ROBERT BRASILLACH.

At the end of the day, THE FAMILY isn't even good value for those who remain truly worried that people like the late Richard Halverson will one day rule America: Sharlet mainly repeats the same allegations made by David Cantor in the 1994 Anti-Defamation League study "The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance & Pluralism in America".

Cantor made the phrase "The Religious Right" famous with this 193 page study. Midge Decter reviewed the study at the time in the magazine COMMENTARY, which has been one of the great ornaments of American intellectual life for two generations, and not coincidently one of the great outlets for American Jewish writing on a variety of cultural, literary, social, political and religious issues. Decter wrote that the Cantor's study "is intended to warn the country of the growth, in the words of Cantor's introduction, of an 'exclusionist religious movement' seeking to 'unite its version of Christianity with state power.'

Decter summarises the playbook Cantor attributes to the Religious Right, which Sharlet claims to have uncovered 14 years later:

"Somewhere around 1990, the study notes, the decision was taken by the movement's leaders to engage in serious organizing and political activity at the grass roots, and by 1994 this decision has menacingly borne fruit:

The national offices of the movement's major organizations provide resources, strategy, and political training, often by means of weekend civic-activism courses in local churches. . . . These sessions, though often premised on distorted and sectarian notions of the Constitution and American history, have equipped activists with an estimable nuts-and-bolts political know-how and dedication."

And Decter's evaluation of Cantor's original study could be said of Sharlet's THE FAMILY as well: "Following this general description of the threat posed by the Christian Right are a dozen profiles of figures and organizations clearly intended to serve as more detailed documentation for the ADL's allegations . . . .It is in these profiles that the methods and intentions of the ADL study are most clearly revealed . . . these methods and intentions are apt to be as disquieting as they are almost unrelievedly nasty. For one thing, some of the profiles are profusely supplied with quotations, and yet rarely are we given any but the vaguest details about where they are taken from . . . . In other instances, the report simply misreads things . . . . Another unpleasant feature of 'The Religious Right' is the breathy, triumphal tone in which it offers some supposedly shocking revelations of ideas and activities of the Right about which no secret has ever been made . . . . Even more disturbing than any of this, however, is the study's use of that once thoroughly discredited trick, guilt by association."

So for those who are really worried about The Religious Right, I would recommend re-reading Cantor's original study. For all its flaws, it hasn't been surpassed at what it set out to do. Sharlet's THE FAMILY is just one of many books way downstream from a successful original, the product of Sharlet's apparent willingness to dishonourably make a name for himself, and money for his bank account, by misusing his talents as a journalist.

On a more hopeful note, those interested in thoughtful approaches to comparative religion should read Patrick Leigh Fermor's A TIME TO KEEP SILENCE (on French monasteries), Jeffrey D. Kripal's ESALEN: AMERICA AND THE RELIGION OF NO RELIGION (on the source of New Age movements) or Jeffrey Paine's RE-ENCHANTMENT: TIBETAN BUDDHISM COMES TO THE WEST.
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