Archive for June, 2007

Consul on the Canals

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Gestures, H.S. Bhabra, 1986 (reprinted 2003)

Bhabra Gestures

This is the only novel written by Bhabra, who died at the age of 44 in 2000. Written as the memoirs at the end of his life by an octogenarian diplomat for his grandson, the novel is strangely reminiscent of the novel (and film) by fellow Asian Kazuo Ishiguro Remains of the Day.

Bhabra was born in Bombay India in 1955, Ishiguro in Nagasaki Japan in 1954. Both emigrated as young children and were educated in Britain; Bhabra at Trinity College, Oxford; and Ishiguro at the University of Kent with a Masters from the University of East Anglia. Both novels are set in the same Historic period from the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe to their fall and eclipse after WWII. Both authors write with a more nostalgic, distinctly British voice than almost any of their contemporaries.

The Central character in Remains of the Day is a servant, Stevens, a butler whose only purpose in life is to run the perfect household for his Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer. The central character in Gestures is a civil servant, Jeremy Burnham, a career diplomat, self described as:

… an Englishman of the upper middle class which is to say… one of the most complete creatures of convention the infinitely various human race has so far succeeded in producing.

Rialto and Gondola

Academia Bridge

Gestures opens with Burnham’s first posting as Assistant Consul in Political backwater Venice in 1923 just as Mussolini is coming into power in Italy. Burnham proves himself as a “Dependable Man” negotiating with the fascist chief of police to classify the murder of a British subject (a wealthy woman) as a death by natural causes allowing the British Jew who would have been framed for the murder to leave Italy, and allowing the likely murderer, a pro fascist British man, to be protected by the fascist police. As his reward, Burnham is promoted to Consul, replacing his academic and morally conscientious boss who had wanted to seek real justice for the crime.

Burnham marries, has children and a series of successful postings including Riga,capital of Latvia on the Baltic, and Peking before spending WWII in London assisting European governments in exile. His wife and one of his two sons are killed in the war. After the war, he is posted to war devastated Amsterdam as Consul with the job of restoring British Dutch trade.


In his job he meets a powerful private Dutch industrialist who grew his fortune by trading between Germany, France, and Britain during WWI, and who retained and ran his empire throughout WWII. Faced with evidence that the industrialist assisted in providing Dutch Jewish laborers for forced labor factories in Poland, Burnham must decide whether the industrialist should be tried for war crimes or be allowed to run his businesses as the British government wants.

We now untangle the story of the people Burnham first encounters in Venice. The Jewish art historian Dr. Anthony Manet, saved by Burnham in Venice in 1923, is hired by the Dutch industrialist to authenticate a Rubens painting. He emerges as a central character in the novel. A multicultural Jew whose ancestors were Venice traders, Manet knew many of the culturally influential Jews of Europe including Freud. Financially secure, he escapes the Holocaust by moving to the United States. He gives an eloquent statement on the fate of the Jews of Europe:

I came from a peculiar people, and I was born into an interesting time. It seemed possible the old squabble of race of creed and race might be forgiven. It seemed we might be men.

We (the Jews) came close to being the dream of a Europe without borders. We traveled and studied where we wanted. We shared our information. We offered each other hospitality. Perhaps that was where we went wrong, where we became misguided. We, in our very persons, were evidence that Nations were only an administrative convenience, of no real relevance to an international community. It has taken two world wars to prove us wrong. We believed it was possible to be human, simply human, without the atavistic necessity to belong. We had a strange apocryphal vision of the world. We said we would light such a candle of understanding in its heart as would never be put out, but it is we who have been extinguished.

Burnham marries again and has more children, yet stubbornly hangs on to his class prejudices and learns little during his life in remarkable times. Still, he senses a shortcoming in others today:

The young of my class and even, increasingly their elders, all children to me, begin to offend me. They know so little. They are so small, so stupid, so arrogant, empty and assured, without even the wealth or empire which gave us our assurance. They travel without tasting. They look but do not see. They do not realize it, and if they did, they would dismiss it as the raving of a foolish, fond old man, but they look ridiculous.

Bhabra had a serious writer’s block most of his life, yet he wrote the elegant and complex Gestures in only five weeks. He developed a strange obsession with climbing bridges in the 1990s, getting arrested while attempting to climb the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A week before his 45th birthday, he killed himself by jumping off the Prince Edward Viaduct on Toronto’s Bloor Street.

Golden Gate Bridge

Prince Edward Viaduct

Bonfire in Sydney

Monday, June 18th, 2007

The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan, 2007

A searing novel gives a look at Sydney in the new Millennium age of the fear of terror and that fear’s exploitation by the powerful. By the author of Gould’s Book of Fish a fantastical tale of the Tasmania prison colony in the early 1800s, The Unknown Terrorist may be for modern day terror stricken Sydney what Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was for greed crazed New York of the 80s.

Sydney From Air

Kings Cross

Here are truth impaired television journalists, shock jocks, mindless media frenzy, corrupt politicians and corrupt police and national security forces aided by draconian anti-terror legislation fascistic enough to put George W. Bush to shame. Reading this novel one wonders if Australia, birthplace of Rupert Murdoch of Fox and New York Post fame, might be in the cultural forefront of media and power elite fear manipulations:

Power and money were to be admired as life atrophied: except at the beach, beauty was to be despised and the contemplation of the world decreed as a sickness, depression, maladies… Power and money were to be all that remained, and politics was what ensured their primacy. Politics places man at the centre of life, and in permanent opposition to the Universe.

On Jesus and Nietzsche as pioneers in the age of terror:

Jesus, who wanted love to such an extent, was clearly a madman, and had no choice when confronted with the failure of love but to seek his own death. In his understanding that love was not enough, in his acceptance of the necessity of the sacrifice of his own life to enable the future of those around him, Jesus is history’s first, but not last, example of a suicide bomber.

Nietzsche wrote, “I am not a man, I am dynamite”. It was the image of a dreamer. Every day now somebody somewhere is dynamite. They are not an image. They are the walking dead, and so are the people who are standing around them. Reality was never made by realists, but by dreamers like Jesus and Nietzsche.

Expatriates and Radicals

Monday, June 11th, 2007

Fieldwork, Mischa Berlinski, 2007

Doi Suthep

New York born Berlinski studied at UC Berkeley and Columbia before becoming an expatriate part time journalist in Thailand. There he became interested in Christian missionaries in Thailand. A study on the missionaries turned into this first novel by the young classicist.

Old Chiang Mai

What happens when a third generation American missionary meets a second generation ethnographer/anthropologist while both are working with – studying the same remote tribe in Northern Thailand? Love and romance or murder most foul. Read this novel for insights into dedicated multi generational Christian missionary families who have lived among their group so long the grandchildren could be mistaken for tribal natives. Also read this novel for insights into the lives and difficulties of being a professional ethnographer-anthropologist trying to balance an academic career and publications with the need to do real field work. The tribe itself is mythical so as not to offend the real hill tribes living in Burma and Thailand. Also meet the contemporary narrator trying to unravel the secrets of the missionary and the ethnographer. See what modern Thailand feels like to an American expatriate . Overall insightful and entertaining.

Eat the Document, Dana Spiotta, 2006

Mt Rainier Seattle

An ambitious novel about two lovers; violent anti-Vietnam war activists living separate lives underground since 1972 when a bombing went wrong. The book manages simultaneously to give a picture of life in modern day NGO-eco-activist Seattle, the lives and attitudes of the disaffected, the nostalgic, the fashionable consumerism where anything can be commoditized and of course the inevitable coffee culture:

Espresso and cappuccino had become so ubiquitous in the city that nearly every block feature and espresso cart, or coffee kiosk, or a cappuccino counter. The trend was so overtly specific; there were conventions and argot. Cappuccinos could be “wet” – meaning made with not just foam but a little steamed milk. There were macchiato and lattes, and a thousand variations on beans and brewing. Naturally it didn’t take long for the coolest, newest coffee bars to defiantly serve only drip coffee. In retro, normal-sized cups. Eventually, perhaps, it would be instant coffee.

Capital Hill Seattle


One of the quirky interesting characters suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experiencing horrific nightmares of napalm and high altitude bombings. But this character never went anywhere near Vietnam, faking the draft physical hearing test to be classified 4F where he sits out the Vietnam War safely at home.

Liberal at Columbia

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Richard Hofstadter, An Intellectual Biography, David S. Brown, 2006

Hofstadter Sketch Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter, born in Buffalo New York of a German Lutheran mother and a Polish Jewish father, was one of the most influential liberal intellectuals of the middle part of the Twentieth Century. This was a unique period where the liberal intellectuals had real power and influence and lived unusually privileged lives. Like all scholars of his generation, the great depression was the defining experience of Hofstadter’s youth. As with many others, the depression led him to a fascination with the communist party which he joined briefly. The realities of the Stalinist experience soon became clear ending his fascination. He was taking courses at Columbia in history by the later 1930s. He was to remain associated with Columbia until his death. This was a time when many immigrant and non WASP scholars were entering history and social science departments.

His doctoral dissertation Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944) was published immediately by Knopf and was enormously important to intellectuals in the era of the FDR New Deal. The new liberalism of Hofstadter traced its roots back to the pragmatic thought of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. who earlier attacked social Darwinism.

In Social Darwinism he (Hofstadter) argued that deeply internalized beliefs moved people, for ultimately whoever controlled the prevailing value system — defining God, morality, politics, and patriotism — won the right to apportion rewards…The plutocrats who exploited the nation’s uniquely egalitarian principles to make their fortunes…had shown their gratitude by building an industrial regime hostile to future social mobility…The industrial machine’s victory over the American garden may have resulted from a particularly ferocious mixture of expansion and crisis, but social Darwinism brought an ersatz order to this chaos and offered an airtight atonement for the sins of the business class.

Hofstadter’s next popular book was The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made it.

…Jefferson’s reflexive fear of centralized power worked against robust federal regulation and gave the game to the the industrialists by default. Commitment to a stifling vision of individualism and limited government…made the Master of Montecello’s ghost the perfect spokesman for the trusts.

Jacksonianism…was an agrarian movement premised on economic opportunity, laissez-faire, and the removal of government barriers to investment among small capitalists. The New Deal, by contrast, was an urban movement that assumed that the great era of capitalist ascendancy had passed and that government regulation was needed to revitalize American markets.

The great barons, in their quest to build economic empires, choke competition, and turn a socially mobile working class into a subdued proletariat, manipulated Lincoln’s legacy. In “victory”.. Lincoln lost everything.

Hoover’s disastrous embrace of the old conventions cast the last Progressive president as a political anachronism remarkably incapable of addressing the needs of a metropolitan nation.

American Political Tradition was an important work exposing the manipulation of history to present an agrarian frontier WASP land of opportunity self image to an urban immigrant multi ethnic proletariate population. Both early books formed an intellectual underpinning for the New Deal. On FDR’s legacy Hofstadter once commented:

The New Deal may have been a failure in the thirties but it sure is a success in the fifties…In cold terms, American capitalism had come of age, the great era of individualism, expansion, and opportunity was dead.

Columbia historians and social scientists were influenced by the Frankfurt School of Social Research, exiled to Columbia from Germany from 1934 til the late 1940s. What accounted for the rise of Fascism and its widespread mass support throughout Europe? What kind of civilization would post -Enlightenment Europe create? The affirmation of the irrational, Susan Buck-Morss has written, resulted in

a renewed interest in Kierkegaard, Jungian psychiatry, the novels of Herman Hess, the advocacy of ‘culture’ over civilization and ‘community’ over society, and even an intellectual vogue for horoscopes and magic.

American scholars would later apply Frankfurt School thoughts on the conditions leading to the rise of mass Fascist culture to try to understand the Joseph McCarthy era and the conservatism of Barry Goldwater. Hofstadter was among those seeking to apply sociological insights to understand historical political shifts.

Hofstadter believed that the two party political system in America would work only if both parties stayed close to their centrist positions. Once the left went too far with the civil rights movement and the anti Vietnam war protests, he feared the right would counter with extreme positions of their own. He viewed the assassinations of the Kennedys and King in this light. Hofstadter’s criticisms of the war protesters attacks on university administrations led many to see him as a conservative, but he remained a mid century liberal sharing many of the student’s criticisms of university relationships with government and the military.

Hofstadter joined the civil rights Montgomery march with a group of eminent historians. He was a guest lecturer and commencement speaker at UC Berkeley during the student protests period. He gave financial support to the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver defense fund and wrote to Clark Kerr, President of UC Berkeley and Chairman of the California Adult Authority in praise of Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. He engaged in a published debate with one of his own doctoral students about the issues at the center of the student protests. His criticism of the students’ actions was grounded largely in a fear of the reaction of the right. Historically he was correct and the sixties led to the rise of the reactionary conservatism of Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes with which we are still burdened. Of this new era Cheryl Mendelson in her novel Anything for Jane (Morningside Heights trilogy) wrote:

…political debate became futile once people started forming personal commitments to theories like libertarianism and neoconservatism and Rawlsian liberalism and socialism and all the others. Because from that point on, they’d no more interest in reality—only in being on the winning team, or among academics, in gaining professional status. Self-interest disguised as political virtue took over. It was very ugly back in the late seventies at it’s only got worse.

Hofstadter loved living in New York City despite the stresses of life there. He loved jazz and classical music and built a large record collection. He turned down many offers from other prestigious universities largely because he was unwilling to leave New York. Harlem, where Columbia is located became quite dangerous in the 60s and when Hofstadter’s wife was robbed at gunpoint in the elevator of their Columbia apartment building, Columbia University paid to subsidize a new apartment on Park Avenue for their honored professor.

Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970 at the age of 54. He had just entered into a publishing deal which would have produced a massive history of the United States over the next 18 years of his career. His early death leave his first two books as his most influential legacy. His contemporary at Harvard, Presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger who died this year probably gained greater fame through his numerous books and his role in the Kennedy Presidency as part of the Harvard brain trust but Hofstadter’s early books did more to influence liberal ideas and the way history is written and done.

Of interest in the era of Bush 43, Hofstadter wrote about the difference between English and American students :

…the English student values and shows pride in his own intellectual gifts and accomplishments but likes to imply that they have cost no great effort on his part, whereas the American philistine has a profound and entirely heartfelt suspicion of ideas.