zenpundit.com » story

Archive for the ‘story’ Category

REVIEW: The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Monday, August 4th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss 

Some biographies are as much about the era or the milieu as the man. The Orientalist is one of them.

This is not to say that Tom Reiss has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enlightening and informative one, even for someone well read in the history of Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, will find that The Orientalist has a rich store of little known anecdotes. In an effort to unlock the mystery of “Kurban Said“, the alleged author of the modern Azeri national epic, Ali and Nino: A Love Story, whose identity is hotly disputed, Reiss became a cultural archaeologist excavating the graveyards of Empires, Tsarist, Wilhemine and Ottoman. It was a search that brought Reiss to a remarkable character, Lev “Essad Bey” Nussimbaum, who had narrowly escaped the Bolshevik CHEKA, made fame and fortune as a literary freebooter in Weimar Germany only to sink into obscurity during WWII, dying in poverty and illness in Fascist Italy.

Lev, who was the son of a millionaire Russian-Jewish oil magnate from Baku, was a cultural chameleon, reinventing himself numerous times, converting to Islam, passing himself off variously as Muslim prince, a Transcaucasian “Wild Jew”, Orientalist scholar, monarchist and anti-Communist writer, briefly a literary star on Germany’s radical far Right. Even in the early days of the Third Reich, despite accusations of being a “Jewish story-swindler”, the many anti-Soviet books of “Essad Bey” were warmly endorsed by Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda for reading by the Nazi Party faithful. The famous individuals who reputedly crossed Lev’s path are remarkable - Joseph Stalin, Fyodor Vinberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin,  Giovanni Gentile, Walter Mehring,  Benito Mussolini, Egon Kisch, George Sylvester Viereck, Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Max Brod, Stefan Zwieg, Hertha Pauli, and Ezra Pound among others.  “Essad Bey” was the denouement of the respectable intellectual tradition of 19th century Orientalism, particularly that of Jewish European scholars and ethnographer-explorers. Lev Nussimbaum was less a Martin Buber (whom Lev knew) than he was the Karl May of the East, a dime store mythologizer of  Transcaucasia, old Qajar Persia and Islam for popular audiences accustomed to a tabloid press.

Essad Bey as a character reflects the contradictions and juxtapositions of an interwar Europe, especially Germany, ravaged by the Great War and Communist Revolution in ways that would be highly improbable today.  Lev was a talented writer, a  Jewish refugee who was an exponent of Islam and an admirer of Fascism, more glib than insightful, more clever than wise, at home playing the outsider but his place never secure. When the official black sedans of the Fascist secret police rolled up to an ailing Lev’s hotel and found him dead, villagers assumed the OVRA men where there to arrest “the Muslim”; in reality, it was to take Lev to make wartime propaganda broadcasts for Italy in Persian.

Recommended.

Share

A woman, a ladder, four goats, and a cow named Bessie.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- the four goats go with the woman, the cow called Bessie belongs with Hiyakawa's Ladder of Abstraction ]
.

**

My friend the anthropologist Peter van der Werff recently wrote this paragraph about a woman he met in India:

The very poor woman explained me she and her four goats needed the shadow of a tree to escape from the blistering afternoon sun in their semi-arid part of India. There was a tree at the edge of the village, but the owner did not allow her to come near that tree. Therefore, she and her goats suffered from the heat, at the cost of her health and the productivity of the goats.

I was reminded of SI Hayakawa‘s Ladder of Abstraction.

**

Caution: you really do need, as it says, to “read” this image from the bottom up…

See Bessie, the Cow, in SI and AR Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, pp. 83-85, 5th ed..

**

Why did I think of Hayakawa’s ladder?

Here are two other things m’friend Peter had to say about the woman and her goats, the merciless sun, and that tree with its abundance of merciful shade:

As long as economists don’t include oppression and exploitation in their models, they cannot understand poverty.

and:

Such cruel relationships occur in many of the 750,000 villages of India. Without including those oppressive and exploitative realities, real poverty is not captured. We may invite economists to fit this reality in the computer.

**

We humans can do it. But how do we configure models that can hold those levels of granularity and abstraction — of individual human concern and global decision-making necessity — close enough together to give our grand plans humane flexibility?

I suspect writers such as Lawrence Wright know more about this than the number crunchers — and that the well-selected anecdote must become as significant as the well-chosen statistic

Share

High Ground in Chicago at the Siskel Center 2/21- 2/23

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

HIGH GROUND 

Hat tip to Kanani Fong of Kitchen Dispatch 

At the Siskel Center, 164 N State St, Chicago. IL. 60601
(312) 846-2600

The award -winning film HIGH GROUND :

Since 2002, almost 50,000 U.S. soldiers have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with their lives radically altered by war. With the improvement of battlefield medical treatments, these soldiers return alive yet not whole, and face long painful paths to recovery.

Full integration back into their community and the civilian world is a treacherous road, fraught with obstacles and pitfalls. After initial rehabilitation, these veterans are often left to fend for themselves, and struggle with physical and mental roadblocks, depression, and alienation.

This issue affects every aspect of society, not just families and hometown communities, but our national character and our legacy. How these wounded soldiers transition is one of the most important repercussions of these wars and an adversity with which we will contend for generations.

igh Ground was a showcase expedition bringing together disabled war veterans with world recognized mountain climbers to demonstrate what could be achieved by climbing a Himalayan giant. A key outcome of the expedition was to produce a documentary film that would tell the inspiring stories of these heroes and spread a healing message to a national audience.

This film, featuring stunning cinematography and capturing powerful emotions, will touch the hearts of concerned citizens, military families, outdoor enthusiasts and most of all, soldiers who find themselves wondering how to face the days and months and years ahead. It is an honest and gripping portrayal of our American warriors, telling an action packed story that unfolds in unexpected ways as the team makes their way high into the mountains, through the villages of Nepal, over raging rivers and up terrifying steep terrain risking injury and death for a chance at the summit.

A second and equally important goal is to continue to impact those thousands of injured soldiers in the midst of their own daunting recoveries through the use of the film at veteran’s hospitals and military bases around the United States. In the fall of 2011, a multi-city nationwide tour will be launched to welcome our soldiers home, celebrate their spirit and sacrifice, and to encourage them to pursue their dreams.

Efforts are currently underway to assess the potential of additional expeditions and to create a long-term strategy as a non-profit organization. By getting involved and supporting this project you can participate directly in this vital process and connect your company to the message that our soldiers can indeed… return home to live again.

 

Share

The Sufism of Zen

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- double-quoting a remark taken from Zen's most recent post with a Sufi teaching tale out of Idries Shah ]
.


.

Zen Zenpundit, Mark Safranski (above) that is — had a powerful comment about “the emaciated Somali followers of a two-bit warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, gleefully swarming over and looting our military’s former…. garbage dump” tucked away in his recent post on Strategy, Power and Diffusion:

When the enemy has a land so poor that he treasures and makes use of the crap you throw away, the economic spillover of your logistical supply lines will fund his war against you.

That’s a pretty profound statement about different levels of disparity, if you ponder it a bit. And worth pondering.

*

And it reminds me of Idries Shah‘s lovely story The Food of Paradise, in which a fellow named Yunus, son of Adam sets out to find the source, the original source, of food.

Sitting by a riverbank to consider the matter, he spies a package floating downstream, rescues it, and find that it contains a delicious halwa “composed of almond paste, rosewater, honey and nuts and other precious elements” – surely a gift of providence — which he then eats. The next day, at the same time, a second package appears – and each day thereafter he wades further upstream, in search of the miraculous giver, each day receiving and appreciating the gift.

In time he comes to an island with a high tower, from a high window of which a maiden is casting out, each day, the packaged halwa which is to him the food of paradise. After considerable efforts involving a mirror stone and an army of jinn, he manages to present himself to this princess, and asks her:

How, and by what order, is the Food of Paradise, the wonderful halwa which you throw down every day for me, ordained to be deposited thus?

to which she replies:

Yunus, son of Adam, the halwa, as you call it, I throw down each day because it is in fact the residue of the cosmetic materials with which I rub myself every day after my bath of asses’ milk.

**

You can read the whole tale with many others in Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes, or here on the alhaddad blog.

Share

Warlords Revisited

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

“The horror! The horror!

Charles Cameron sparked a discussion with his doublequotes post on two colonels, the late strategist John Boyd and the fictional monster,  Walter Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam War film homage to Joseph Conrad Apocalypse Now.  Kurtz is a disturbing figure, one who is recurrent in literature and history going back to Homer’s Iliad. A superlative warrior who excels above all others who nonetheless sheds all trace of civilization in his descent into barbarism. While the fall of a heroic individual can take many narrative forms, Kurtz is of a particular and dreaded kind of fallen man, the warlord.

Warlords are fascinating and repellent figures who seem to thrive best when the normal order of a society is breaking down, permitting the strong and ruthless to carve out their reputations in blood and infamy. As I have written previously:

Kent’s Imperative had a post up that would have been worthy of Coming Anarchy:

Enigmatic biographies of the damned 

“….Via the Economist this week, we learn of the death of an adversary whose kind has nearly been forgotten. Khun Sa was a warlord who amassed a private army and smuggling operation which dominated Asian heroin trafficking from remotest Burma over the course of nearly two decades. In the end, despite indictment in US courts, the politics of a failed state permitted him to retire as an investor and business figure, and to die peacefully in his own bed.

The stories of men such as these however shaped more than a region. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization. Yet these are not the biographies that are taught in international relations academia, nor even in their counterpart intelligence studies classrooms. The psychology of such men, and the personal and organizational decision-making processes of the non-state groups which amassed power to rival a princeling of Renaissance Europe, are equally as worthy of study both for historical reasons as well as for the lessons they teach about the nature of empowered individuals.

….There are no shortage of warlords for such a study. Among the living we have Walid Jumblatt, the crafty chief of the Druze during the 1980′s civil war in Lebanon, the egomaniacal and democidal Charles Taylor of Liberia, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Islamist mujahedin commander and a large assortment of Somali, Colombian, Indonesian and El Salvadoran militiamen and paramilitaries. The history of the twentieth century alone offers up such colorful characters as “The Dogmeat General“, the ghoulishly brutal Ta Mok of the Khmer Rouge, “The Mad Baron” Ungern von SternbergCaptain Hermann Ehrhardt and Pancho Villa among many others.

What would such a historical/cross-cultural/psychological “warlord study” reveal ? Primarily the type of man that the German journalist Konrad Heiden termed “armed bohemians”. Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty, coupled with an amoral sociopathology to do so ruthlessly. Paranoid and vindictive, they also frequently possess a recklessness akin to bravery and a dramatic sentimentality that charms followers and naive observers alike. Some warlords can manifest a manic energy or regularly display great administrative talents while a minority are little better than half-mad gangsters getting by, for a time, on easy violence, low cunning and lady luck.

Every society, no matter how civilized or polite on the surface, harbors many such men within it. They are like ancient seeds waiting for the drought-breaking rains.

There are occasionally positive portrayals of warlords. Ahmed Shah Massoud, “the Lion of Panjshir” who fought tenaciously first against the Soviets, then later against the murderous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s army of thugs and the Taliban’s fanatics, providing a modicum of civilized governance to ordinary Afghans wherever his power ran, until his assassination by al Qaida. The cagey and mercurial Walid Jumblatt, made the transition from Druze warlord in the 1980′s to Lebanese politician and something of an elder statesman.

In literature, Xenophon was the de facto strategos of the retreating Greek mercenaries in The Anabasis of Cyrus, cut a noble example, but like Massoud, this is a rarity. In recent fiction, Stephen Pressfield created as an antagonist in The Profession, General James Salter, a totemic and caesarian figure who takes on the great powers with his PMC forces with impressive ruthlessness. In the popular fantasy series of George R.R. Martin that began with The Game of Thrones, the notable warlord is the outlandish, cruel and somewhat demented Vargo Hoat, who leads a freebooting company of misfit brigands “The Brave Companions“, whose nonstop atrocities and ludicrous pretensions lead all the other characters to call them “the Bloody Mummers“.

Given the world’s recent experiences with the Lord’s Resistance Army, General Butt Naked and the uprisings in Syria and Libya, I think Martin and Coppola have captured warlordism in it’s most frequent incarnation.

Share

Switch to our mobile site