Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2004)

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2004) 390p.

I have read ‘The Devil in the White City’ as a trilogy, together with ‘Nature’s Metropolis‘ and ‘The Jungle’, and the overlap and synergies between the three works is so insightful to understand the roots of modern America, which sprouted in the Gilded Age of Chicago. Americans in general have perhaps a short memory and a shallow desire to understand their history or present, as they are so energetically working to build their future, but as they strive thus forward, they fail to see the straight trail they leave behind. The history of Chicago is interestingly also transcending the contemporary spleen of American culture. ‘Nature’s Metropolis’ more than any other work perhaps, gives a more comprehensive insight into the shared destiny of the northern East Coast and the Great West and South. The history of Chicago is the stitching between the common descent, by opening the gap between the White City and the Black City, between the amazing wonders and creative forces of the American Dream on one hand and the devastating destruction and humiliation of the American Psyche on the other, by describing a meticulous history of the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition‘ of 1893 and a portrait of America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Looking forward to the feature movie with Leonardo diCaprio by Martin Scorsese.

Yu Hua, To Live (1993)

Yu Hua, To Live (1993), 250p.

Yu Hua “once heard an American folk song entitled ‘Old Black Joe,’ a song about an elderly black slave who experienced a life’s worth of hardships, including the passing of his entire family, yet he still looked upon the world with eyes of kindness, offering not the slightest complaint.” Hearing the folk song ‘Old Black Joe’ became the inspiration for ‘To Live’, in which an elderly Chinese man, Fugui, has passed a life of hardship including losing his entire family. Central to the story is also a wisdom by the grandfather of Fugui: the chicken becomes a goose, the goose becomes a lamb, the lamb grows up to become a sheep, the sheep becomes an ox. After the ox, there is communism.

It is really hard to read the book and determine if it is about the indestructible hope of man or if it is about the inevitable suffering of man. One certainty exists, life is beckoning death. “As the black night descended from the heavens, I knew that in the blink of an eye I would witness the death of the sunset. I saw the exposed and firm chest of the vast earth; its pose was one of calling, of beckoning. And just as a mother beckons her children, so the earth beckoned the coming of night.” One of the saddest books ever written, and yet anyone will find a moment of happiness. “In the end, it turned out all for the best.”

To Live (1994) by Zhang Yimou.

A Critique on Judeo-Christian Populism and Islam

Too often, I hear the claim by populists that Islam is a Trojan Horse in Western society, that the Islam is an enemy to Western values. The theory of a fundamental clash of cultures between Judeo-Christianity and Islam is the very pillar of Islamophobic popularism today. This co-called Strauss–Howe generational theory comes from amateur historians and populist authors William Strauss and Neil Howe from the US, who both see a war between Islam and the West as the ‘fourth turning.’ I studied history and am an amateur historian myself, but I believe in facts rather than ‘alternative facts’, in truths rather than convictions.

The true foundation of Modernist Western ethics and current social values however is not religion but happiness. As a humanist, I believe that the pursuit of happiness is what drives man. Man advances through learning. Happiness, Epicurus says, is the absence of physical and mental suffering. Happiness is ensured in Freedom and Democracy, which are the legal form of this pursuit. This pursuit of happiness requires, according to Lucretius, the seeking of truth. It is science, not religion, that is the foundation of the pursuit of happiness, and therefor the true foundation of Western modernist culture.

With the rise of populism claiming to be the true defenders of our Western values, it seems that we Western humanists of the 21st century do not know whom to fight. The left is easily cornered by the right to be defenders of Islam, and out of instinct too easily accepts this role. But humanists should understand that the anti-Islamic populists are not worse but equal enemies as is Islam. The left has become complacent and overconfident in its fight against religion.

When I grew up however, it was not Judaism or Christianity that shaped my thinking and my values, but a series of Western thinkers whose works radically opposed Judeo-Christian culture. Western modernist culture instead of being Judeo-Christian or welcome to Islam, is instead radically anti-religious. Continue reading

Of Queen and Peasant

For majesty a throne
She stands in grace alone
Her smile equally dosed
Decisively composed

The peasant has his land
He stands to serve her end
His honor is to bow
and serve he is endowed

The moon is to the sun
Not his own that is done
But in the bigger light
He shines a little bright

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (1991)

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (1991), 385p.

Without a doubt, one of the best books you can read to understand America in general, and Chicago and the Great West specifically. For a little more comprehensive review see the post about ‘The Devil in the White City‘.

Philip Roth, Indignation (2008)

philip_roth_indignation_2008Philip Roth, Indignation (2008), 231p

“of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”

Marcus Messner is the son of Jewish parents, a kosher butcher and his wife, in Newark, New Jersey. Messner is phonetically close to the German word for knife: ‘Messer’. The knife and cutting is a returning and central symbol in Indignation, Marcus dies by the bayonet, his father’s livelihood depends on his knife skills, Olivia Hutton has cut her wrist in an attempted suicide.

Another thread in the story is the indignation Marcus feels about having to attend mass 40 times as a requirement at Winesburg college. At Dean Caudwell’s office, he recites two full pages from Bertrand Russel’s “Why I am Not a Christian.” This theme is closed at the end of the book, with the White Panty Raid. The ‘Panty Raid‘ was a historic phenomenon that started in 1949 and lasted through the 1950s at American colleges. In 1971, a student uprising at Winesburg college resulted in the abolishment of the mass attendance requirement. Marcus Messner’s final doom is caused by this requirement and Ziegler’s proxying for him at the chapel.

‘Indignation’ is associated to ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘I married a Communist’ and has been called the ‘American Trilogy’ by Roth.

Indignation (2016)

Uncanny Love

Through this dark night
Your heart is bright
Like a fair moonlight
My soul you guide

Into your loving bed
To suckle your breast
And clamp your chest
Into your womb my head

So you sooth
me like a boy
To be a man

Thus looted
By a woman coy
love uncanny

Faces (53)

The short stubbles of his scruffy goatee blended like a brightly colored motion of a pointillist painting into the detailed foam of ginger waves and the freckled splashes of his reddish face under an orange sky lit by a spiky haircut. His light blue eyes looked gloomy.