Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo was first published 1904. The book takes place in the fictional South American country of Costaguana in the fictional seaport of Sulaco. Charles Gould, who is of English descent, is a citizen of Costaguana. He and his wife, Emilia Gould, return to Costaguana from Europe to revive an abandoned silver mine that had previously ruined his father. As the mine begins to be successful, Gould allies himself with Costaguana’s President don Vincente Ribiera. The president is a reformer who is trying to bring stability to Costaguana after years of repression, civil wars and corruption. Unfortunately, Ribiera is overthrown by brutal, oppressive and corrupt forces. These forces proceed to invade Sulaco as various factions compete for power and influence. 

Nostromo is an ex-Genovese sailor who resides in Sulaco. He is a foreman of European workmen, but he also serves the various upper class European residents as a kind of security operative. He becomes instrumental in the fight against the oppressive factions. When Sulaco is invaded by the enemy forces, he undertakes a mission to save a large shipment of silver from them by getting it out of the country by boat.  Much of the book concerns this mission and its aftermath. 

The book is filled with interesting and complex additional characters. Martin Decoud is a cynic who is drawn into the reformist cause as a journalist and editorial writer. Decoud accompanies Nostromo on his mission to save the silver. Also cynical is the moody Dr. Monygham, who also becomes involved with the reformists. 
As is typical of other Conrad works that I have read, this novel is full of detailed descriptions and dense prose. The first part of the book is so full of these descriptions as well as background information on characters, that the plot barely moves at all. 

There are multiple themes running through this book. As I often do, I will devote a few words to one of these. The motivations and obsessions that provide meaning to life and that drive action is a major subject of this novel.   Various characters in the book are determined people. It is of note that they are driven by different things. 

Charles Gould is obsessed with the San Tome Mine. Gould is less interested in monetary success than he is in the success of the mine itself and its social impact. The mine, which destroyed his father, becomes the focus of his life. It becomes so important to him that the love and tenderness goes out of his marriage. At one point his wife Emilia laments,

"Incorrigible in his devotion to the great silver mine was the Senor Administrador! [Gould] Incorrigible in his hard, determined service of the material interests to which he had pinned his faith in the triumph of order and justice. Poor boy! She had a clear vision of the grey hairs on his temples. He was perfect— perfect. What more could she have expected? It was a colossal and lasting success; and love was only a short moment of forgetfulness, a short intoxication, whose delight one remembered with a sense of sadness, as if it had been a deep grief lived through. There was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea. She saw the San Tome mountain hanging over the Campo, over the whole land, feared, hated, wealthy; more soulless than any tyrant, more pitiless and autocratic than the worst Government; ready to crush innumerable lives in the expansion of its greatness. He did not see it. He could not see it. It was not his fault. He was perfect, perfect; but she would never have him to herself. Never; not for one short hour altogether to herself”

Likewise, Nostromo, is a focused man. He is obsessed with his own reputation. The ex-sailor is incorruptible and brave. He fights on the side of reform. However, he cares nothing for the cause. He only values what others say about him and that he is esteemed. He shows himself willing to die for his reputation. 

At one point he comments about his mission to save the silver. 

“I am going to make it the most famous and desperate affair of my life... It shall be talked about when the little children are grown up and the grown men are old”

Things get really interesting when Nostromo begins to realize that the Europeans are just using him for their own ends. He becomes disillusioned. As the narrative continues for years after the mission, this disillusion carries Nostromo into all sorts of directions. This turn of mind allows Conrad to explore both his character as well as disillusionment of purpose. 

Martin Decoud is another example. As his role as writer for the reformists begins to metamorphose into that of a political leader, Decoud shows physical bravery and outwardly appears to be committed to ideas. In reality, however, he is cynical and does not believe in causes. He is, however, in love with Antonia Avellanos, a committed and idealistic person who is dedicated to the cause of reform. Thus, Decoud’s commitment is not what it appears to be. 

Despite the depressive aspects of his personality, Dr. Monygham claims to value loyalty to others. It is revealed that he is haunted by the fact that he betrayed people when he was subjected to torture by a previous regime. It turns out that the thing that he seems to care most about is an unrequited love that he has for Emilia Gould

There are multiple additional characters whose motivations in life are examined. Some engage with one another through dialogues that expose their differences and incompatibilities.

At one point, the chief engineer of the railroad observes, 

“things seem to be worth nothing by what they are in themselves. I begin to believe that the only solid thing about them is the spiritual value which everyone discovers in his own form of activity”

The above quotation encapsulates a lot of what this book has to say. 

The story allows Conrad to explore meaningfulness and personal values in many permutations. Some characters maintain their beliefs, some beliefs some become disillusioned, and others believe that they have betrayed their own values.

There is a lot more going on in this book. It is a critique on both Colonialism as well as Latin American politics. It describes some horrendous violence and brutality that conveys an anti-violence message. There is a disturbing passage that describes torture that might lead some readers to avoid this book. 

This is another brilliant novel by Conrad. It has more characters, more plot threads and more themes floating around than either Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the other Conrad books that I have read. I find that Conrad is a master of prose, plot, characters and themes. With that, as stated above, this novel is heavy with descriptions and background information so some readers might become a little bored. For those who appreciate its strengths , I think that this book will not disappoint. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Evelina by Francis Burney

Evelina by Francis Burney was first published in 1778. This novel tells the story of Miss Evelina Anville. The entire book is written in the form of letters. Most of the letters are written by Evelina herself. Some are written by her guardian, Reverend Arthur Villars, and Mrs. Mirvin, a family friend. A few are written by others. The bulk of the narrative involves Evelina’s visit to the Mirvins and a later trip to Bristol Springs. Though written as an epistolary novel, some of the letters are long, complex and end up being closer to first person narration. Among other things, they contain long stretches of dialogue. 

The narrative alternates between the Mirvins’ country home, London and Bristol Springs. Evelina encounters a whole host of colorful people, many of whom are of very questionable character. Mme. Duval, Evelina’s vulgar and nefarious grandmother, shows up during a visit to London, threatens to take custody of Evelina and steel her away to France. Captain Mirvan, who is Mrs. Mirvin’s husband, is a bully and a bit of a sadist. Many other characters are crass, obnoxious or just foolish. 

There are multiple men in this book who show romantic interest in Evelina. Many are obsessive, creepy and lecherous. This applies to both major characters and minor characters, as well as random men that Evelina encounters. At one point, Evelina finds herself separated from her party at an outdoor concert. Disreputable and seemingly dangerous men approach her from all sides, 

“my recollection was soon awakened by a stranger's addressing me with, "Come along with me, my dear, and I'll take care of you." …. I found myself in the midst of a crowd, yet without party, friend, or acquaintance. I walked in disordered haste from place to place, without knowing which way to turn, or whither I went. Every other moment I was spoken to by some bold and unfeeling man; to whom my distress, which I think must be very apparent, only furnished a pretense for impertinent witticisms, or free gallantry. At last a young officer, marching fiercely up to me, said, "You are a sweet pretty creature, and I enlist you in my service;" and then, with great violence, he seized my hand. I screamed aloud with fear; and forcibly snatching it away,” 

The above illustrates a world that Burney constructs, populated with pushy, immoral and sometimes dangerous people. Though these characters often do bad things, the tone is the book is fairly light. People rarely actually get seriously hurt. Though these characters display questionable ethics, they are often humorous. Often, characters act in over-the-top and cloddish ways that are funny. They often conflict and bump heads with one another to comic effect. This novel is at times hilarious. Character after character, in passage after passage, confronts Evelina with bad behavior. Sometimes these characters go at one another in that they verbally spar and even play mean and sadistic pranks upon one another. The obnoxious behavior of many of these characters seems realistic, but its frequency as it is presented in this book seems overly exaggerated. The plot is also full of implausible coincidences. All this gives the book a lighthearted and, at times, frivolous feel. However, as a whole, this novel works well as satire. 

Lord Orville is Evelina’s virtuous suitor. He is one of several people in the novel who shows integrity and decency. Throughout the story, the pair encounters various ups and downs in their budding relationship. There is also a major plot thread revolving around the fact that Evelina’s biological father abandoned her and her mother before Evelina was born. Some of the Evelina’s elders want her to assert her birthright. 

In terms of plot and some of the more ethical characters, this book is similar to Jane Austen’s novels. This novel was written years before Austen penned her works. It is kind of like one of Austen’s books filled with clownish and nefarious characters. With that, the characters are not as complex or nuanced as Austen’s brilliant creations. The humor is not as subtle or witty as Austen’s; it is instead overt, but very effective. 

I find it interesting that the obnoxious behavior and character flaws of many of these characters seem very contemporary. People in this book tend to behave badly in the same way as they do in the 21st century. Mme. Duval seems like a modern, crass and vulgar person. Sir Clement Willoughby, one several men pursing Evelina’s affections, seems like a clingy guy whose behavior borders on stalking. Captain Mirvan resembles the people of today who cynically mock and belittle everything and everybody. This book reminds me that some things never change. 

Despite some flaws, this is a fine book. The plot is interesting. It is very funny. Though the characters are not nuanced, they are entertaining and interesting to read about. I highly recommend this novel to fans of Jane Austen and similar writers who came after her. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker was first published this year. It is essentially Pinker’s assessment of the world we live in and how we got here. The book is a defense of enlightenment ideals and an argument that the world is getting better because of them. The author is known as an optimist. He describes the brand of optimism that he practices as “rational optimism.”

The gist of this book is that human civilization has been improving in numerous ways. This improvement has been accelerating. It is being driven by what Pinker describes as enlightenment ideals. The author covers a lot of ground in this work. He explores subjects as diverse as war, violent crime, poverty, famine, epidemics, literacy, human rights, the spread of democracy, access to knowledge, culture and the arts, as well as many other issues. He devotes many pages to both the already developed and the still developing worlds. Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have more to say about this below.

Pinker attempts to ascertain why humanity is improving.  He attributes these advances to reason, science and what he calls “humanism.” I put what he calls “humanism” in quotation marks because there are so many definitions of humanism around. Pinker defines humanism as,

“The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience”

He attributes the advances in these areas to enlightenment philosophy. He does touch upon various enlightenment philosophers. However, this is a light touch. I would have preferred if the author had explored the various philosophers and their beliefs in greater depth.

Pinker talks a lot about pervasive pessimism that he argues is all over the place. The author writes,

“And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

As the above quotation illustrates, Pinker argues that due to the nature of the modern world, communication technology, the structure of the media, the fact that we care more about people who are different from us, etc., leads many to believe that things are getting worse at a time when they are getting better.
Pinker does address existentialist dangers like climate change and nuclear weapons. He recognizes the reality of these risks. Once again, his optimism prevails, while he acknowledges that although these perils could destroy human civilization, he believes that humanity can overcome them. When it comes to other threats that folks deem as risks to the survival of human civilization, such as the dangers of artificial intelligence, overpopulation, pandemics, etc., Pinker argues that they are not as serious as many are contending.

Pinker is highly critical of what he identifies as past and modern anti-enlightenment, anti-science and anti-humanist movements. His criticism extends to both the right and the left. He delves into Donald Trump as well as nationalistic trends in Europe. The philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are tied to these movements.

The author is also critical of illiberalism emanating from the left, in particular, the latest rounds of censorship on college campuses, an intolerance of dissenting viewpoints, the attempts to destroy the careers of individuals who dissent from left wing orthodoxy, left wing anti-science and anti-reason trends, demonization of all things Western, etc. He is highly critical of post modernism. As he does on the right, he concludes that many issues on the left originate with anti-enlightenment philosophers. Here he identifies Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as such. The ever optimistic Pinker, of course, believes that in the end, reason and moderation will win out over extremists on both sides.

Pinker is also generally critical of religion and particularly critical of conservative interpretations of religion. He talks a about  conservative interpretations of Christianity and Islam. However he acknowledges  that moderate versions of these and other religions are comparable and sometimes even champion enlightenment values. 

There is so much here that it is difficult to encompass in a single blog post, but just a few examples of ills in the world that have been on the downswing over time include poverty, famine, epidemics and violence.  Yet these facts are so rarely talked about. For a more specific example, violent crime in the developed world has been declining dramatically over the last 25 years or so. Yet, the majority of people believe that it is increasing. As another example, in 1984, there existed 54,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and now there are less than 11,000, and there are good prospects that in the coming decades, this number will be substantially reduced.

As mentioned above, Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have been careful to use examples of things that are not only backed up by statistics,  but that match my understanding of the world based upon sources that I have read as well as my basic understanding of the world and of history.

 Some of My Thoughts

A lot of commentary has already been written about this book. Reviews as well as opinion pieces abound all over the internet. Pinker is garnering both praise and criticism. In terms of criticism, it is coming from both the right and the left. Personally, I think that this book illustrates truths about the world that are rarely talked about. Thus, I am devoting a few paragraphs where I share some of my personal observations below.

I have strong opinions on Pinker’s ideas as well as on the issues that he addresses. I have read and thought a lot about these topics over the years.   In an effort to be balanced, I have listened to and read a fair number of these critics. My commentary has been partially influenced by some of Pinker’s detractors.

Pinker uses a lot of statistics. While statistics can be cherry picked and used to distort reality, in my opinion, the author uses them to support logical and common-sense arguments. The statistics presented in this book also match my understanding of history and current events. For instance, his statistics on war and violent crime fit what is happening in the world based upon many sources.  The fact that, as terrible as today’s wars are, they do not come close to matching the frequency and loss of life that conflicts in the past have. The same is true on the subject of crime. Pinker’s statistics generally just quantify what I know to be fairly clear historical trends.

Many folks who criticize Pinker, and people who I have discussed these issues with, bring up many of today’s horrors. One example is the war in Syria. There has been terrible suffering and death as result of this conflict. Upper estimates put the death toll as approaching 500,000. There are several other conflicts going on in the world that are also causing mass losses of life and suffering. However, as Pinker points out, in almost every time in the past, there were many more conflicts going on. Many of these conflicts were much worse in terms of deaths than what is occurring in Syria. Pinker writes of this kind of critique,

“they forget the many civil wars that ended without fanfare after 2009 (in Angola, Chad, India, Iran, Peru, and Sri Lanka) and also forget earlier ones with massive death tolls, such as the wars in Indochina (1946–54, 500,000 deaths), India (1946–48, a million deaths), China (1946–50, a million deaths), Sudan (1956–72, 500,000 deaths, and 1983–2002, a million deaths), Uganda (1971–78, 500,000 deaths), Ethiopia (1974–91, 750,000 deaths), Angola (1975–2002, a million deaths), and Mozambique (1981–92, 500,000 deaths)”

Pinker goes on and uses charts and graphs, among other things, to show that deaths from war have been progressively coming down. As I mentioned above, these statistics match my understanding of history. This is just one example. Pinker makes dozens of rational, historical and statistical arguments as per above on many topics, such as poverty, literacy, epidemics, famine, etc.

There is another point that bears some discussion. Some critics have implied that being optimistic about these issues shows a callousness to present day human suffering and death. Often, individual or group examples of suffering, violence or oppression are brought up as counterarguments when discussing improvements in the world.

Granted, for the relatives of a murdered person, a rape survivor, or a child dying of hunger, a person living in a war zone, etc. the fact that these things are becoming less common is no solace. We should never forget about, and more importantly, we should never stop trying to reduce and ameliorate these ills. However, if these evils have been progressively becoming less common and less severe, it is vital that we understand to what extent this is happening and why this is happening. This understanding is important if we want to sustain and perhaps accelerate the improvement. Recognizing and trying to understand what is going on does not diminish the suffering of those who are still exposed to these terrible things.  On the contrary, understanding what is going on help us to reduce suffering in the future. In addition, the pursuit of truth is in itself important.

Pinker writes,

“The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”
Pinker does talk about the terrible things in the world, including the situation with refugees, declining incomes and declining life expectancies in some segments of the population in developed countries, climate change as well as many more issues that are addressed in the book. He makes a strong case that, based on historical trends, we will see improvements in these areas over time.

While he does acknowledge that climate change might destroy human civilization, he makes a case that human civilization can survive it and eventually ameliorate it. He seems more optimistic than pessimistic here.  I am not as optimistic as Pinker seems to be on this front, though I do think that it can go either way.  Pinker makes the case that there is a good chance that humanity will find ways to cope with this challenge. I acknowledge that we might overcome this threat, but I think that that it is so pressing and potentially destructive to human civilization that Pinker would have done better to integrate its negative affects upon his future prognostications.

I generally like Pinker’s politics and views on social issues. He clearly recognizes the benefits that moderate liberalism has brought to the world while recognizing a growing illiberalism growing out of the left. He is also not hesitant to take conservative positions when reason leads him to them.  In some ways, this entire book is a call to moderation, with a slight tilt to the left. It seems that Pinker and I are mostly on the same the same page here.  

I agree with the message of this book: that the plight of humanity is improving in multiple ways and, for the most part, modernity is enormously beneficial.  The ideas of the enlightenment, science and reason are driving this progress. I believe that there are downsides to modernity, and Pinker does mention them, but I would have preferred that he written about them more. However, I agree with him that the constant drumbeat that modernity is detrimental to humanity and things were better in the past, is erroneous. Thus, when all is said and done, I find myself mostly in agreement with Pinker on a whole host of issues.

I think that this book, along with the author’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, are two of the most important works written in recent years. Even if one disagrees with many of Pinker’s points, he is an intriguing thinker who raises all kinds of compelling issues. I personally believe that Pinker is one of the most important thinkers of our time. I highly recommend this book.