Saturday, August 22, 2015

Falling in Love while Staying True to Self

Auguste Rodin's "The Kiss". Photo: Hans Sandberg
The Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni wrote that falling in love is “the first stage of a collective movement consisting of two people.”

A single person can do whatever he or she wants, but that freedom is limited to what it is physically and biologically possible. (A human being cannot fly on its own, unless we consider falling towards the Earth a form of flying).

When God created Eve out of Adam’s rib, he created the first society. (Let us for a moment ignore the fact that both men and women normally are born to women who have been impregnated by men. The whole idea of God creating Eve out of Adam’s rib is certainly weird, almost like the Greek myth, where Athena springs fully armed from the head of Zeus.)  

When two people enter into a relationship, they are simultaneously entering into a power relation; a power structure. Many options are possible here: The most likely is that one person –  the strongest, smartest, shrewdest – becomes the dominant actor. It is of course theoretically possible that the two reach an equilibrium where they can work towards a shared goal, whether it is protection against a threat or solving a critical task that can only be achieved by collaboration between equals. When everybody is poor, it is easier to be equal, but once society and production technology allows for creation of a surplus, society is likely to split in some who dominate and others who are dominated. This split can be done along many lines, gender, race, culture, family, tribe etc.

Nobody is truly independent. No couple, family, tribe, society lives alone. When Aristotle wrote that human beings are political, he meant that they are social beings by nature. We are born into a specific social, biological and cultural setting. We are born into a historic setting.

When a man meets a woman he will be doing this in a social and historic context built on established facts, traditions, social structures, prejudices etc. Knowing what we know about human history, chances are that the relationship is complex, reflecting a long history of power, inequality and injustice. (One man and one woman is of course not the only possible combination, but the dominant type due to the Darwinian process of evolution.) 

How should we deal with the pain and inequality inherited from the past?

Jesus supposedly died on the cross for our sins. That is one way to deal with history. We are all sinners, an insight that reflects the fact that there is something fundamental in humanity that makes us want to do the right thing (as defined by the time and society we live in). Unlike the big apes, we belong to a collaborative species where empathy is an essential trait. We suffer if we don’t do what we deep down feel is the right thing.

Sacrifice is one way to deal with this and to build societies that stay together. Religion is one way to address the problem of “free riders,” and one that humans have practiced for a very long time. Humans tried to relieve themselves of guilt by sacrificing either other people or animals. The Christian innovation was to have one historic person sacrificed for all our sins, making further human sacrifice unnecessary. Once could say that this was a step in the right direction.

Every man who meets a woman will face a similar dilemma. He will enter a historic moment where he will have to navigate his own life and responsibility, and the heritage left by history. Even though love is a great equalizer that has the potential to put two individuals on an equal footing by making them strive for a shared goal, this does not eliminate the past. As beautiful and intoxicating as love is (love’s madness) there is no escaping reality other than for a short moment. At some point, the lovers will have to face reality and come to grips with the nature of their relationship, the history of their beings and relations. They carry history with them, and it is unlikely that they are equal or equally passionate or that their goals are perfectly aligned.

This can be a painful discovery. Love’s slate is not clean, but love cannot survive unless the couple acts as if it is. They must learn to take each other for what they are and be ready to forgive and accept. If Eve tells Adam that it is not fair that he came first, then she has already given up on love. If Adam tells Eve that he owns her, as she came from his body, then he does not love her.

Love is new. A person falls in love with another person. In Greek mythology, mankind originally had two heads, four arms and four legs, but was cut in half and since then the two have chased each other. That is kind of silly, but also sweet. The lover wants the other person to be part of him (her). Love seeks unification.

In love we feel complete. When we fall in love, we forget about ourselves, about our needs, and we are willing to sacrifice our identity, but love cannot be sustained unless we remain true to ourselves; unless we hold onto our identity. There has to be an I that enters into a relationship. If that I evaporates, there can be no relationship. It takes two to tango. If we forsake ourselves, love maybe complete, but we are gone. This works for some insects, but not for human beings.

The scars of inequality will always be there, but unless you have committed a crime, you are not guilty. We don’t inherit the sins of our fathers and forefathers. It is I that enter a relationship with another human being. I will treat you as an equal and you must treat me as an equal. It doesn’t matter if you or I am rich or poor, black, brown, yellow or white, gay or straight, man or woman or something in-between. We must both be proud of who we are. I must be proud to be a man and you should be proud to be a woman. (The same goes for other combinations and variations.)

Love is unselfish, but it is an act that requires two strong people who maintain their strength and independence. Love may succeed or it may die, but you and the person you loved will live on even if your particular love affair fails or dies. In fairytales and romantic novels, lovers face death together, or as in the case of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” – alone. But that has more to do with the needs of storytelling than life.  

A person who is unable to love himself/herself cannot love another person. The torturer knows that to break a person, you must first make them feel bad about themselves; stop loving themselves. Initiation rites often involves acts that makes the person sacrifice its pride; its humanity. Once you stop loving yourself, you will obey orders. Emotional blackmail works the same way. If a person believes that its worth is tied to somebody else or a tribe or gang, then that person can be manipulated.

Whoever you are – man, woman, gay or straight, mainstream or side-stream – you need to protect your dignity. If your lover hurts your feelings, or puts you down in word or action, you need to defend yourself for the sake of your capacity to love. If you allow the loved one to say or do things that makes you uncomfortable, then you are allowing your ability to love to evaporate. You may feel that it is a necessary compromise, and that it is only a temporary thing, but you should not let go of yourself or doubt your own feelings. If it hurts, it hurts. As much as a lover wants to please the one her or she loves, fear of the other is the beginning of the end. If a relationship that starts out as being equal tilts so that it can only be sustained by one person bending over backwards, than it is not love anymore, but a power relationship where one person dominates another. The person being dominated often responds by begging for love (sometimes in words, but mostly in deeds), but such a relationship is already unhealthy and domed. The dominant partner often threatens the dominated by threatening to withhold love. Once the relationship becomes based on fear of losing the love, fear of saying no, then love is gone.

When a man loves a woman, a woman loves a man or a person loves another person, they all need to know who they are, where one begins and the other ends. If you lose your sense of self, you lose your ability to reason and make decisions. Then love is lost.

Trust yourself. Be open and honest. Then love is possible. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Afghanistan Before All Hell Broke Loose

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, links Afghanistan and the Grateful Dead in his latest column and the connection goes way back.

"We had not planned to be in Afghanistan for the 1973 coup. In fact we had not planned much of anything. But that’s the way it turned out. When the Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, was ousted after a 40-year reign, we were in Kandahar in the courtyard of some hotel trying to learn how to ignore the flies. Another guest, who’d mastered the fly trick and attained imperturbability, had a short-wave radio. It picked up the BBC World Service news. 
A coup? My two friends and I were on the hippie trail." 
(Roger Cohen, Afghanistan, Empires and the Grateful Dead, NYT, July 20, 2015)
I traveled through Afghanistan a year later, when the king's first cousin and successor, Mohammed Daoud Khan, had been in power for a year and a couple of months. This was despite the coup a relatively peaceful time in Afghanistan's history.

If you want to read more about my 1974 journey, follow the link below:

Taking the Bus from Stockholm to New Delhi.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Lonely American Journey to the Center of his World

I don’t quite understand America’s persistent infatuation with most everything Nordic (i.e. Scandinavia plus Iceland and Finland). Things had just returned to a relative calm after a couple of years when you couldn't open a newspaper or turn on your TV without facing Stieg Larsson’s ghost when the editors of the New York Times Sunday Magazine decided to ask Karl Ove Knausgaard, the great Norwegian explorer of the mundane, to spend ten days in search of real and imaginary Viking landmarks and Scandinavian descendants.

Knausgaard began his journey in L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland in Canada, the desolate piece of land where a group of Vikings landed about 1,000 years ago. It was cold, a storm was approaching, but a friendly newfie, husband of the receptionist, took Knausgaard to the historic site, which he however found underwhelming, quite contrary to the locals he saw at Jungle Jim’s restaurant in St. Anthony (pop. 2,418). 
“Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them.“
The first half of Knausgaard’s 21,000-word essay gives us a close up (CSI style) retelling of the author’s general incompetence at handling life’s little things: 
“I use top-up cards because no Swedish phone company will let me open an account, I have too many late payments on my credit report. Nor will any bank lend me money to buy a house or a car. I have to pay everything in cash.” 
If you are planning a road trip in North America, actually, in any country, it helps to have a driver’s license. He did not, as he confesses in the opening paragraph of his personal saga. 
“I lost my driver’s license over a year ago. I lose stuff all the time. Credit cards, passports, car keys, cash, books, bags, laptops. It doesn't worry me, they usually turn up eventually.” 
Not only did he not have the license, he never applied for a new one, and he left for America without it. Once in St. Anthony, it hit him that he had a problem: 
“I lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling. I should email The Times and explain the situation. Maybe they had a solution. But I couldn't. I just couldn't bring myself to tell them that I’d undertaken this great road-trip assignment across the U.S. without my license. They’d think I was a complete idiot.” 
But maybe he was too hard on himself. 
“These things happen often; in my experience they always turn out fine. There is a saying in Norway that he who loses money shall receive money, and I think that’s true, because when you lose things, it means you’re not on your guard, you’re not trying to control everything, you’re not being so anal all the time — and if you aren't, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.” 
Say what you want about our author, his flow is hard to stop once it gets going. 
“When I came back in, I went to the toilet. I hadn't gone since I arrived in America, so the result was significant. I wiped myself thoroughly, then flushed.” 
But this particular toilet was not ready for such a significant download, and initiated an upload of its own, leading to a long hand–to–bowl battle that the author relates blow-by-blow.

That was a low point for our hero, and things could only get better from then on. He found his way to Cleveland in the United States, where he met his assigned photographer, who offered to do the driving. That was a nice gesture, but Knausgaard was concerned about something else. 
“I didn't really enjoy talking to people that much, at least not to strangers, and the thought of spending the next five days in a car with someone I didn't know was a bit unsettling.” 
He overcame his hesitation and the pair set out westwards, smoking a lot, staying in dingy hotels and eating among the locals. 
“So what’s your plan?” he asked.
“I don’t really have a plan,” I said. “Drive up toward Minnesota, that’s all. And then maybe rent a car myself tomorrow or the day after. If you don’t mind, that is.”
“No problem.”
“I’m a little shy,” I said. “I don’t usually talk very much. Just so you know what’s in store for you.”
“I don’t think you’re that untalkative,” he said. “But it’s fine with me. I can talk, and I can be quiet.”
We ate on in silence, he checked something out on his cellphone. Then he looked up at me.
“So your idea is to drive across America and write about it without talking to a single American?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’ll be a challenge,” he said.
“I know,” I said. 
Having been driven through Detroit, a city that imploded after the near-death of the U.S. auto industry, Knausgaard compares it to “the slums outside Maputo, in Mozambique.” 
But Detroit was worse. 
“If what I had seen tonight — house after house after house abandoned, deserted, decaying as if there had been disaster — if this was poverty, then it must be a new kind poverty, maybe in the same way that the wealth that had amassed here in the 20th century had been a new kind of wealth.” 
This sounds profound, until you reread it and realize that it is an pompous setup for a reflection on contemporary America. 
“I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing.” 
Almost exactly the same thought returns a few pages later in the article. 
"Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home." 
Albeit his editor at the Sunday Magazine suggested that he write as “a tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,” this is more like a warmed over New Left critique of late capitalist alienation. It’s an as stale as stereotypical view of America, which it would be hard to maintain unless you like Knausgaard make it your business not to talk to people. (And I bet he never listened to “The Prairie Home Companion.)

It is true that most products in the United States are standardized, but this is certainly true for most products in most countries, and I’m quite sure that cars in Norway looks pretty much the same and so does its gas stations, TV screens and hotel rooms. And if a worker leaves his job or is fired, he or she can be replaced there too.

What is confusing to many foreign observers of America is that you have such a blend of people, and that they still basically get along with each other, smile when meeting strangers, and say “Hello, how are you?” Something the Swedish anthropologist Åke Daun explained decades ago in his book "Swedish Mentality."  But for Knausgaard, it seems unfathomable that you can have a shared shallow culture that makes it easy to fit in and get along, at the same time as you have a subculture with deeper roots that you share within your ethnic group and your family. (What most foreigners see as America’s superficial culture is actually a cultural user interface that by necessity must be shallow.) 

The fact that he thinks American’s form a “unified, collective identity” that “not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating” leaves me dumbfounded. And his claim that people in America have been “required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one” reveals an ignorance and lack of perception that is amazing.

The only occasions when Knausgaard allows himself to venture outside his safety zone is when he reflects on books he read, music he likes and people (preferably Norwegians) that he can trust and empathize with. He tells about his mother’s uncle Magnus who migrated to America but left his heart back in the Old Country. 
“When I saw Bergen and Bygstad, Flatråker, etc., I felt such a powerful longing that I could not hold my tears back,” Magnus wrote home from Grafton, N. D. back in 1928. 
The second part of Knausgaard’s "My Saga" had the subtitle "On the Road in the American interior" and ran on March 15, but a better choice would have been: “A meandering exploration of the author’s interior.”  

In it we learn that it is cold in Minnesota in January, that the author doesn't know how to drive an automatic, but is reluctant to reveal his incompetence by asking for instructions, that Target stores are big (“at least 50 feet high”) and that they probably would not have been there if Columbus like the Vikings had left the continent alone and just returned home.
“It’s inconceivable” he writes, only to conceive it a few paragraphs down. “Leaving America and yet keeping it under watch would have turned the continent into a kind of vast human nature reserve, the people there following their own path of development, without knowing they were under observation.”
The road trip continues and we are treated to half a page about the challenges of smoking in a rental car when it is so cold that you freeze if you keep the windows open. Knausgaard loses a burning cigarette butt and can’t figure out how to push the button so that the seat moves back and reveals the cigarette.
"When we continued north, I felt depressed. What Peter had said, about the burning cigarette being the most exciting thing to happen so far on our trip, was actually true. If this had been just any old trip, it wouldn't have mattered. But I was supposed to write something about this trip, and not only that, I was supposed to use this trip to grasp something essential about the U.S., perceive something with my foreign gaze that Americans couldn't see for themselves. Instead, I saw nothing. I experienced nothing."
Back on the  road, the pair pulls over somewhere to take a look at a big Jesus statue, which makes our foot-in-the-mouth Tocqueville ponder on religion in America.
"The statue of Jesus was obviously not the work of a modern caricaturist or intellectual, toying with the fundamentally childish nature of faith. It had been made, I assumed, in a sincere attempt to represent what is finest and most important in the world. Over the course of the past two days, I had seen many images of Jesus, all of them cartoonish stereotypes, yet they must have been genuine expressions of something many people considered deeply significant.”
Once again, the Americans come up short in comparison with Russia.
“The contrast with, say, Russia, was striking: Had I been driving there, I would have come across a very different caliber of representations of Christ, given the nation’s many monasteries, churches and thousand-year-old tradition of icon painting. Throw Dostoyevsky into the bargain, and Russian Orthodox Christianity becomes something you could spend your entire life studying, because it seems so close — with its notions of guilt, grace and redemption — to the enigma of existence itself, touching the core of what it is to be human.
How do you compare that to a billboard with a line drawing of a good-natured, bearded man and a phone number to dial for salvation?”
So the American Jesus expresses “the fundamentally childish nature of faith,” while “you could spend your entire life studying” Russian religion. But wait, there is more, as they say in TV commercials.
“I gloated a little over that thought as we drove north through the empty, darkening woods, until it struck me how wrong I was. The depth of American religion lay not in visual art, not in representation but, obviously, in music. I had some gospel records at home; some of the recordings were from the 1920s, and their raw force, their fervor, heartfelt and ecstatic at the same time, was like a fire, brutal yet beautiful, no less exquisite than a Russian Orthodox icon."
Thank God for Gospel music! Without it, America wouldn't have a chance to touch the core of what it is to be human. 

This far in, I have all but given up any hope of finding America in this saga, which is about Karl Ove Knausgaard, a rather sad and lonely fellow in need of the talking cure. An evening at Izzy’s BBQ Lounge and Grill in Duluth, Minnesota, provides an opportunity to try just that.
"When I woke up the next morning, I had an anxiety attack. I lay there for a long time, staring out at the empty room. The last thing I could remember was that I had gotten into an elevator. I had no recollection of seeing the room before. Everything was terrible, everything was diseased and I was a ridiculous, laughable character. Oh, God, what an idiot I was.
I had talked.
To total strangers, I had babbled away. With no dignity whatsoever, happy and enthusiastic over every little thing. I had given compliments! My eyes had filled up with tears at my own human warmth and goodness.
Oh, Jesus, was I an idiot."
Knausgaard did also get a chance to visit an American home and talk soberly to an actual American, since he – prodded by the photographer – located Mark Hatloy, a second cousin living near Grafton, North Dakota. They met and the author was suddenly at ease.
"It felt odd, getting so close to a man whom I had met for the first time a few hours ago, who was so American in everything he said and did. And yet somehow I felt as if I knew him. Why the feeling of intimacy? Because our grandfathers were brothers?"
Knausgaard hates to be among strangers. It’s understandable, but the contrast to Bob Dylan, who he admires couldn't be any bigger:
“…there was nothing about Bob Dylan to remind one of a statue, nothing about his music or his role had become rigid or clearly defined, no final form enclosed him. In fact, it was as if he weren't really a person at all, but had somehow dissolved into his music. His old songs were constantly in motion, and the new songs emerged from the same stream. As he traveled around, permanently on tour, you couldn’t tell what came from him and what belonged to the American song tradition; he was just playing the music.” 
“All writers, artists and musicians know the feeling: when you disappear into what you are doing, lose yourself in it and are no longer aware that you exist, while at the same time the feeling of existing is profound and total and what you make is never better. Work created in this state really shouldn't be published in the artist’s name, because it has been created precisely by the artist’s nonpersonal, nonindividual, selfless side. Bob Dylan is the master of the selfless self, the king of the not-one’s-one, a deeply paradoxical figure who lived and breathed the music of this deeply paradoxical country.”
Which makes me wonder if Bob Dylan would have written anything like "My Struggle" or “My Saga”? Would his story be about him, and him alone?

The final stop on his journey was Alexandria, Minnesota, (pop.  11,070), which sports Big Ole, a 25 feet tall Viking statue built for the World’s Fair in New York 1964, but is more known for the Kensington Runestone, which Olof Olsson Ohman, a Swedish immigrant, claimed to have discovered in a field back in 1898.

The inscription on the controversial stone goes:
“Eight Goths and twenty-two Norwegians upon a journey of discovery from Vinland westward. We had a camp by two skerries one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we returned home we found ten men red with blood and dead.
Ave Virgo Maria, save us from evil. Have ten men by the sea to look after our vessel, fourteen days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”
Here he is facing a rather typical piece of American fakery, created by immigrants eager to make a mark and extend their roots, and he finds nothing childish in this. In fact, he draws a line to a literary God, Vladimir Nabokov:
"I loved it not only because I had finally seen something in the United States that Humbert and Lolita could have seen — a fabulous entry for Nabokov’s catalog of American monuments, wonders and reconstructions — but also because it struck me that the image of reality that this particular reconstruction presented was, in a curious way, absolutely true.
It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about its grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history. Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this."
That is his excuse for having wasted ten days, 21,000 words and too much of our time.

Monday, March 9, 2015

New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio Spoke at the March 6th Memorial for Deborah Darrell

Deborah Darrell was a dear friend who suddenly passed away this past December. My wife Lisa became friends with Deb soon after becoming U.S. Press Director for H&M back in 2004.

Deborah Darrell in 2009.
I had actually first met Deb several years before, at a party back in the 1990s when she was working for the U.S. Foreign Press Center, but it was after she became Lisa's friend and mentor that I really got to know her. We often met at Niles Bar across the street from Penn Station to discuss business ideas, since we were thinking of starting a consulting agency together. (Lisa would collaborate with Deb in her agency Cue several years later.)

It was always fun to meet with Deb as she had this ability to make everything sound possible and just around the corner. Which in a way made her a soul mate of Barack Obama, whom we heard speaking at Coopers Union in New York on March 27, 2008.

Bill de Blasio and guests at a fundraiser
Deborah Darrell held in her home in 2009.
Deb would campaign for Obama in 2008, holding fund raisers and knocking on doors, doing what she could to help him win.

In April 2009, she invited us to a fundraiser for Bill de Blasio in her new apartment on 110th street, which overlooked the northern edge of Central Park. We were not sure about who he was then as he was fairly unknown and running for Public Advocate in New York.

But we trusted Deb and we drove in to Manhattan from our home in the Princeton area. It was a great party and a nice mix of people. Bill de Blasio had his entire family with him. I remember Bill not only because he was so tall, but because of his intensity and for exuding honesty and uprightness. He was unabashedly progressive and spoke with clarity and force.

And he would win the election for the job as Public Advocate. Three years later he would become Mayor of New York City in a landslide election. I don't know if Deb or anybody else had any idea back then, but one thing I know and that is that she did her part in helping him move forward.

Lisa remembering Deborah Darrell.
Hence it was fitting that Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray showed up at the memorial for Deborah at the Snapple Theatre in New York this past Friday. They arrived up a bit late, which according to Deb's and Bill's friend Monsignor Kevin Sullivan is his habit, so he missed both Sullivan's, Bethann Harding's, my wife Lisa's and Benita Gold's reflections on their respective friendships with Deb.

The ceremony continued with Carol Levin singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" accompanied by Nick Moran on guitar. Then Bill and Chirlane entered the stage.

I captured their reflections with my cellphone camera, so be patient if it gets a bit shaky now and then.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A cowardly excuse from one of Dick Cheney's willing executioners

Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, defended the use of torture on both MSNBC's show Morning Joe and CNN's New Day show with Chris Cuomo as co-host. Much like the incorrigible Dick Cheney, he defended torture, but then added a twist by blaming the American people.

"Excuse me, common sense? You have the majority of the American people still saying this is okay. We went to the people who determined what U.S. statutes say. They were clear. I personally spoke to members on both sides of the aisle in the Congress. They told me either ‘okay,’ or ‘is this it?’ — in other words, ‘aren’t you doing more?’ The mood of the population is reflected by the American security service. The mood of the population is, ‘this is okay, this is more than okay. And, by the way, if we see ever see another jumper from the 100th floor of a building in New York, it’s on you.’ You want to know what that’s like, Chris? We were dealt a hand of deuces, and we ran the table in the casino. I thought it was great work." (Quote from the blog Mediaite, December 16, 2014.
With the same logic, most tyrants could defend any terror and abuse by claiming that they just did what the people wanted them to do. A new Pew Research Center poll (December 16, 2014) found that 51 percent of Americans believe that CIA's torture was justified. And much like most American's believed in Dick Cheney's lies about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in the year that lead up to the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, 58 percent now believe that the torture was effective, despite the fact that the senate report based on CIA's internal documents showed that it did not.

Mudd's defense is nothing but a version of "the Devil made me do it," or as Eve told God according to the Old Testament: "The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13).

Note: For a background on the "willing executioners" debate, check out this Wikipedia  article.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Roubini on the Rise of the Machines and the Future of the Economy

The financial and economic guru Nouriel Roubini gave a speech on December 4th at the Bloomberg BusinessWeek 85th Anniversary Dinner, which was held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The title of his "official toast" was “Rise of the Machines: Downfall of the Economy?

To be a toast for Manhattan socialites, it was probably great, but when you read the published version on Roubini's Edge it fizzles somewhat. To begin with, his understanding of the birth of the computer is flawed. 
"This wave of technological innovation began in 1947 with the invention of the transistor. A little over 10 years later, the microchip appeared; and, soon after that, computers followed. From these basic roots, the rate of innovation simply exploded."
Well, no. The first electronic computers were created around 1940 and used vacuum tubes rather than the microchips he mentions, which later made microcomputers and PCs possible. (He may be forgiven for this transgression as he after all is an economist and not a techie.)

Roubini said that ”technologists claim that the world is on the cusp of a series of major technical breakthroughs” and that this is not just about IT, but a much broader third industrial revolution.

Yes, it is plausible that the IT-revolution of the past 30 years will be followed by an industrial and economic revolution due to broad technological progress, but let’s pause for a moment and remember that the technological and industrial revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th century contributed to the economic and political shifts in "plate tectonics" that resulted in two world wars. 

The destabilizing impact of new technology and globalization is truly global, and the world's political systems (including and maybe especially in democratic political systems) are at loss for how to respond. Technology opens possibilities, but it is a double edged sword, and where it cuts depends on who wields it and for what purpose. 

The best part of Roubini's speech was his reflection on job destruction and whether new jobs can make up for lost ones. The picture Dr. Doom painted here is dark, and he includes education in his scenario (maybe somewhat unfairly as teachers are not as easily replaced by algorithms as it at first may seem.)

He does criticize the "winner-takes-all capitalism" and increasing inequality, and reminds us of John Maynard Keynes's optimistic prognosis from 1930 that we soon would need to work no more than 15 hours a week, but contrasts it with another possibility in "the Brave New World" of labor-saving technology – “20% of the labor force will work 120 hours a week while the other 80% will have no jobs and no income.”

After that dystopic scenario (we can ignore his reference to "the Singularity" and Steven Hawking’s silly provocation that mankind should get think of leaving Earth in fear of artificial intelligence), one might have expected more in terms of a remedy than the whimper of an ending that we are served up: a longing for an enlightened despot/leader (Otto von Bismarck, Teddy Roosevelt or William Gladstone) and giving workers “skills” needed “to participate in the wealth that capitalism generates.”

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A.D.H.D. as an adaptation for survival in a non-sedentary culture...

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote a fascinating essay in today's New York TimesA Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.

"Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is now the most prevalent psychiatric illness of young people in America, affecting 11 percent of them at some point between the ages of 4 and 17. The rates of both diagnosis and treatment have increased so much in the past decade that you may wonder whether something that affects so many people can really be a disease.
And for a good reason. Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating.
To compensate, they are drawn to new and exciting experiences and get famously impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world. In short, people with A.D.H.D. may not have a disease, so much as a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture." 
I found the article educational about A.D.H.D., but it also triggered spin-off questions. In the middle of reading it, I began to look at it as a story about innovation and change, how companies and organizations can deal with innovative and creative people better. It can also be read as a story about learning, how different people learn, and the role of computers and social media in learning. Another link would be to non-cognitive skills and the role they play in education.

Maybe I am an un-diagnosed case who belong on the savanna?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Taking the Bus from Stockholm to New Delhi

Swedes on the way to India. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974. 
There I was, waiting for the bus that was to take me on a 7,000-mile ride from Stockholm to New Delhi. It was September 3rd, 1974 and I was three months shy of 21. Joining me was my friend Elisabeth and 39 other young travelers, half of which were women. Around us were parents and friends who were there to see us off on our three-and-a-half month adventure. Eventually, Bill and Bull – two blue weathered Scania buses – arrived and parked on the railway overpass by the northern entrance of Stockholm’s Central Station.

We said our goodbyes, picked up our luggage and stepped onto our bus. There were seats in the front, but those in the back had been replaced with particle boards topped with thin foam mattresses. Elisabeth and I chose a bed on the left side of Bill and made ourselves as comfortable as possible in what was to become our home for the next six weeks.

I brought a large, light-blue and ultra-light Fjällräven backpack that had my red sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of the frame. I had strategically packed the bare minimum of clothes and personal items, a couple of books, notebooks, a thermos flask, a water bottle of metal, malaria pills and charcoal tablets for diarrhea. A burlap bag from an army surplus store held my two cameras, a Rollei 35 and a Nikon F with a flash and two lenses, 35 and 200 mm. The side pockets of my backpack were stuffed with 55 rolls of film – 30 Kodak Tri-X, 10 Kodak Plus-X and 15 Kodachrome II for slides. My passport and $400 U.S. dollars in the form of American Express traveler’s cheques rested in a thin nylon pouch under my shirt along with $100 dollars in cash.

That was it.

I didn’t own a credit card, and we had no mobile phones in those days – not to mention no email, no World Wide Web, no Wi-Fi, no Skype and no Facebook. MP3s were not around yet, nor were portable Walkman cassette players, so we had to make do with the radio in the bus – that was if the signal allowed it.

Back then, the world was analog.

Our 1974 journey to and in India.
The first morning on the road. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974. 
Somewhere in Eastern Turkey. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Forty years have passed since I stepped onto that bus, and as I look back, I ask myself: What was I thinking?

The truth is that I didn't think. I was young and naïve and oblivious to any danger to myself and my friend. And by the way, the whole thing was her idea. She had heard of a guy in her hometown of Sundsvall who took people to India for a very good price.

Now that I’m a parent of two sons, ages 23 and 20 I also reflect on my parents' role in this adventure. What were they thinking? I can’t recall any words of caution or doubt. The only plausible explanation I can come up with today is that they thought it was a good idea for us to see the world, and that they probably took comfort in the fact that the journey to and from New Delhi was an arranged tour, and not just us hitchhiking to Asia.

After all, this was not my first trip. I learned to walk in France on my family’s first car trip to Bretagne and southern France when I was less than a year old. Along with my parents and older brother Ingemar, we road in a Citroën B11 that pulled a small red and yellow caravan. That was 1954. In 1958, my family, which now included my little brother Jan, on camping trip through Europe in a Volkswagen Beetle, which somehow or another fit two adults, three young children, a tent – and a sandbag under the hood to prevent the car from blowing off the autobahn if the winds got too strong. And in 1967, they took us on a seven-week journey in an Opel hatchback pulling a new caravan that my father had traded a painting for. We drove through Germany to Paris and then across the Alps on Route Napoleon to the city of Menton on the French Riviera.


In the spring of 1948, my parents boarded a small freighter for a two week sea voyage from Sweden’s west coast to Paris, via Rouen. It was only two and a half years after the end of World War II, and Europe still lay smoldering. My father wrote in his diary about the eerie view of rusty and blown-up wrecks in the River Seine as they approached Rouen. After a month studying and exploring the art scene in Paris, they continued by train to Switzerland and then Italy.

My grandparents had pulled up their roots several times to start over in new places. My maternal grandmother, whose husband had abandoned her and their eight children, encouraged two of her seven surviving children to move to America in 1946. My mom told me that grandma didn't want her only son to be enlisted in case there was another war. And then there were the million Swedes who left for America in the late 19th and early 20th century. They may have been afraid, but they didn't let fear stop them. What were they thinking? Maybe they didn't think much about it at all, like me when I was 20. They just did it.


Taking a bus from Europe to India was one of those things you could do in the mid-seventies.


We were a mix of university students, nurses, workers, teachers, and young people in search of self, or simply curious about the world. We were not hippies, even though a few of us talked about smoking pot while sitting on a roof somewhere in Nepal. The trip was just a trip, an opportunity that had presented itself to us and one that we took, but we were also part of a growing stream of European and American overland travelers heading for Afghanistan, India and Nepal. The Canadian travel writer Rory MacLean wrote in his "Magic Bus – On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India" (2006) that 90,000 visitors arrived in Afghanistan every year by the mid-seventies. Most of them would continue on to India and Nepal.

The name Hippie Trail evokes images of the fabled Silk Road, which had attracted adventurers, spies and explorers in the early 20th century, but was actually neither a road nor mainly about silk. It was the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen who in 1877 came up with the German name “Seidenstraße” as he explored a possible path for a railway between Germany and China. There was however, never a road stretching from Istanbul to China or India, but a series of trade routes over land or over water, where merchants, diplomats, explorers, bandits, warriors and pilgrims had travelled for two, maybe three thousand years. Marco Polo knew of no Silk Road, and neither did the Nestorian monk and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma who also travelled in the 13th century, but in the opposite direction, from Beijing (then called Khanbalik) to Jerusalem, Baghdad, Sicily, Rome, Paris, Bordeaux and Genoa before settling in Baghdad.

The land routes from Europe to Asia lost their importance when the Ming Dynasty closed the doors on foreign trade and with the European discoveries of new sea routes to Asia in the 16th century. However, geopolitics and the growing interest in oil and natural gas made the area hot again in the 19th century, although not so much for trade as for imperial rivalries like the British and Russian “Great Game” over Persia and Afghanistan.

When the British adventurer and writer Robert Byron traveled through Persia and Afghanistan in 1933-34, he found the “Silk Road” in a sorry state (“The Road to Oxiana,” 1937) with vanishing roads and collapsed bridges. Jan Myrdal, the Swedish writer, painted a similar picture a quarter century later in “Kulturers korsväg: en bok om Afghanistan” (1960) and then in “Gates to Asia – A Diary from a Long Journey” (1972), two books based on a series of journeys he did with his wife Gun Kessle in a Citroën 2CV.

Many in the first postwar wave of overland travelers to India were inspired by the Existentialists, Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but this was only a trickle compared to the second wave, which started in the late 1960s and peaked around the time we drove East through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. This wave was broader and more diverse, consisting of young people who had come of age in the wake of the social and cultural uproars of the 1960s and early 1970s, the age of rock & roll, sexual liberation, the Vietnam war, May 68 in France and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. And everything was televised.

Underneath it all – at least in Western Europe and North America – was a search for something else, a rebellion against the parental generation’s nervous conformism and materialism. Many young people had joined political and anti-war movements, while others turned inwards, exploring drugs, new religions and meditation. The Beatles discovered transcendental meditation in 1966-67 and visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in February, 1968. Before long, India was swarming with youth from Europe and America.

I doubt that any of us riding Bill and Bull had heard of the Beat generation, although we were familiar with the hippie movement. For me, India was a social and political challenge rather than an existential problem. It is true that I too had walked around in Jesus sandals in ninth grade, considering myself a “Mod,” a Swedish term for long-haired young men who liked rock music. But I never saw myself as a hippie, a term that I associated with an apolitical lifestyle of drugs and navel gazing. I was politically active on the left and saw India as a poor country with extreme social and economic contrasts; a country that had been plundered by the British colonialists and now was held back by Western imperialism, religions and the caste system.


We were lucky to take the trip when we did, because the Hippie Trail would soon be shut down, or at least very dangerous following a pro-Soviet coup in Kabul in April 1978 and the 1979 fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran. When we travelled through Afghanistan, things were relatively calm under Mohammad Daoud, who in July, 1973 had toppled his cousin and brother-in-law Mohammad Zahir Shah, who had been king of Afghanistan since 1933.


Before Inter-Rail, kids hitch-hiked across Europe. I myself hitchhiked 300 miles to visit a girl I had met in March, 1972 on a homeward-bound ferry from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and in the summer of 1973, I hitchhiked from the city of Kalmar on Sweden’s Southeast coast to Copenhagen, Denmark, which was the starting point for a month-long solo journey across Europe by train. My dad gave me a ride to a drop-off point on the European Highway E4, where I subsequently stuck out my thumb.

That trip in 1973 was a journey without a purpose and I set out alone as my friends all bailed on me. Like tens of thousands of other kids, I took advantage of the new Inter-Rail Card, which made the European railway system accessible to so many young people. All I had with me was my passport, my $70 Inter-Rail ticket, traveler’s cheques, my backpack and my Nikon. The trip would take me to Rome and Venice, and then back north and west along France’s South coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, where I took a ferry to Île de Ré, and then spent a week hitchhiking to seven small towns on the island hoping to meet the girl I had met on the boat from Leningrad. She had dumped me over the phone while I was in the army, but kept teasing me and before I set out on the journey, she suggested that I meet her on Île de Ré. She never showed, but that was as well. I befriended an entire chamber orchestra after they gave me a lift and they invited me to join them for a family dinner. From La Rochelle, I headed to Paris and then Calais, where I took a ferry to Dover and spent a week looping around England and Scotland before heading back to Sweden. I travelled with the wantonness of youth, letting the road show me the way.

Originally, I had planned for a second Inter-Rail trip that summer, but didn't have enough money to go through with it, so I took a job as a laborer at Standard Radio, an American-owned manufacturer, dipping electronic circuit boards in a series of acid baths. The pay was good, but the monotonous job hurt my back and so I quit after a couple of months and decided to study. My friend from high school, Radja, suggested that we go to Uppsala University, because he thought it was nicer than Stockholm University, which was housed in six famously ice-blue office-like buildings. I signed up for Political Science and managed to get a dorm room at Rackarbergsgatan 44, just five minutes’ walk from the university. My friend Radja, whose dad by the way was from India, ended up signing up at Stockholm University.

It was during the new student introduction  that I spotted Elisabeth. We were shown around the University and Skytteanum, the 18th Century building with oak beams in the ceiling that was home to the political science department. She had a pretty face, long dark brown hair – and most importantly, she returned my looks. It didn’t take long before we were an item, although she never really acknowledged it. By April we had decided to take a bus to India.


The tickets were cheap – 2,300 Swedish kronor (about $400) per person – and the fact that we would sleep on the bus saved us the cost of staying at hotels, but we still had to prepare for the journey, purchase film and other supplies, have enough money for food, plus local travel and accommodations after being dropped-off in in India. And that was money that we didn’t have, so we visited the local government employment office in Uppsala and checked out their lists. There were a number of jobs in the hospital sector but they paid badly and we only had the summer to save, but then we discovered a job at Farmek, a coop meat processor. They had a large slaughter house and offered better pay than the hospitals, so we visited the factory and were hired after each of us had been put through a two-hour long interview. For the next three months we earned a piece work rate of about 17 kronor ($3.00) per hour. It was hard work, but we persisted and earned the money we needed.


Me in 1974.
There is at least one more reason why we ventured out on such an adventure. I can’t remember being afraid of many things as I grew up in Sweden. I felt safe, and that was true for most of the world. The only place that was kind of scary was America, which seemed to be a very violent place where people and presidents got shot in the street. Once I moved to America, most of that fear dissipated, but on some level I still feel safer in Europe. Sweden was a small, relatively homogenous society during the 1960s and 1970s, and Swedes tended to be “open” to exploring the world. The relatively egalitarian Swedish society also made it less important for parents to control who their children played with or dated. When I compare my experience from almost three decades in the United States with that of my old friends, I have noticed that they let their children venture out on their own much earlier without worrying too much, compared to American parents. Teenage sons and daughters take off on long journeys to Australia, California, Brazil and Spain as if it were nothing. Is it because they live in a small and fairly safe place or that their parents belong to my generation, which came of age after 1968, an era where our parents had lost track of whatever sense of time they had been able to rebuild after WWII?

I’m not sure.


1974. It was the year when ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest, an event that most people remember much better than a more important, but less flashy event, which occurred at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, namely the first scanning of a barcode. In May, India detonated its first nuclear weapon, the "Smiling Buddha." The military junta in Greece (which had grabbed power 1967 in a coup d’état and was backed by the United States despite its systematic use of torture) staged a coup on Cyprus in July, which triggered a Turkish invasion of the island; causing a fiasco for the generals that quickly ended the dictatorship. In the United States, President Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment for Watergate. The Vietnam War was still raging and we had no idea that it would soon be over. Meanwhile China was preoccupied with an intense ideological struggle between two 2,000 year old schools of thought, the Confucian and the Legalist, a campaign that actually was a cover for a power struggle initiated by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and her three radical partners in the "Gang of Four."


It is now August, 2014 and I am trying to channel my younger self; a task that requires a fair amount of intellectual, emotional and factual digging – an archaeology of a mind that was once me. This is hard work as I simply don’t remember as much as I would like to remember. I can’t rewind the movie and watch it again. There are certain things and events that I do remember, as they have latched on to some mental structure, or were dramatic or exceptional enough to reinforce enough synaptic connections. But most things you do and see seem to be stored in places where the next wave, or the one after that, washes them away. This is why I had to rely on documents and artifacts like historians and archaeologists do.


My digging began with a search for three large maps, one of Europe, one of the Middle East, and one of India. I had marked the bus route on them with a marker, but I only found the map of Europe. Next I re-read the two black notebooks where I had taken notes from books and magazines, and kept a diary, but like many diaries they were filled in inverse proportion to how much was happening and how good I felt. Add to that a couple of my letters home that my mom had saved and gave to me after my father's death in 1983.

My main tool for remembering would be the photos I had taken during the trip, but I would have to scan them into my computer, so I invested in a new flatbed scanner that had advanced software and could scan prints, negatives and slides. It was still a laborious process since my color positives were mounted between two pieces of thin glass, but this new machine made it a bit easier. I had once read in a photography magazine that glass frames protected the pictures from dust and scratches. I can tell you this is true. What it didn't say however, was that the glass itself would collect dust and oil over the decades, forcing me to take each frame apart, remove the positive one by one, and mount them again in frames without glass.

Next it was time to do a rough sort and enumerate the digitized pictures. Every photo had then to be reviewed and retouched, dust removed, scratches fixed, shadows lightened, highlights darkened, and colors corrected. One of the hardest tasks was to organize the digitized photos. I had marked the color slides with small stick-on numbers, but this didn't tell me where the pictures were taken. This was less of a problem for the first part of the journey as it was easy to tell whether a photo was from Dubrovnik, Istanbul, or Herat, but that was not the case with the slides from India.

There were frustrating instances where I couldn't figure out where I had taken a certain picture. For example, I had a series of photos of a caravan passing in front of an old fortress. I knew that I had shot the photos between Kabul and Kandahar, but I couldn't locate the fort. I visited my local library and bookstores searching for picture books, or at least a guidebook, but they didn't have any. I searched the web for images from Afghanistan, and used Google Earth to hover over the road while looking in all directions, but as amazing as it was to retrace my trip virtually, I could not find the fort. I posted pictures on Facebook, hoping that my friends who had been to Afghanistan more recently would recognize it, but they said that they had taken planes as these roads were not safe.

I also tried the Facebook page "The Afghanistan I Know," where a man suggested the fort in Ghazni, and posted a photo he had taken in the 1960s. But my photos didn't match Google's satellite images of that fort. However, a few weeks later I got a message from a Swedish friend who lives across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. “It is Qalat in the Zabul Province,” he wrote. He knew because his American wife's son had been stationed there, and had immediately recognized the fort from the photos.


My first memory of the trip, which I only recovered thanks to my photos, was from the first morning on the road. The buses were parked along a highway in Denmark and we used water from the water tanks to brush our teeth and wash our faces. We must have had breakfast before we continued into Germany, but I can't recall that. My next memory, also triggered from a photo, is from inside a large beer hall, probably in Munich, and the next is from the Austrian town Villach, where I fought valiantly in broken German complaining about an under-cooked chicken dish that Elisabeth had been served.


The next stop after Villach was Ljubljana, which today lies in Slovenia, but this was fifteen years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia. Josip Broz Tito, who had led the resistance against the Nazi occupation, and then fought off Stalin’s agents and military threats a few years later, was still in charge. I complained in my notebook that it was hard to keep up with politics as I only occasionally could find English language newspapers, but I did learn of a conspiracy against Tito, with Soviet maneuvering in the background hoping to get a more “friendly” government.

Yugoslavia’s economic system was an unorthodox mix of capitalism and socialism. It was a poor country where workers were allowed to seek work in other countries. It was also relatively open to the West and welcomed tourism. I noted in my diary that they sold Coca Cola and pornographic papers in the newspaper kiosks, and that a movie theater in Ljubljana played “Goldfinger.”

Opatija, a small town just north of Rijeka, was our first stop at the Adriatic Sea. It was morning and customers were inspecting crates full of fish that the fishermen had unloaded from their boats. A little later we were back on the buses heading south on a road that was winding its way through a rocky landscape that at times looked completely dead. In the distant, the Dinaric Alps seemed to be floating in a blue haze. The thermometer in the bus read 100° F.


The landscape became more green and lush as we approached Dubrovnik. We entered through the Pile Gate and fell in love with the old city as we explored its narrow alleys. In the evening we happened upon a discotheque located in the ramparts facing the harbor. The place was crowded with young people. Cool guys in tight-fitting clothes were shaking to disco strobe lights in narrow, smoky and dark rooms. The heavily made-up girls were trying hard to fulfill their roles as subservient sex objects. Most couldn't find a place on the dance floor, or dared not go, but instead sat there half-drunk and staring. Just like home, I wrote in my diary.

The buses left the shore just north of Albania, and took us inland to Titograd and Skopje, the latter an ancient city that had been devastated in the 1963 earthquake.  We only made short stops in the area, which is now part of the Republic of Macedonia. As we crossed the border to Greece, we were welcomed by bouzouki music coming in over the bus radio.

Our next stop was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We parked next to a street market where a hefty butcher in a white apron slammed his meat cleaver so hard that one could almost feel the thuds in the air when the steel hit the chopping board. Chunks of meat, turkeys and chickens were hanging in front of the small shop. A cacophony of sounds bounced off the walls as the sellers advertised their products and prices. Men of all ages, but only men, sat at a café as an old woman dressed in black hurried by with a loaf of bread in her hand. People were generally friendly and asked where we were from, and where we were going. They smiled when they heard that we were Swedes and not Americans, but their smiles vanished when I told them that we were on the way to Istanbul.  One butcher made a sign with his hand signaling that the Turks would cut off our heads. Istanbul was a dangerous place, they said.

Driving east from Thessaloniki meant another step down the socio-economic ladder. Instead of asphalt, the roads were now covered with gravel. We passed through small villages with covered women, donkey carts and minarets. Here people were looking curiously at our buses which by now had climbed in status and did not look bad at all.

It so happened that I revisited Istanbul in the summer of 2014, but this time I arrived on a luxury cruise ship. We had passed the narrow strait of the Dardanelles and sailed across the Sea of Marmara when we began to notice a vast city landscape on Istanbul’s European and Asian side. It took a long time before we got close enough to see the old Istanbul with its mosques and minarets.

What a stark contrast to the first time I arrived in this city.

Back in 1974, we were sitting in front of the bus, as the road climbed and descended one soft hill after another revealing only a thickening city landscape, and then the sensation when we passed a hill that finally revealed the enormous city laid out in front of us. I still remember the final approach as if we were sucked into a maelstrom of traffic that got more and more intense. I also remember that there were lots and lots of large American cars. As we saw Istanbul from a street level, we didn't quite know where we were, just that we had parked near the Hippodrome a few steps from the Blue Mosque. But when I in 2014 overlooked the city from the ninth deck of our ship, which had docked at Karaköy near the Galata Bridge, I could calmly take in the whole.

Street scene from Istanbul. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Istanbul's old town seen from the ship. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Topkapi, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Note. The text above is an excerpt from a book that I am writing about my 1974 overland journey to India.  

Here is a link to my photo book 
An Overland Journey from Sweden to India (1974)
that I have published online.

Copyright: Hans Sandberg, August 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

To Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard?

An ad for Knausgaard's My Struggle
in the New York Times Book Review, June 1, 2014.
Being a Swede living abroad, you have a soft spot for people and things Swedish. IKEA, Volvo, Saab, Ericsson, knäckebröd, Västerbottensost, lingonsylt - they all have taken on an additional meaning, and this is also true for Swedish (and Nordic too) artists, scientists, actors, and writers. When Stieg Larsson was all the rage, I felt a certain pride, but then I read his first book and was embarrassed. Not that I had expected great literature, but it was not even a great thriller. More like a Swedish Dan Brown.

Fortunately, the Larsson wave did eventually peter out, but now we have another big wave of Scandinavian origin. It's of course the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume monster of an autobiography is compared to Marcel Proust's Recherche. Could this be true? It would be fantastic, but reading the reviews I couldn't help feeling what I felt when I read all those reviews of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. There was something funny about the whole thing, as if the new literary emperor had no clothes on, but nobody dared to come out and say it.

Until now.

William Deresiewicz, an American literary critic, has written a devastating review of My Struggle for The Nation magazine, where he also asks why so many authors and critics have fallen for Knausgaard's self-obsessed naïveté, taking it for honesty.
There is also the question of what constitutes the real and how to represent it. Knausgaard is invariably praised for his realism—indeed, his “hyperrealism.” “Come with me,” Smith says his book implies, “come into this life…. It might not be pretty—but this is life.” Is it really, though? I don’t mean that other people’s lives are more interesting than Knausgaard’s. I’m willing to stipulate that most of what we do, most of the time, is pretty banal. The issue is more about realism than reality. Is an exhaustive scan of the visual surface, rendered in colorless language, really the best way to represent “life”? I happen to be reading Updike at the moment. Here is his description of a young woman in an unfamiliar surrounding: “She is serious, a serious small-faced animal sniffing out her new lair.” We don’t just see her; we see into her. Here is Knausgaard’s description of a girl he liked at age 11, his first serious crush, as emotion-saturated an experience as one can imagine: “She wasn’t very tall and she was wearing a pink jacket, a light-blue skirt, and thin, white stockings. Her nose was small, her mouth large, and she had a little cleft in her chin.” And that’s the first time that he catches sight of her, no less. I’m almost ready to fall in love myself.
Is Knausgaard’s description more realistic than Updike’s? Does it bring us closer to “life”? Or does it rather leave us on the outside of life? The term “hyperrealism” derives from the visual arts, where it refers to paintings that are designed to look like photographs. To call writing like Knausgaard’s hyperrealistic, to enthrone it as the apotheosis of realism, is to cede reality to the camera. It is to surrender everything that makes literature distinct from the photographic and the televisual: its ability to tell us what things look like, not to the eye, but to the mind, to the heart. What they feel like; what they mean. The camera believes in surfaces, but the real is more than what we can see, more than what we can hear, smell, taste and touch.
The modernists were also realists, in the truest sense of the term. They were also searching for techniques to represent the real, only their conception of that entity was somewhat more expansive. It was Virginia Woolf who said, about the realism of her own day—so complete in its detail that if all its “figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour”—that the one thing that escapes is life itself. Eugenides believes that Knausgaard “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.” Smith has said she needs his books “like crack.” Lethem calls him “a living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint.” How sad it is to imagine that some of our most prominent novelists look at My Struggle and think, That’s the book I wish I could have written. How depressing to suppose that just as modernism culminated in Joyce, Proust and Woolf, the literature of our own time has been leading up to… Knausgaard.

And as for comparing Knausgaard to Proust, Deresiewicz emphatically says no. Rather than a deep analysis of the self and memory, it is more of a reality TV show in print.
With its subject and size, My Struggle has invariably drawn comparisons to Proust’s Recherche, the great prose epic of the self remembered—comparisons the book itself does much to invite. But here are some things that the Recherche contains that Min Kamp does not: wit, satire, comedy, verbal and symbolic complexity, psychological penetration, sociological reach, the ability to render complicated situations, a genuine engagement with the subtleties of memory, the power to convey the slow unfolding of the self. And here is something that Proust did that Knausgaard did not: he took his time. The Recherche, only fractionally longer than Min Kamp, was labored at for thirteen years. About a page a day of finished prose appears to be the speed limit for a sustained work of competent literary fiction. You want to write shit? Write fast.
Smith sees Knausgaard’s attention to the world around him as a rebuke to today’s distractibility. But his work is all too typical of our technology-assisted culture. The novel strikes me as a giant selfie, a 3,600-page blogologue. Like mumblecore or reality television, it’s premised on the notion that all you need to do is point your camera at the world and shoot. Like all these genres and more, it tells us that breadth is preferable to depth, that art is best created in a spirit of hurried amateurism, that the only valid subject is the self. 

Having read half a dozen reviews, Deresiewicz rings true.

I suspect that if H.C. Andersen had lived, he would have seen Knausgaard as a Scandinavian househusband desperately seeking social status through self-obsessed “reality writing.”

To Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard?

I think not!  

William Deresiewicz: Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece? (The Nation, June 2, 2014)
James Wood: Total Recall (The New Yorker, August 13, 2012)
Ben Lerner: Each Cornflake (The London Review of Books, May 22, 2014)
Rivka Galchen: Man With Many Qualities (New York Times, May 23, 2014)
Dwight Garner: The Bad Father, and Other Childhood Memories (New York Times, May 27, 2014)
Zadie Smith: Man vs. Corpse (New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013)

Hubble Telescope Images