Salman Rushdie’s Home-Brewed Adversaries

Once again, fundamentalist Islam has shown its ugly side in the attempted slaying of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. After two decades in hiding, he thought he was safe from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa (1989). He was wrong.

We expect secular regimes to impose imprisonment and death on those who quarrel with their governance. Think Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and, currently center stage, Kim Yong- un, the Myanmar military regime, Xi Jinping, Putin, Maduro, and Ortega.

But religion sponsoring terrorism? For the most part, no; but not when it comes to much of the Islamic world.

Ironically, Islam has remained a largely medieval faith, inimical to change. A PEW Center Analysis (2019) surveyed 198 countries and territories and found that 40% had laws prohibiting blasphemy, defined as irreverence against God and sacred objects. 11% had laws against apostasy. Most of these countries are Muslim.

In 2019, Pakistan sentenced seventeen individuals to death for blasphemy, though the sentences haven’t been carried out as I write.

Iran executes “blasphemers” regularly as public policy, often as means to quell dissent, i.e., to oppose the regime is to oppose Allah.

Iranian execution doesn’t exclude stoning, usually for adultery. Human rights groups report that between 1980 and 2009, 150 people have been stoned to death. Currently, leaked prison documents reveal 51 individuals slated for execution by stoning, 23 of them women, 28 of them, men (thesunco.uk).

We are, indeed, back to ancient ways.

The publisher, Penguin, kept a stiff upper lip in pursuing publication of The Satanic Verses, despite death threats to its executives. An anomaly in a film-dominated time, books still had power to move the needle!

In 1989, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa and $3m award for killing Rushdie for blasphemy in writing The Satanic Verses (1988).

This is the same holy man who sanctioned the execution of up to 5,000 Iranians accused of conspiracy in 1988. He would die a natural death four months after his fatwa.

What followed the fatwa was a bloodbath, forcing Rushdie into hiding under protection of British intelligence. Though he would apologize, the current Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, rejected his apology. (Rushdie has long since recanted his apology: “The worst thing I ever did.”)

Subsequent to the fatwa, thousands of Muslims assaulted bookstores, threatening to bomb those selling his book.

In 1991, the book’s Italian translator was knifed, but survived.

A few days later, Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death.

In 1993, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot, fortunately surviving his wounds.

In Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, two clerics protesting the fatwa, were fatally shot.

Riots broke out in Iran, India, and Pakistan. An estmated sixty people died.

Then, as now, many of Rushdie’s writing cohorts came to his defense, among them, Martin Amis, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Hitchens.

I like how Steven King took on J. B. Dalton, one of three book chains refusing to sell Rushdie’s novel: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.” It reversed course immediately (vanityfair.com).

There were holdouts, arguing we should refrain from offending the sensitivities of others, much like what we hear in today’s cancel culture.

Among the holdouts was John le Carré, who wrote in The Guardian that “nobody has a God-given right to insult a great world religion and be published with impunity.”

In similar vein was former American president, Jimmy Carter, who wrote an op-ed in the NYT: “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”

Rather strange, I think, for someone who permitted the detested shah to enter America, commencing the seizure of embassy hostages and the bringing to power a theocracy of repression and terror that remains with us still.

They were not isolated cases. Children’s author Roald Dahl depicted Rushdie in a letter to the London Times as a “dangerous opportunist” who “must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims.”

In a tear-down New York Review of Books piece, “The Salman Rushdie Case,” author Zoë Heller wrote that “a man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast” (NYRB, Dec. 12, 2012).

It seems a strange twist of fate that there should erupt a groundswell of sympathy for perpetrators of violence rather than for a fierce defender of freedom of speech. But such are the times in which we live, trolls abundant and thought police, both Left and Right, ready to pounce and, not infrequently, message death threats to those it deems adversaries.

The climax in sympathy for rampaging Muslims seen as victims occurred in the aftermath of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo being awarded a freedom of expression courage award by PEN America. You may remember that eight of its staff and four other people, including two policemen, were murdered in Paris by Islamic terrorists (January 2015). Some 200 prominent writers wrote to PEN, criticising it for “valorising selectively offensive material” (“Observer Opinion”: The Guardian, 14 August, 2022).

Fatwas need not emanate from distant ayatollahs. They can be home-brewed.

Rushdie got it right in his 1990 essay “In Good Faith,” that “individuals shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.”

Let us hope that our wounded freedom warrior mends well and soon. Early medical reports say he will likely lose an eye, that nerves in his arm have been slashed, and his liver stabbed.

Freedom of speech defines a vital tenet of civilization as essential as the air we breathe, yet many of us take it for granted. We need voices like Rushdie’s to remind us that it can slip away and one day be gone if we forfeit being its sentries.

As for the repressive theocracy that prioritizes hate over love and its apologists, my sentiments lie with writer Jill Filopic’s eloquent summation:

Religion is a belief system. If yours cannot stand up to criticism, interrogation, and even mockery or insult – if you need to threaten or punish, up to the point of death, those who insult an idea you hold dear – it is perhaps worth asking if your beliefs are as strong as you believe they are. And this is the lesson of Salman Rushdie: it is courageous and necessary to stand up against tyrants and those who would use violence to suppress words and art – even when those tyrants claim to have God on their side” (The Guardian, 14 August, 2014).

What Camus’ “The Plague” Teaches Us

There are times when we’re not ready for a book, especially when young. So it was when I first read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, lacking the maturation to comprehend its resonance that only experience can fully render. Since those early years, better equipped from life’s lessons, I’ve gone on to other Camus works such as The Myth of Sisyphus, which critics seem to have omitted as a fitting introduction to his sequel, The Plague.

I’ve been wanting to catch-up on classics I’ve missed over the years, despite being an omnivorous reader of humanity’s most accomplished writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction. The Plague is one of them.

I had especially wanted to read it because of its topical relevance to COVID-19. I was curious. Readers will discover, however, that the book isn’t confined to detailing a deadly pandemic. The Plague, in short, is metaphor for what ails us beyond disease. As with his The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus posits an absurd universe of randomness, annulling meaning. How then are we to live our lives? The Plague is Camus’ answer.

Plagues, or pandemics, have been intrinsic to the human experience and, despite modern medicine’s vast repertoire of advanced treatment, remain with us. Ironically, The Plague surprised me, nonetheless, with its plethora of protocol that has varied little: vaccines, boosters, masks, quarantine and, in extreme cases, geographical isolation as in China’s Wuhan City and Shanghai.

More striking to me still is The Plague’s ominous depiction of a virus’ ability to mutate and thus pose continuing menace, even when apparently subsiding, lying dormant and ready to strike again.

America’s last great bout with a pandemic came with the 1918-19 epidemic that infected a third of the human population and killed an estimated 50 million; in the U.S., 675,000 (CDC). It killed a woman my father loved. As I write, the worldwide death toll of our current pandemic is a staggering 6,309,976 (worldmeters/info.com). In the U.S., we just recently recorded 1 million deaths. With new, more resistant variants and lessened protocols, the numbers are surging again.

Camus presumably employed the Oran (Algeria) cholera outbreak of 1849 shortly after French colonization as its backdrop. (Camus was Algerian born and had lived in Oran for eighteen months, subsequently revisiting it several times.) The novel, however, is set in the 1940s, suggesting he may have had the Nazi tyranny in mind as the ultimate scourge historically confronting humanity: “Calmly they denied, in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies…. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.”

It takes courage, if not resolve, to continue reading its 226 pages of grinding suffering and loss. And yet not to read it is to miss out on one of the supreme narratives of the human condition in a cosmos where mortality hovers over everything, even what we love most.

There are no saviors to deliver us, no gods descending to the earth with quixotic formulae of a compensatory afterlife of eternal bliss. Ours is an irrational, or absurd, cosmos. We have only each other and, as such, we must create our own meaning, regardless of our temporality, if we are to achieve rapport with the dissonance that confronts us.

On another level, Camus, an atheist, decries the irrelevance of traditional Christianity through the ineffectual priest, Father Paneloux, with his platitudes of resignation to divine providence, reiterating a central complaint in his The Myth of Sisyphus.

This theme of revealed religion’s impotency and irrelevance in the context of pandemic isn’t new; for example, there is Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous The Decameron where religion is mocked. Subsequently, there is Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in which Fermina Daza, lover of the story’s protagonist, comes to loathe her religion.

Despite The Plague’s seeming morbidity, the book’s ultimate affirmation is that crisis bequeaths solidarity. Empathy is suffering’s gift in a world depicted in Auden’s memorable “Musee des Beaux Arts” indifferently pursuing its mundane interests. Camus’ “The Rebel” makes clear his resistance to nihilism amidst absurdity, setting him apart from his contemporary, Sartre. Empathy inspires collective resistance to abate a sea of troubles; namely, the myriad horrors of unleashed human tyranny not confined to temporal-spatial parameters.

An unknown editor assembles the plague’s details, gathered largely from the notebook diaries of Jean Tarrou and other documents. The principal character is Dr. Rieux, saintly in depiction, compassionately persevering in treating victims, keen in observation.

Camus hated despotism in all its myriad guises, joining the French Resistance, ultimately rejecting Soviet communism, opposing the Russian repression of the East German uprising (1953) and of Hungary (1956). As a pacifist working for human rights, he fervently sought abolition of capital punishment. The Plague’s Raymond Rambert is spokesperson for his view. In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his anti-capital punishment essay, “Réflexions sur la Guillotine.” Camus died in January, 1960, in a car accident. He was 46.

The characters in The Plague are few, but memorable. They include:

Dr. Bernard Rieux, dedicated healer and inveterate observer.
Jean Tarrou, Rieux’ close friend, whose notebooks detail much of the pandemic’s course.
Joseph Grand, the underpaid, dutiful city prefect, who takes the pandemic seriously in the context of ineffectual government.
Raymond Rambert, who foregoes escape for commitment and joins Rieux and Tarrou in their efforts to stem the disease.
M. Cottard, self-centered opportunist alienated from his fellows.
Othon, police magistrate.
Father Paneloux, Jesuit priest, representative of ineffectual Christian response.
The Plague’s unidentified editor.

The plot is readily available from many sources. I do want to comment on one scene, archetypal, that critics miss. Toward the book’s end, Rieux and his close friend, Tarrou, decide on a night swim: “Rieux turned and swam level with his friend, timing his stroke to Tarrou’s. But Tarrou was the stronger swimmer and Rieux had to put on speed to keep up with him. For some minutes they swam side by side, with the same zest, in the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague.”

As in baptism, they have been immersed into rebirth, and, for all the town’s woes, informed by experience, they discover mutuality and the contentment human fellowship confers. Isolation is one of the supreme agonies of the pestilence. In connection, we find meaning.

The Plague isn’t really a message of doom. Even in an irrational cosmos, humanity can find purpose. As such, the book offers respite in a collective citizenry awakened from apathy, resistant to the sources of suffering. It ends in the plague’s demise, the opening of the city’s gates, Oran’s streets filled with crowds jubilant in their reclaimed freedom, made possible, of course, through the daily, concerted efforts of organized health squads, quiet, uncelebrated stalwarts, transcending self-interest for the welfare of others. As Dr. Rieux exclaims, “…there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.”

The Plague also offers two admonitions: firstly, the forfeiture of freedom in resuming previous habits of material solicitude. In this sense, even before the plague’s intrusion, Oran’s populace wasn’t really free: “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.”

Secondly, we must always be awake to the lurking dangers of tyranny to mankind’s freedom. Were Camus still with us, he would decry Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and China’s growing aggression in the Pacific; and perhaps as a committed socialist, corporate hegemony and nativism as seedbeds of inequity and discrimination, marginalizing access to human fulfillment:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Along with Orwell’s 1984, The Plague ranks among the most essential reads of modern times.

–rj

Books That Stay With Us: Amy Bloom’s In Love

Amy Bloom

There are some books that stay with you after you’ve read them. Amy Bloom’s In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss, is one of them.

“‘Please write about this,’ my husband said.” He thought it might help others. Bloom, an accomplished writer (eight novels) did so, keeping a meticulous notebook of her husband’s Alzheimer’s journey and its ending. The right choice, Bloom is renowned for her inveterate focus in her writings on the human need to connect and capacity to meet life’s vicissitudes with honesty and acceptance.

A happy couple who met each other in their early fifties, they had walked away from existing marriages, finding affinity in the maturity time often yields. She brought three children into the marriage. Brian, who didn’t have any, became the children’s beloved Babu:

“Brian and I fell in love the way some middle-aged people in unhappy partnerships and in small towns do…. ‘I know who you should be with. You should be with a guy who doesn’t mind that you’re smarter than he is, who doesn’t mind that most of the time, you’ll be the main event. You need to be with a guy who supports how hard you work and who’ll bring you a cup of coffee late at night. I don’t know if I can be that guy,’ he said, tears in his eyes, ‘but I’d like a shot.’ We married.”

At first glance, you might wager odds it wouldn’t last, a man from a devout Catholic family wedded to a divorced Jew with three children. But for fourteen fulfilling years, it did.

They had their quarrels, but being opposites gave balance. What they shared—politics, a love for the arts, traveling, good dining, and the children—was compensation overflowing. Both were keen on helping others: Amy, also a licensed social worker; Brian, an architect with sensitivity to the needs of others, active in Planned Parenthood and with a football frame, providing escort for women past jeering protestors. They shared a commitment to humanity, not religion.

Brian was 67 in 2019 when Alzheimer’s dropped like the sword of Damocles upon their happiness. Less than a week after the neurological findings, he decided “that the ‘long goodbye’ of Alzheimer’s was not for him and less than a week for me to find Dignitas, at the end of several long Google paths.” Dignitas, a private Swiss right-to-die entity, doesn’t impose a six month terminal illness mandate or residency requirement as in right-to-die states in America. It does, however, charge a $10,000 fee, with personal responsibility for travel and accommodation expenses.

Some might think Bloom a willing accomplice. Not so, as the memoir makes abundantly clear: “Brian knew what to expect. I talked to him about living with the illness until the end—that, of course, I would love and take care of him. He was very kind and very clear. He just said, ‘That’s not for me.'”

In often alternating chapters contrasting past and present, Amy faithfully narrates the perambulations of Brian’s final journey. While an individual’s story, it’s also a genre, the stories of this dread disease’s malice retold numerous times, replayed orally in YouTube and the film Still Alice (2014), for example.

What distinguishes Bloom’s memoir from other renditions is the mastery of an astute writer and eye witness. We are present with every detail right up to the final holding of hands and last words in the austere Dignitas apartment in the Zurich suburb of Pfaffikon. It is told with blows landed, fools not suffered gladly, yet punctuated with cathartic humor.

Why read a book like this? Because in doing so, as Brian intended, it may help others know their options:

“‘Please write about this.’ He wanted people to know that they have far less choice in America about their end of life than they may think. Some of us can’t bear to think about it at all, but Brian felt strongly that people should have conversations and do more planning,” Bloom shared with a People interviewer.

Though not explicitly said, In Love implies our need to implement a new strategy of pervasive compassion over religion’s bias and even medical opposition against assisted suicide. It’s highly informative as well for Alzheimer’s co-victims who live with their afflicted loved ones, suffering daily anguish and disruption of routines and options once taken for granted.

The struggle for the right to die has been a slow, arduous one, but not unhopeful. Just a few decades ago, passive suicide, i.e., removing a terminal patient from life support, wasn’t allowed under any circumstance.

Ten U.S. states now allow for physician administered suicide, but this is a misnomer. It’s for state residents only. The patient must have a maximum life expectancy of six months. Two physicians must give approval some time apart. While a physician can prescribe the sodium pentobarbital drink, neither the physician nor anyone else, can hand it to the client. In short, the recipient is fully in charge and must be aware.

This means an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis entails racing against the clock. Bloom quips, “Right to die in America is about as meaningful as the right to eat or the right to decent housing; you’ve got the right, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the goods.”

Should early diagnosis indicate any semblance of depression, you are excluded. This is true of Dignitas as well, although it does allow for advanced age or interminable, unbearable pain, as long as you are fully aware and make your decision without coercion. In such circumstances, no terminal diagnosis is needed.

At present, nearly six million Americans struggle with the illness, its occurrence doubling among those over 65 every five years. Although you can acquire the illness at younger ages, when finally diagnosed, its onset may have begun a decade earlier, or even more. By the 2060s, it’s projected the number will triple. Two-thirds of victims are female, perhaps because of their longevity. With Alzheimer’s, one loses not only memory, but control over body functions. One may even forget how to swallow.

Bloom had noticed changes in Brian’s behavior. Normally laid back, he had become quarrelsome and withdrawn, forgetful of appointments, unable to remember names and faces, spatially disoriented, and inability to focus, culminating in his dismissal from his employer for being too slow.

Brian would tell Dignitas, “I don’t want to end my life, but I’d rather end it while I am still myself, rather than become less and less of a person.”

As is, it took five months of liaison with Dignitas before they gave him the coveted green light. Seventy percent opt out. There followed the flight to Zurich and a physician’s repeated interview to affirm that he hadn’t changed his mind and was consciously able to make the decision for himself.

In Love isn’t simply a memoir of dying, but a testimony that lends joy to life and transcends mortality:

“I take both of his hands and he lets me. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou, I say. I love you so much. I love you, too, he says, and he drinks the sodium pentobarbital. I kiss him, all over his handsome, weary face, and he lets me.

“Middle-aged women are supposed to look for the safe harbor, for the port in the storm of life. We are supposed to look for the calm and the comfortable. You are the port in the storm. And you are the storm. And you are the sea. You are the rocks and the beach and the waves. You are the sunrise and the sunset and all of the light in between.

“I whisper to him, Every day of my life, and he whispers to me, Every day of my life.”

–rj





Satish Kumar’s YOU ARE therefore I AM

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There are some books you don’t want to end and when they do, a gnawing emptiness ensues like saying a final good-bye to a cherished friend. Satish Kumar’s YOU ARE therefore I AM is one of them.

I discovered Kumar serendipity fashion, searching for Sufi poets like Rumi, subsequently chancing upon an interview with him that led me to this book, one of the most observant, sensitive, life-changing books I’ve encountered across the years. In brief, a book for discerning readers open to being inspired.

You’ll find few reviews of this book. I tried Google, and even the New York Review of Books, but no Kumar.

Kumar deserves a wider audience. He’s written ten books, received numerous literary awards, and several honorary doctorates. With E. F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), he founded Schumacher College, which offers master degree ecology curricula. For many years, he was editor of Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine. Now 85, he continues to write and lecture widely.

YOU ARE therefore I AM is largely autobiographical, though he’s written a more definitive version, No Destination: The Journey of a Pilgrim ( 2014, Green Books).

Reared in India, we learn early on of his mother’s defining influence as a Jainist devoted to non-violence, leading to his becoming a Jainist monk at age nine. He would leave nine years later as a disciple of Gandhi’s teachings. He had come to believe that we stem evil not through retreat into monasteries, but with peaceful activism, promoting human and natural reconciliation.

The Jains, however, were and remain the salient source for his adoption of non-violent protest, as they also were for Mahatma Gandhi who would, in turn, influence Martin Luther King.

Kumar is famous for his peace walks in 1962 with friend E. P. . Menton to nuclear capitals Moscow, Paris, London and Washington, D.C. Remarkably, they made their 8000 mile journey without money. In England, he would meet Bertrand Russell and in America, Martin Luther King.

It was Gandhi protege Vinoba Bhave’s Talks on the Gita, oral lectures composed during Bhave’s imprisonment by the British and later written down by a fellow prisoner, that led to Kumar’s embrace of nature, society, and self as the trinity of activism needful for fostering peace within ourselves, between nations, and reconciliation with the Earth we have plundered: “THIS TRINITY OF nourishing nature, society and self gave me much food for thought. Ever since that time they have remained with me and have become the ground of my thinking and action.”

Chapter 13 details Kumar’s meeting Krishnamurti, the renowned Indian sage. Krishnamurti had rebelled against religious, political, and philosophical orthodoxy: “Truth cannot be realised through any creed, any dogma, any philosophical knowledge, any psychological technique, any ideology, any ritual or any theological system.”  

Kumar agrees:

Now we live in an age of post-religious spirituality. The call of our time is to be a good human being rather than to be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Christian. We don’t have to be a special kind of person to go on the adventurous journey of the spirit. Every one of us is capable of making the hero’s journey and reaching the holy grail.

Chapter 16 recounts his meeting Martin Luther King. King underscored that non-violence must not exclude justice for the disenfranchised, most often, the world’s poor and non-white. “True peace is not merely the absence of war. It is the presence of justice, equity and a non-violent social order. Non-violence is a moral force which can transform individuals and societies and bring peace.”

In the book’s late chapters, Kumar gives highlights of his return visit to his native India in 2000, fascinating in its portraiture of modern India and betrayal of Gandhi’s advocacy of land reform, self-sufficient village craft industries, and rejection of corporate interests and free trade.

Harvesting our needs, not our wants, living simply in touch with our fellows and observing the sanctity of all life, this was Gandhi’s message to capitalism motivated by greed, centered on consumption and continuous growth, fostering environmental violence economic marginalization and social injustice. This is a Gandhi unknown to most Westerners.

The final two chapters summarize Kumar’s worldview. Eloquent, timely, and wise, I found myself inspired, yet sad, sad in discovering him so late in my life’s journey.

It’s here he scorns the onset of Cartesian dualism with its aggrandizement of Self, voiding the relational. There followed Newtonian physics, treating the world as machine, Darwinism with its survival of the fittest, and depth psychology with its emphasis on ego:

These theories are, in my view, at the root of the ecological, social and spiritual crisis of our time. The dualistic world-view gives the illusion that I exist independently of the Other….’To be is to inter-be.’ We cannot be by ourselves alone. This means our being is only possible because of other beings. We are not individual beings; we are world beings.

Dualism, unfortunately, has also fostered speciesism, alienating us from Nature: “The violence to non-human species often remains unnoticed. This causes grave harm to animals, forests and wildlife of all kinds. This attitude of human superiority is the foundation of the culture of violence. The dualistic mindset which begins with controlling nature, goes on to control people.”

I’ve read many fine books over the years, some life-changing.  Satish Kumar’s You Are, therefore, I Am takes its place among them, deserving yearly re-reading, lest we forget our mutual dependency and its requisite obligations.

Kumar reminds us in his close that observing the relational in every consideration is vital “for our existence and experience, for our happiness and health, for our nutrition and nourishment, we depend on the Earth. We depend on the love of the beloved, the beauty of the beautiful and the goodness of the good. Embracing vulnerability and humility, let us declare our utter dependence on the Earth, and on each other: You are, therefore I am.”

—rj

Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses: Review

Orwell’s house in Wallington, Hertfordshire,where he planted roses in 1936

Ask me who my favorite essayist is and, hands down, I’ll say George Orwell. Known primarily for Animal Farm and 1984, he excelled at the essay, writing in a direct, plain style, eschewing fancy big words, wordiness, and cliché.

You’re mistaken if you think his wise maxims are easy to practice. Orwell didn’t start out as a prose master, but worked diligently to achieve it. The trick is to heed his counsel, yet avoid the staccato effect of incessant short sentences that English teachers label, “choppy.”

I admire Orwell even more for his honesty as an essentially political writer. Famously, he taught us the dangers of “doublethink,” or language that deliberately obscures, distorts or evades.

When you get into ideology, it’s difficult to avoid partisanship and distorting your opponent’s argument; more difficult still, to candidly address the polemical liabilities of both yourself and your cohorts. A committed socialist, he nonetheless acknowledged Marxism’s own strident hypocrisies as exemplified foremost in Soviet revisionism.

All of this explains my eagerness to read Rebecca Solnit’s recently published Orwell’s Roses. Solnit’s a formidable essayist in her own right, and this is her twenty-sixth book.

She admires Orwell for his honesty and sides with his isolated criticism of Stalin and speaking out in a context of liberal, socialist idealism, unwilling to confront Soviet malevolence, resorting not infrequently to disingenuous rhetoric.

Readers will like her ardent empathy in the book for the marginalized, whether by race, sexual orientation, gender—or often missed—the working class. It stamps her indelibly as an Orwell protege. She credits Orwell for inspiring her to adopt the essay as her medium.

Feminists may find her Orwell embrace disconcerting. A strident women’s advocate elsewhere in her work, she details Orwell’s misogyny, yet gives it a cursory pass: “He was part of an age that was (with some notable exceptions) strategically oblivious to inequalities we have since worked hard to recognize…. One of Orwell’s most significant blind spots.” She admits his essays are limited to men.

Nor does she sufficiently address his marriage to first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who died on the operating table at age 39, presumingly from the anesthesia, following a routine surgery. An Oxford grad and student in psychology at the University of London, she gave up a promising career, typed and edited his manuscripts, did the housework, cooking and shopping. She accompanied him to civll war Spain, where he served as a Loyalist soldier.

Readers may be interested in pursuing Sylvia Topp’s biography of Eileen, The Making of George Orwell, tracing her influence upon Orwell. She had written a poem in 1934, speculating on the future, “End of the Century, 1984.” Her funeral occurred on April 3, 1945. In 1984, Winston Smith begins his journal on April 4.

Orwell mentions Eileen in his diary (1946) when visiting her grave on his way to his sister’s funeral and ultimately Jura, where he would write 1984: ”May 22, stopping to tend Eileen’s grave near Newcastle: Polyantha roses on E’s grave have all rooted well. Planted aubretia, miniature phlox, saxifrage, a kind of dwarf broom.”

Solnit was inspired by a passage in Orwell’s “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” (1946): “One of the fruit trees and one of the rose bushes died, but the rest are all flourishing. The sum total is five fruit trees, seven roses and two gooseberry bushes, all for twelve and sixpence.”

The fruit trees actually, not the roses, were what initially motivated her search for a more rounded Orwell, more quotidian in his private pursuits than his readers have known. Visiting his residence with her friend Sam, she found the fruit trees had been cut down to make room for a shed expansion. That left only the roses, though of the planted seven, she tells us only of two that still bloomed.

Nonetheless, they bequeathed Solnit with an immediate sensory connection to Orwell and his long-ago essay about roses and fruit trees: “The apparent directness of these two plants’ connection to him and to that long-ago essay about roses and fruit trees and continuity and posterity filled me with joyous exaltation. So did the fact that this man most famous for his prescient scrutiny of totalitarianism and propaganda, for facing unpleasant facts, for a spare prose style and an unyielding political vision, had planted roses.”

If you’re looking for the elusive Orwell, be prepared to meander through a thick copse of digression only tangentially relevant to Orwell. It’s her way of doing things in everything she writes.

The reality is that her book leaps beyond both roses and Orwell as a springboard for political asides, the exploitation of the working class in particular. Politics leap quickly to the surface in all her books, and may well account for their composition. Is Orwell’s Roses simply just another platform?

You will explore the history of roses, the role of British colonialism in their development, the evils of industrialism, and even climate change among other concerns.

I found the lengthy horticultural tracing of roses tedious. I tired of the long chapter exploring the origin of coal. I wanted the man. I wanted Orwell in full bloom.

In her defense, and look to the title, she tells us early that “there are many biographies of Orwell, and they’ve served me well for this book, which is not an addition to that shelf. It is instead a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses. As such, it’s also a book about roses….”

We do, however, ultimately piece together Orwell, Solnit providing a biographical sketch and expanding on his frequent allusions to his love for gardening and planting of roses. Readers will find her uncovering the unfamiliar Orwell, masked by his public persona, revelatory.

One of the best parts of her rose narrative is her retelling of her visiting a gargantuan Columbian greenhouse complex outside Bogota, which flies roses by the millions daily to the U.S, especially at Christmas and on Valentine’s day in a chapter called “Going Underground.” A vivisection of labor abuse unknown to American consumers, it made me sit up and draw potential dots between other international corporate interests bent on profit heedless of worker welfare.

As I write, Chipotle reports In its Q4 that the company’s total revenue increased 22.0% to $2.0 billion in 2021, eliciting Bernie Sander’s umbrage: “The Corporate greed is Chipotle increasing its profits by 181% last year to $764 million, giving its CEO a 137% pay raise to $38 million in 2020 and blaming the rising cost of a burrito on a minimum wage worker who got a 50 cent pay raise. That’s not inflation. That’s price gouging.”

Despite the chapter’s pretentious title, “Going Underground,” Solnit has never truly gone underground in terms of its nuance. Orwell investigated labor abuse and the plight of poverty first hand by working in the coal mines of northern England and living among the homeless in London and Paris.

That said, I never tire of Solnit, despite her inveterate meanderings and intrusive politics. I like her introspective view of things in her many books, unveiling hidden foregrounds behind what I see, even admire, a kind of turning things inside out as when taking off a sweater. Her gift is one of expanding consciousness of the myriad strands of interconnectivity. Orwell’s Roses assures that continuity.

–rj

The Risks of Not Reading

I needn’t labor on the inroads of our high tech age on our daily living habits, numerous studies elaborating on the atrophying of socialization and, dynamically, its impact on family life, parents and children exponentially independent of each other.

My purpose here is to focus on its intrusion upon our reading habits in this now predominately video age.

Consider the following:

According to The American Time Use Survey employing a representative sample of 26,000 Americans, reading for pleasure is now at its lowest point. Between 2004 and 2017, reading among men declined by 40%; among women, 29%.

Gallup tells us that the number of Americans who haven’t read a book in any given year tripled between 1978
and 2014.

For comparison, in 2017, Americans spent 17 minutes reading; 5.4 hours on their cell phones.

The menace of TV exceeds that of even social media. Some 60% of Americans eat their meals while watching TV. 47% of 9-year olds watch TV 2-5 hours daily (aft.org). On average, Americans TV binge 3-4 hours each day.

Collectively, a 2020 Nielson study reveals that the average American “spends a staggering 11 hours, 54 minutes each day connected to some form of media — TV, smartphones, radio, games” (abcnews.go.com). In short, many of us are media addicts.

You can reasonably assume this affects timeout for reading. It may also factor in our children’s continuing drop off in reading proficiency (henchingerreport.org), a vast subject in itself.

The reading of literary fare—poetry, short stories, novels, drama—has taken a special hit, even among those with college exposure, and across the board, regardless of race or ethnicity, exhibiting a ten year average decline of 14% between 1992 and 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts comprehensive study, Reading at Risk.

It comes at a cost. Literary reading in particular grows discernment, teaches values, fuels discussion as well as entertains. It liaisons us with the global community and cultivates cultural continuity. And, yes, it can keep us safe, crystallizing excess that imperils our well-being. All really good reads are fundamentally moral, underscoring the human contract to do the right thing by each other.

As for non-fiction, I haven’t gathered any stats, but it probably fares better. We’re not all literary aficionados and the choice of good non-fiction tomes crosses many genres, whether science, health, environment, psychology, philosophy, ad infinitum.

But judging from the The Times Best Seller Lists, most non-fiction reads will be of the self-help or business variety. You’re unlikely to find mind-bending items like Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or Hoffler’s enduring classic, The True Believer.

As such, we impoverish ourselves if, when we do read, we do so indiscriminately. Our reasoning weakens. We see in fragments and not the whole. We become prey to parochialism and its hyperbolic distortions. Like our muscles, our brain prospers with exercise.

The bottomline is that so much of what we take for granted was once imagined. What better place to tap into its limitless underground caverns than a challenging read?

Through reading we meet ourselves, learn we’re not alone, find comfort, inspiration, and discernment. Not least, we encounter the coalescence of human experience, discover that each of us is its own rivulet flowing into a vast ocean of a greater Self.

Long term, the consequences of not reading become potentially devastating for both community life and democracy. Electronic resources foster instant gratification, replacing more concentrated effort. On the other hand, research shows discerning readers are more engaged in their communities. In sum, they help foster those values that promote the public’s interest and those amenities enhancing a functional democracy.

To not read is simply one more ingredient eroding family cohesion and breeding social isolation, not only pervasive, but advancing. It exchanges commitment for passivity.

As humans, we discover our individual identity through assertion. “To be or not to be? remains the existential question. Good literature inculcates not only its resolution, but its how.

Reading requires concentration, an intellectual skill that improves with exposure. To forfeit its dividends for Esau’s porridge of instant gratification with its fallout for the family and community is nearly too nightmarish for me to contemplate.

–rj

Reflections: William Trevor’s The Collected Stories

I’ve been reading the late Irish writer William Trevor’s The Collected Stories, a sprawling anthology of nearly 1300 pages, stories that have been compared with those of Chekhov and Joyce (Dubliners), culminating in many literary prizes and Trevor’s receiving honorary knighthood. The tributes, in fact, are endless, with many deeming him our most illustrious contemporary master of the genre. For many years, he was associated with The New Yorker.

His stories, however, may prove difficult going for many in these troubled times when we reach desperately for good tidings, not quotidian gloom. While his facility with language is indisputable in its ease and fluidity, his characterization impeccable, there seems never a relief to a bleak landscape of broken lives, shattered expectations, deceit and cruelty. Many of the stories deal with the angst of aging, declining physical and mental capability, a clinging to past memories, accompanying alienation, loneliness, and anxiety in the foreground of marauding mortality.

Despite all this, his psychological prescience sustains, with characters delineated by their own compulsions, denials and lethargies. In short, the characters are people we know, perhaps uncomfortably, even ourselves, wrestling like Hamlet with the dichotomy of desire and weakness and inability for resolution.

Stories are ceaselessly open-ended, with readers left to their own interpretive nuances, not unlike life in its ambiguities. Again, a lot like what we find in Chekhov and Joyce.

Still, I miss the understated, yet resonant symbolism of short story masters like Lawrence, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Mansfield, their tales exploding into collective nuance, often replete with stylistic eloquence. In this, Fitzgerald remains my favorite, often quotable and always unforgettable.

I’m longing for a bit of good cheer, absent in Trevor, to soften a grim grayness. (Is it accidental he chose to follow Hardy into residing in Dorset?) After all, life isn’t all winter and following storm, the sun does peak through, and most humans, for all their liabilities, harbor irrevocable kindness.

–rj

Boyd’s Any Human Heart: Reflections

William Boyd

Some books are meant to be re-read, simply because they not only entertain, but because they engender an influence, often enduringly subtle, on what we think and do.

Moments ago, I finished William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (2001) for the second time, a melancholic exploration of a life’s passage by journal keeper Logan Mountstuart, who chronicles the perambulations of his career as a journalist, novelist, art connoisseur and private citizen.

I had been introduced to Any Human Heart previously, following its superb PBS adaptation in 2011. I refrain from calling it a novel, since it purports to being a series of journals. It isn’t my intent to summarize the plot, a non-starter really, since journals by their very nature cannot plot. My focus is primarily on Logan Mountstuart and how his journals define him.

Logan’s journals (there are several) are pensive in tone, which may deter some readers in giving thumbs-up to what they read. Tallying up life as its elderly witness, he resorts to math analogy: “That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. Everything is explained by that simple formula. Tot it up—look at the respective piles. There’s nothing you can do about it: nobody shares it out, allocates it to this one or that, it just happens. We must quietly suffer the laws of man’s condition, as Montaigne says.”

Luck, in fact, becomes a repeated motif in Any Human Heart from its outset, something very reminiscent of Hemingway perhaps, whose ironic intrusions frustrate human resolve in his narratives. Logan records meeting Hemingway in Paris and, as a mutual journalist in the Spanish civil war, enjoys a reciprocal friendship with him. His violent suicide shocks Logan.

Nor will every reader tolerate Logan Mountstuart’s licentiousness, if not sexual addiction, that compromises two of his three marriages and the boundaries of a key friendship. Incongruously, his psychiatrist recommends sleeping with two women simultaneously to dampen his sexual craving, counsel he carries out in recruiting two New York street prostitutes.

In defense of the protagonist, I offer Any Human Heart’s inveterate theme of the human condition, our limitations manifest in varied ways, the dichotomy of aspiring to our better selves, yet failure to do so, the assessing a life by its attempts, not its non-sequiturs. What I like is Logan’s honesty, no blemishes hidden, no journals burned. Logan is a man in search of himself.

The initial journal establishes the genesis of what will be lifelong friendships, beginning in boarding school, with Peter Scabius and and Ben Leeping. Both are successful, career-wise, more so than Logan, though differing in character make-up. A best selling novelist, Peter achieves knighthood, but behind his public persona relegates women, including multiple wives, to sexual subservience. Logan projects his own sexual infidelity on to Peter, finding it reprehensible.

On the other hand, Ben, a professional art dealer, proves consistently dependable for doing the right thing and a template for temperance and integrity.

So much of 20th century history is unfurled here, along with a pantheon of the century’s notable artists and writers, all of whom have crossed pathways with Logan, who vehemently disdains the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The only false notes in an otherwise attempt at plausibility is the allusion to a nonexistent painter, Nat Tate, an extension of a literary hoax Boyd had previously produced in a spoof biography (1998) in an otherwise meticulous attempt at realism to the point where Logan’s journals are replete with an editor’s introduction, efforts at authenticating probable dates and locales, explanatory footnotes, an index of people and fictional characters intrinsic to Mountstuart, and listing at end of works attributed to him

My crucial question in reading this sprawling 478 page narrative is Do we have a changed Logan Mountstuart at the last journal end? Certainly, that was author Boyd’s intended purpose at outset. The roman á clef here lies in recognizing we have several journals, not one. “For a start,” Boyd tells us, “it’s written without the benefit of hindsight, so there isn’t the same feeling you get when you look back and add shape to a life. There are huge chunks missing (The Telegraph, 16 April 2002). People aren’t one self. They’re an anthology of many selves (The book of life, The Guardian, 8 March 2003).

Logan’s tone mellows as he ages, transitioned subtly as we passage through time and place and from journal to journal. Boyd wanted the style to reflect the major theme that we change and grow throughout life: “I wanted the literary tone of each journal to reflect this and so the voice subtly changes as you read on: from pretentious school boy to modern young decadent, to bitter realist to drink soaked cynic, to sage and serene octogenarian, and so forth” (web.archive.org).

Life events and time’s forfeiture of youth, its infliction of inevitable loss, morbidity, the growing awareness of our imminent ending, can make us bitter and self pitying, but not surely so. Empathy is often time’s grace in lending cognizance of our universality and with it, our weaknesses committing the follies we wish could be undone.

We are individuals, yet in our collective experience across time, we are many evolving selves, linking us to a wider humanity, impacted by life events, with similar longings, disappointments and traumas that life brings. This is where Boyd’s introductory borrowing from Henry James accumulates its nuance: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

Whatever his past shortcomings, the elderly Logan isn’t lacking in expansive empathy. There is his generosity to his step-daughter Gail, to whom he bequeaths his French homestead; his compassion for the sickly Gloria, Peter Scabius’ discarded wife, whom he takes in and nurses in her final weeks of cancer, despite his marginal financial resources; his intervention on behalf of Madame Gabrielle Dupetit, Sainte-Sabime neighbor, whose concern over the vandalization of her father’s memorial he takes on as his own.

He cries when his dog Bowser dies: “I experienced a form of grief so intense and pure I thought it would kill me. I howled like a baby with my dog in my arms. Then I put him in a wooden wine case and carried him into the garden and buried him under a cherry tree.”

We aren’t keeping company with the same man we met in the earlier journals. Logan acknowledges such in reviewing his journals from the retrospect of a man now in his eighties: “Rereading my old journals is both a source of revelation and shock. I can see no connection between that schoolboy and the man I am now. What a morose, melancholy, troubled soul I was. That wasn’t me, was it?”

I think of Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Time’s anvil has hammered a less selfish, more fulsome human being, well-liked by Sainte Subime’s citizenry. I don’t want to give the journals’ salient elements away, but Logan has endured “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” exceedingly beyond what most of us are heir to among life’s undulations: failed marriages, two years solitary confinement in war time, unanticipated deaths, and abject poverty that reduces him at one point to dining on dog food.

Much of the latter part of Any Human Heart deals with inevitable aging and its accompanying marginalization, demise, and hovering mortality. Its universality impels we live life meaningfully, experientially, mindful of our temporality.

On a beach crowded by young, handsomely tanned bodies, he reflects: “…highs and appalling lows, my brief triumphs and terrible losses and I say, no, no, I don’t envy you—you slim, brown, confident boys and girls and whatever futures await you….Over the beach and the ocean as the sun begins to drop down in the west, a strange sense of pride: pride in all I’ve done and lived through, proud to think of the thousands of people I’ve met and known and the few I’ve loved. Play on, boys and girls, I say, smoke and flirt, work on your tans, figure out your evening’s entertainment. I wonder if any of you will live as well as I have done.”

Though some readers will never latch-on to Logan Mountstuart, I venture most readers will likely mourn his death at Any Human Heart’s end, and that says everything for exchange of a static character for one whose maturation hints his redemption.

–rj

RJ’s 2022 Draw-bag Booklist

It was Benjamin Franklin who gave us the axiom that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He might have added tempus fugit, or that time flies. Here we are again, another New Year, launching a journey into the unknown, trusting it will end well. As I’ve done the last three years, I am posting my annotated draw-bag list of anticipated reads, fiction and non-fiction, drawn from the finest sources. Covering a wide range, they excel in delivering counsel, encouragement, enjoyment and, yes, sanctuary. Keeping a list has kept my reading disciplined and meaningful—the very best books, nothing less. Perhaps this list or one of your own will do the same for you. HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone! —rj

Fiction

Akhtar, Aryad. Homeland Elegies A Novel. (Akhtar’s second novel, a probing critique of America’s embraced narratives.)

Beaty, Paul. The Sellout. (First American to win Man Booker Prize, Beaty’s satiric novel depicts an isolated Black protagonist, whose case ultimately goes before the Supreme Court.)

Boyd, William. Any Human Heart. (Boyd’s sprawling novel and popular BBC dramatization sure to draw you in, and a reread for me. It’s that good. )

Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. (V. S. Pritchett called this book “the bomb of Victorian literature.” A clergyman loses his faith.)

Byatt, A. S. Possession. (Exhilarating Man Booker Prize intellectual novel of love and mystery.)

Camus. The Plague. (The classic more relevant than ever.)

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. (I never tire of a good mystery, and Chandler, the great master, never disappoints.)

Chaudhuri, Amit. Odysseus Abroad (Along with Salmon Rushdie, Chaudhuri ranks among India’s most prominent writers in English. With seven novels, this work is a good place to begin your acquaintance).

Herbert, Frank. Dune. (Among the most widely read science fiction novels, an exploration of a future interstellar landscape.)

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (A cogent examination of the way we live our lives.)

Leilani, Raven. Luster. (The adultery novel, successor to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, finds updated boldness in Leilani’s first novel. On Barak Obama’s reading list for 2020.)

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. (The great master’s timeless novel.)

Pritchett, V. S. Short Stories. (Famed man of letters, especially known for his short stories, essays, and crafted sentences.)

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. (A Pulitzer Prize winner, first in series of four novels by America’s internationally acclaimed literary fiction writer.)

Tharoor, Shashi. The Great Indian Novel. (An amalgam of myth, legend, folklore and anecdote in a retelling of Indian history from its ancient beginnings to its present day.)

Trevor, William. The Stories of William Trevor. (Now an established literary presence, Trevor’s collected short stories will unceasingly delight.)

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. (National Book Award Finalist and NPR Best Book, 2015), four friends grapple with hopes, fears, and unspeakable losses.)


Non-Fiction

Arana, Marie. Bolivar: American Liberator. (Outstanding biography of Simon Bolivar, the South American revolutionary often compared to Washington.)

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture (Classic delineation of cultural patterns, drawing on Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy).

Davis, Wade. Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (Renowned anthropologist Davis explores unique indigenous versions of life and humanity’s loss consequent with tribal extinction.)

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs & Steel. (I have been aspiring for some time to read this best selling popular science book, translated into 33 languages and a Pulitzer winner. Diamond brings a wealth of knowledge from many disciplines, explaining historical European dominance.)

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus (Biblical scholar Ehrman chronicles his transition from belief in divine inspiration of the Bible to contradictory and falsified biblical texts.)

Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. (Holocaust survivor Frankl’s life-changing book on the aegis of human happiness.)

Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (An optimistic, sensible argument that we possess the wherewithal to mitigate climate change apocalypse.)

hooks, bell. All About Love: New visions (The late black feminist’s acclaimed book defining love as it should be.)

Levi, Primo. If This is a Man. (A classic, riveting holocaust story of survival replete with resonant insights engendered through duress.)

Mance, Henry. How to Love Animals: In a Human-Shaped World. (A beautifully written, candid appraisal of humanity’s relationship to the animal world.)

Mishra, Pankai. Bland Fanatics. (Sixteen essays offering a revised reading of Western history in the context of racial exclusion.)

Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. (I have always appreciated Orwell as one of our supreme essayists, forthright, prescient insights, and style mastery.)

Shapiro, James. Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past And Our Future. (A Shakespeare scholar offers timely Shakespearian nuance for a troubled nation.)

Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell’s Roses. (An exploration of both Orwell’s political rage and his consummate love for cultivating roses, revealing a fascinating inner dimension. Solnit never disappoints. Makes me want to visit his Hereford cottage.)

Steele, Andrew. Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old. (Exploration of future expansion of longevity and well-being. This book will get you moving.)

Williams, Joy. Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. (Essays by a short-listed National Book Award and Pulitzer nominee.)

Wilson, E.O. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (The last in the eminent biologist’s trilogy, it offers bold strategies to save earth and ourselves.)

Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Wulf’s illuminating biography of the father of modern environmentalism, selected as A Best Book of the Year (2016) by The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, Nature, Jezebel, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, New Scientist, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Evening Standard, The Spectator.)

The East India Company: A Cautionary Saga of Corporate Greed

The Red Fort

Should we be concerned about the growing aegis of international corporate entities monopolizing markets, often with the connivance of government?

A new iPod series, Capitalisn’t, hypothesizes our future. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg becomes President and manipulates anti-trust law in his favor, assuring his company can never be broken up. Too extreme? Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, co-creator of the series along with Kate Waldock, of Georgetown University, reminds us of the disgraced Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who parlayed his media shares into political power. If Zuckerberg were able to emulate his example, he could conceivably become president and control both government and the world’s largest communication network.

Far-fetched? Not according to historian William Dalrymple, utilizing the East India Company as his exemplum, the threat is papable and emerges the underlying thesis of his recent highly esteemed The Anarchy: The East Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire (2019).

Dalrymple, who lives in his adoptive India and has written fifteen other books on India, offers us a scenario where the unlikely actually happened in the swift rise of an initially small private enterprise to absolute power, replete with its own army, and achieving power hegemony over India.

I had come across Dalrymple’s book in compiling my drawbag reading favorites, posted annually on New Year’s day. Since I had majored in Victorian literature in grad school, I was not unfamiliar with the Company’s aggressive exploitation in Bengal under the ruthless Robert Clive in the mid-17th century, which saw its vast expansion.

I also remembered that John Stuart Mill, my favorite Victorian, had been a major functionary in the EIC for many years, ultimately becoming Chief Examiner, overseeing relations with several Indian states. His father had written the still highly influential History of British India and served as spokesman for the EIC’s board of Directors. I wasn’t aware of any notoriety on their part, so I was intrigued.

More specifically, The Anarchy traces the founding of the corporation, replete with stock investors in 1599 to 1803, when it had amassed a private army of 200,000, twice the size of the British army, and acquired dominance over the sub-continent with the defeat of the Marathi (not fully so until 1818), resulting in unprecedented opulence extracted from subjugated monarchs and ruthless taxation, even among the poor, setting the stage for the British Raj (1858), when the Company would become subordinate to the Crown following the sepoy rebellion of 1857.

India constituted Britain’s consolation prize for having lost its colonies in America. (Ironically, the EIC’s transgressions in India had agitated colonists that a like corporation might descend upon them.) In 1781, the defeated General Cornwallis at Yorktown was appointed Governor General by the EIC to preempt its repeat.

The book isn’t easy reading for the squeamish, as Indian history reeks with conspiracy, warfare, and carnage, continual conflict pitting huge armies, even by modern standards, against one another. Cities like Delhi and Calcutta are routinely pillaged and laid waste by rival Mughal factions serving-up unbridled brutality and repression, with the rare exception of enlightened monarchs like the blinded Shah Aram, last Mughal emperor, and the beloved Tipu Sultan, killed by EIC allied forces. A substantial portion of Dalrymple’s narrative details the many battles waged for control of India.

Dalrymple chronicles the rapacious Company’s opulence in a huge transfer of Indian wealth from trade, taxation, and payments from subjugated or protected local sovereigns. It brought to mind the Spanish in the New World bent on mercantile profit, heedless of unleashed cruelties on indigenous tribes.

One of the most riveting episodes of Company pecuniary malfeasance occurred with the horrendous famine of 1769-70, consequent with the absence of monsoon rain. Rice stocks grew ten times more expensive, exacerbating an already public emergency. Despite some efforts to provide famine relief, “anxious to maintain their revenues at a time, the Company, in one of the greatest failures of corporate responsibility in history, rigorously enforced tax collection and in some cases even increased revenue assessments by 10 per cent….Even starving families were expected to pay up; there were no remissions authorised on humanitarian grounds,” Dalrymple writes.

Two-thirds of Bengal peasantry perished from famine or ensuing disease. In all, an estimated 1.2 million died in Bengal, India’s formerly richest and most fertile province. Shamelessly, the Company would inform investors back in England of an increase in revenue, despite the famine.

Dalrymple’s account of the Company’s presence in India is balanced. There were good Brits, like distinguished linguist and simple living Warren Hastings, de facto first Governor General of India from 1773 to 1785. Hastings tried earnestly to stop the rampant looting of Bengal by Company associates. He would later wound his persistent antagonist Philip Drake, who survived being wounded, only to accuse him and his Chief Justice, Elijah Impey, of impropriety. Recalled to England, both would be tried in court, but ultimately acquitted.

That a relatively small private company succeeded in achieving the downfall of the Mughal Empire, attaining unprecedented power in short space, was due to three principal factors: rivalries among Indian ruling factions, some of whom would join the EIC ranks; superior training and weaponry among privately hired sepoys, reenforced by seasoned British military leadership; and no less, by speculative Indian money lenders advancing funds to the Company, allowing it to finance its huge military.

Dalrymple’s history serves as a warning of the dangers posed by international corporations, often in league with government investors, heedless of the public good. As Dalrymple comments in the “Epilogue,” “The Company’s conquest and plundering of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state.”

Dalrymple has written an informed history, drawing upon multiple sources, scholarly, yet easy to read, relevant to our own time of growing corporate power and the dangers it imposes.
–rj

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