Saturday, August 26, 2006

BOOK: John Wheeler-Bennett, "Brest-Litovsk"

John W. Wheeler-Bennett: Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918. London: Macmillan, 1938; 5th printing, 1963. xx + 478 pp.

This is a book about the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded in March 1918 between Russia and the Central Powers. The latter took advantage of Russia's weakness to make large territorial demands upon her, intending to establish in these territories a number of quasi-independent states that would really be little more than German satellites. Of course, a few months later, Germany lost the war in the west and Russia repudiated the treaty; besides, the Entente obviously didn't have the slightest intention of allowing Germany to have any pretensions to influence in the East, so they added a clause annulling the Brest-Litovsk treaty in the Versailles peace treaty that Germany had to sign with the Entente after the war.

For some reason, the Brest-Litovsk treaty fascinates me, even though it was so short-lived and is in many ways just a footnote in the history of the WW1. The text of the treaty is available on the web site of Yale's Avalon Project, but tantalizingly, it lacks a map. It's clear from the text that Russia was about to lose a lot of territory, but not exactly how much and where. This made me even more curious about the treaty. [Wheeler-Bennett's book does include a map, between pp. 274 and 275.] Besides, I am always fascinated by ruthless, megalomaniac imperialism, even though I am also always glad when it fails to achieve its goals. We aren't really used to seeing this sort of large-scale imperialism and wars of conquest on the European continent in the modern era, except during WW2. In the 19th century, European imperialism was mostly directed externally, at other parts of the world (e.g. Africa and parts of Asia). As for the WW1, we usually remember the trench warfare on the Western front where the front lines hardly ever moved, and we often don't remember that at the same time on the Eastern front Germany occupied huge swaths of Russian territory and certainly had no intentions of relinquishing control of those territories as long as she could help it. We expect this sort of thing in the WW2, but not in the WW1 — at least I don't, and that's why it fascinates me. In the end, German greed for Russian territory was not all that much smaller than in the WW2.

So I have for some time been intending to read something about the Brest-Litovsk treaty, but I didn't know of any suitable titles. Then, a few months ago, I heard about Wheeler-Bennett when reading Richard Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich. Evans cites another of Bennett's books, a biography of Hindenburg, but then I noticed in Bennett's Wikipedia page that he also wrote a book about Brest-Litovsk. Soon afterwards, a saw a cheap copy on eBay and bought it.

The book perhaps isn't quite what I had hoped for, but that's not intended to be a criticism of the book; it just happens that my expectations were slightly incompatible with the book. Most of the story deals with Russia, much less of it with Germany, and almost nothing with the actual territories whose fate was being discussed in Brest-Litovsk. There is a fair amount of background about Russia in 1917, particularly about the October revolution; and later, while we read about the negotiations and the aftermath of the treaty, we also hear a great deal about Russian politics at this time, the endless bickering between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Left and Right Social Revolutionaries, Lenin and Trotsky, the innumerable Soviets and Committees and who knows that other organizational structures, all ceaselessly debating, arguing, etc., etc. Germany and the other Central Powers get much less space in the book, and, as I said, the territories most directly concerned by the treaty get almost no space at all. I guess I really should read Liulevicius' War Land on the Eastern Front (which I also found cited in Evans).

Anyway, apart from this minor complaint — i.e. that the book wasn't quite what I was looking for — this is really a perfectly decent book. It's readable, not too short but also not so long as to exhaust the reader, and it doesn't assume that the reader has very much background knowledge about the WW1 (e.g. I don't, and I found the book accessible enough).

Russia wasn't doing terribly well in the First World War. Its poorly equipped army suffered great losses in 1916 (“In certain divisions only three men out of ten went into action with rifles”, p. 8), and the economic situation had deteriorated to the point where there was widespread famine in the cities (pp. 9, 12). Clamours for peace arose from all parts of the political spectrum (p. 11), and by March 1917 the Tsar had been forced to abdicate (p. 13). A provisional government took power and preparations for a constitutional assembly were begun. Russia's allies, Britain and France, were happy enough to recognize the provisional government — after all, it supported the policy of Russia remaining in the war, and besides, Russia no being longer an autocracy “removed the last obstacle to the participation of the United States of America in the war on the side of the Allies”, and the social democrats in the Entente powers were also more comfortable participating in the war now that they no longer had to count an autocratic Tsar among their allies (p. 31).

The provisional government wanted to repect Russia's obligations towards its allies, Britain and France, which prevented her from concluding a separate peace. (“It is ironical, in view of the general desire for peace which permeated Russia at the moment of the Revolution, that the power should have fallen into the hands of the one group which was in favour of continuing the war”, p. 23 — i.e. both the Tsar, had he retained power, and the Bolsheviks, had they seized it, would be more likely to hurry towards peace than the liberal politicians of the provisional government). The provisional government did in fact make some efforts to get the allies to release Russia from her obligations and let her make separate peace with the Germans, but they refused — probably an unwise decision, as allowing Russia to withdraw from the war would likely stabilize the situation in Russia and prevent the subsequent Bolshevik revolution from taking place (pp. 51–2). As it was, the disaffection of the Russian population grew until the Bolsheviks made use of it to carry out the October revolution and assume power for themselves.

“The Kerensky régime perished, as it had lived, ingloriously and with infirmity of purpose. [. . .] the Provisional Government simply melted away. Kerensky on the morning of the 7th left Petrograd to look for an army. He neither found one, nor returned. [. . .] the remaining members of the Government [. . .] were arrested during their last session at the Marinsky Palace. Their final defenders were bewildered old Palace servants, a handful of army cadets, and some singularly ineffective military amazons.” (P. 61.)

The Bolsheviks made withdrawal from the WW1 one of their top priorities in foreign affairs. They realized that without this, it would be impossible for them to consolidate their position, to organize a new ‘Red’ army to replace the old tsarist one, to suppress the various opponents of the revolution that were gathering their forces at that very moment; and besides, they knew that the Russian army was simply not in a condition to fight the Central Powers. It was mostly just retreating; waiting any longer would just mean that Russia would be in an even worse position once the peace talks finally began.

Many of the Bolsheviks, in fact, mistakenly believed that the other European nations (and especially their workers) were just as tired of the war as the Russians were: “The theory was that only the declaration of the principles of a general peace was needed for the peoples to rise and compel the Governments to enter into the necessary negotiations.” (P. 66.) Of course, things were not so simple, and nothing came of these efforts. At the same time, there was much war-weariness, especially in the Central Powers: “the Quadruple Alliance was only held together by the hope of a victory by German arms. [. . .] The war spirit of Vienna was at an end [. . .] Germany could only count on Bulgaria remaining faithful [. . .] so long as all went well with the German armies. [. . .] Turkey [. . .] was at the end of her strength.” (Pp. 80–1.) Thus, Germany was quite interested in concluding peace in the East so that it could move some of its soldiers to the West and force the Entente to make peace on terms that were good for Germany (p. 82). Austria-Hungary was even more interested, due to its growing food crisis, to alleviate which they would need to import grain from the Ukraine, an impossibility until the conclusion of peace and resumption of normal economic relations (pp. 169–71).

Thus, the Bolsheviks agreed on an armistice with the Central Powers quite quickly, in December 1917 (pp. 83–4). The representatives of both sides met at Brest-Litovsk to discuss the terms of the peace treaty. The Russian delegation (pp. 85–7) was somewhat bizarre; “since the Revolution had nominally been made in the name of the soldiers, sailors, workers, and peasants, representatives of all these categories had to be included in the delegation. [. . .] They were produced for ‘window-dressing’ and had no other duties than to create an atmosphere of revolutionary democracy” (p. 85). The peasant representative was picked up at the last moment, when the delegation was already on the way to the train station: “ ‘There's no need for you to go to your village,’ the old man was told. ‘Come with us to Brest-Litovsk and make peace with the Germans.’ ” (Pp. 86–7.) See pp. 113–14 for more anecdotes of the worker, soldier and peasant representatives.

“ ‘We began peace negotiations’, wrote Trotsky, ‘in the hope of arousing the workmen's parties of Germany and Austria-Hungary as well as those of the Entente countries.’ ” (P. 115.) They hoped this would be a first step towards the establishment of socialism all over the world. Hence they tried to procrastinate and delay the negotiations to give the labour movements of the other countries time to respond. The Russian delegation presented a set of principles for a general peace without annexations or indemnities, and the Central Powers in principle agreed with the Russian suggestion that the Entente should be invited to participate in the negotiations of such a general peace on the basis of these principles. However, it soon became evident that the Entente had no intentions of concluding peace with the Central Powers in this way (pp. 136–7), and, what is more, there Central Powers and the Russians disagreed strongly in the interpretation of some of those principles, particularly that of self-determination (p. 128). The Russians took ‘no annexations’ to mean they would get Poland and the Baltic provinces back; but to Germans, ‘self-determination’ meant that the referenda and elections that were carried out in those territories while they were under German occupation during the war should be considered valid (pp. 124–5) — of course, in these elections, under the influence of the German military commanders and also of the German or pro-German landowning classes, these territories mostly decided to separate from Russia and organize themselves into little more than German satellites (p. 107, 215–6).

Unlike many other leading Bolsheviks, Lenin soon realized that the proletarian revolution which the Russians had hoped to trigger in other European countries, particularly Germany, through their example and propaganda, was not likely to happen anytime soon (pp. 138–9; it's remarkable how long the other Bolsheviks refused to accept this fact, pp. 186, 190). Thus, he now focused his attention on consolidating the revolution in Russia. “[B]oth for achieving a world upheaval [i.e. a worldwide proletarian revolution] and for securing a breathing-space for the Russian Revolution, a policy of delay was necessary at Brest-Litovsk. The peace negotiations must be protracted by any possible means. Against the might of the German militarism Russia had but one remaining weapon, the incalculable capacity of the Slav for interminable conversation, and this weapon Lenin was prepared to use to its utmost capacity” (p. 139). Trotsky became the new leader of the Russian delegation, and protracting the negotiations was one of his chief goals.

It was clear from the start that the two sides' views on self-determination and the status of Poland and the Baltic states were irreconcilable (p. 157). Nevertheless, “for four mortal weeks did Kühlmann and Trotsky circle round each other like duellists upon a cloak, debating the ethics, forms, and principles of self-determination and its application to the border states.” (Ibid.) “Their debates travelled from Dan to Beersheba, and from China to Peru, embracing such apparent irrelevancies as the degree of dependence of the Nizam of Hyderabad upon the British Crown, and the scope and powers of the Supreme Court of the United States.” (P. 158.) One good thing from the Russian point of view is that during the course of these negotiations, it became clear to the world-wide public that Germany was really quite under the control of its military Supreme Command (i.e. Ludendorff and Hindenburg), and that the German aims in the East really were about keeping under German control the territories that they had occupied, while the German diplomats' professed support of self-determination had really been little more than a sham (pp. 163, 165). Trotsky ironically described the German position as: “According to the Germans the terms of the treaty would be—first, the right of self-determination of the people is recognized, and there will be no annexations; secondly, Germany annexes everything.” (P. 216.)

Despite all that, however, it eventually became clear to Trotsky that the negotiations cannot be protracted indefinitely, nor can he get the Germans and their allies to sign a peace without yielding to so many of their demands that many people both in Russia and abroad would believe that he and Lenin were really German agents, or that Lenin had accepted German money at the time of his return from Switzerland to Russia at the outbreak of the revolution, and was now repaying the favour (pp. 184–5). Trotsky therefore proposed a curious formula of ‘no war — no peace’: Russia would unilaterally cease hostilities and demobilize, but it wouldn't sign a peace treaty; he was convinced that Germany would not continue its war against Russia, and that if it tried, the German masses would oppose that and start a revolution (p. 195; an unrealistic hope). Still other notable Bolsheviks supported the even more foolhardy plan of interrupting the negotiations and plunging into a ‘revolutionary war’ (p. 187), which would of course be a dismal failure given the then state of the Russian army. Lenin was inclined to be more pragmatic and would prefer signing a peace with Germany, but he “had not yet reached that point when he could dictate his terms to his colleagues” (p. 186), and so Trotsky's formula was eventually adopted as a compromise.

[To be continued in a few days.]

Monday, August 21, 2006

The ultimate insult?

Today I noticed, in a bookstore, Tom Holland's Persian Fire on the shelf otherwise dedicated entirely to fiction, mostly to historical novels set in the classical world.

Can there be a worse insult for a historian than to have his books placed on the fiction shelf?

I laughed a year or so ago when I saw, in another bookstore, something similar happen to one of Anne de Courcy's society histories (I forget which one — perhaps 1939: The Last Season), which was shelved amongst chick-lit or some such fluff. But when the same thing starts happening to histories of sober subjects such as the Persian wars, perhaps it's time to start getting worried and not just amused.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

BOOK: Colin Turnbull, "The Mountain People"

Colin Turnbull: The Mountain People. London: Triad/Paladin, 1984. (First ed.: New York: Simon and Schuster, and London: Jonathan Cape, 1972.) 0586084886. 253 pp.

This book is about the Ik people, who live (or used to live when the book was written — I don't know whether they still do) in northern Uganda, near the border with Kenya. They used to be a perfectly ordinary tribe of migratory hunter/gatherers, but at some point most of the territory where they had been used to roam was declared to be part of a national park and, in order to protect the wildlife there, its human inhabitants such as the Ik were forbidden from living or hunting in the park any more.

They had little choice but to embark on a more settled way of life. What was left of their traditional range was a largely mountainous area where they now started to build semi-permanent villages (usually abandoned after a few years, and a new village built not very far from the old one) and rely on farming to a much greater extent than before. But the area was not fertile enough; every four years or so there was a severe drought (ch. 5, p. 117), and sometimes there were such droughts for several years in a row. Years upon years of permanent scarcity exerted a relentless pressure upon them, turning their lives into nothing but a ceaseless struggle for survival.

Under this pressure, their society eventually disintegrated. What remained was little but a mass of supremely selfish individuals to whom most of the principles that we naively imagine to be universally human, e.g. the notion that parents should look after their children, or that people should help their close friends and relatives, seemed simply absurd.

A transformation like this is, of course, somewhat shocking; one would hardly expect that a whole tribe, a formerly quite viable society, could go down the drain like this. This is what makes this book so interesting and worth reading. But there are also other interesting things besides the description of Ik society; the author's travels throught he land of the Ik, the beautiful mountainous scenery, his efforts to establish good contacts with the Ik and become familiar with their society, the neighbouring tribes, the Police Post, the incessant cattle raids — all in all it's an interesting view of what sort of things an anthropologist's field work in Africa may consist of (or may have consisted of, a few decades ago, but probably much remains the same).

One also appreciates the style in which the book is written: the author simply describes what he has seen and experienced, without unnecessary wringing of hands or passing judgment on the Ik. In fact he doesn't hesitate to admit that given the circumstances in which the Ik found themselves, the path they took was logical and natural and the one by which each individual tried to maximize his or her own survival. Here's an illustrative comment on the way people stopped caring not only for the elderly, but even for their children: “there simply was not room, in the life of these people, for such luxuries as family and sentiment and love. [. . .] The children were as useless as the aged, or nearly so; as long as you keep the breeding group alive you can always get more children. So let the old go first, then the children. Anything else is racial suicide, and the Ik, I almost regret to say, are anything but suicidal.” (Ch. 5, pp. 108–9.)

“For those positive qualities we value so highly are no longer functional for the Ik; even more than in our own society they spell ruin and disaster. It seems that, far from being basic human qualities, they are superficial luxuries we can afford in times of plenty, or mere mechanisms for survival and security. Given the situation in which the Ik found themselves as I headed toward them, man has not time for such luxuries, and a much more basic man appears, using much more basic survival tactics.” (Ch. 1, p. 27.)

“[T]here is one common value, apart from language, to which all Ik hold tenaciously. It is ngag, ‘food.’ This is not a cynical quip — there is no room for cynicism with the Ik. It is clearly stated by the Ik themselves in their daily conversation, in their rationale for action and thought.” (Ch. 6, p. 112.)

Parents kick their children out of the house at the age of three. Children from age three to seven live in ‘bands’ of 6–12 children, in which a newcomer of course begins on the lowest rung and then gradually progresses as he or she grows older. In the end his or her next younger colleagues kick him or her out of the band, and he or she has to join a new band consisting of children age eight to thirteen, where he or she is again the youngest and thus least important member. At thirteen or so he or she is again kicked out by his or her next younger colleagues, and from then one is an adult. “These friendships [between children of similar age in a band] are temporary, however, and inevitably there comes a time, the time of transition, when each turns on the one that up to then has been the closest to him; that is the rite de passage, the destruction of that fragile bond called friendship. When this has happened to you three or four times you are ready for the world, knowing friendship for the joke it is.” (Ch. 6, p. 114.) “For most the plump years, the stomach-filled years, the good years, were between about fifteen and nineteen&rdquo (ch. 9, p. 191).

This weakening of social ties doesn't mean that there is absolutely no cooperation between individuals; they have a system of mutual obligations where doing one person a favour makes the recipient ‘indebted’, meaning he must repay you the favour when you ask him to. But since he doesn't want to be indebted in this way, he'd often really rather prefer that you not help him. But since you want him to be indebted to you in this way, you try to help him in such a way that he cannot refuse... “[A]nd so you have the odd phenomenon of these otherwise singularly self-interested people going out of their way to ‘help’ each other. In point of fact they are helping themselves, and their help may very well be resented in the extreme, but is done in such a way that it cannot be refused, for it has already been given. Someone, quite unasked, may hoe another's field in his absence,” etc. (ch. 6, p. 121).

In a harsh life like this, people age quickly. At twelve or thirteen, one is grown-up; “a happy man in his late middle age, which is to say he was in his early twenties” (ch. 3, p. 68). “Giriko at twenty-five was forty, Atum at forty was sixty-five, and the very oldest, perhaps a bare fifty, were centenarians.” (Ch. 9, p. 190.) This reminds me of a shocking scene from some Holocaust-memoir type of book I once read, but I forget which one (perhaps The House of Dolls), where a high-school girl ends up in a concentration camp relatively late in the war; at some point she has a conversation with another inmate, an elderly grey-haired woman — and it turns out that they are the same age, only that the second woman had been in the camp since the first days of the war.

There are many heart-rending scenes of people meeting their end in this most selfish of societies, where the old and weak would end up being the butt of everybody's jokes and have the food stolen out of their very mouths. The plates are also quite touching, as are the curiously terse and matter-of-fact captions next to them. “Blind Logwara . . . when he tried to reach a dead hyena for a share of the putrid meat, his fellow Ik trampled him underfoot. He thought it quite funny.” “Losiké in happier days, still active as a potter. In a few months she was, like all useless things, to be abandoned to her fate.” Most of the Ik shown in the plates came to a sad end.

Ch. 7, p. 138 has some curious facts about “the splendid pastime of wife beating, which, surprisingly, among the Ik follows a formal procedure”.

Ch. 5 also describes their marriage customs. The bride had to be ‘captured’, although the thing was really agreed upon in advance. “The time was invariably the evening, to give the cover of darkness. The opportunity offered itself when the girl to be captured left the outer stockade, after dark, for a final defecation. [. . .] At this rather delicate moment she was seized and made off with” (p. 106).

The Ik seem to be the ultimate libertarians. “It is certainly difficult, through a study of Icien behavior, to establish any rules of conduct that could be called social, the prime maxim of all Ik being that each man should do what he wants to do, that he should do anything else only if he is forced to.” (Ch. 8, p. 152.)

They had formerly had some religious beliefs, but most of that was gone during the disintegration of their society. “There was an undeniable contrast between the reverence shown by the old for tales of long ago, including those of Didigwari [a sky god], and the total lack of interest among the young.” (Ch. 8, p. 158.) (This reminds me of a similar difference between the young and old in WW2-era Ukraine, observed by Malaparte in his Volga Rises in Europe, see e.g. ch. 16 there.) They used to have ritual priests, the last of which, Lolim, died, old, weak, denied food or shelter by his children, while Turnbull was there (ch. 8, pp. 165–70). Turnbull and a colleague later tried to help Lolim's widow, which moved her to tears: “she was crying, she said, because all of a sudden we had reminded her that there had been a time when people had helped each other, when people had been kind and good” (ch. 9, pp. 187–8).

Their views on sex: “It was even unique to her [Nangoli's] family that sex should be an occasion for pleasure, for it was more commonly and openly referred to as a necessary chore, and mildly pleasurable, like defecation.” (Ch. 10, p. 208.) Men often considered it a waste of money, as “[f]or the girls it was their major asset, and they were not going to dispose of it wastefully. The second factor was the expenditure of energy involved, and the young men, the only ones smitten by this ridiculous urge, pointed out that it required much less energy to masturbate.” (Ch. 10, p. 209.)

This will illustrate the kind of climate the Ik had to deal with: on one “particularly good night” there were two rainstorms, the first lasting ten seconds, the other thirty-two seconds (ch. 10, p. 212).

On the Ik language: “Archie Tucker, the English linguist, accepted an invitation to come up and see just what this extraordinary language was, for it certainly was not Sudanic or Bantu. Archie finally pronounced, with no little satisfaction, that the nearest language he could find to this one was classical Middle-Kingdom Egyptian!” (Ch. 2, p. 35.) And one of the Ik with whom Turnbull had the most dealings is named Atum (“another tantalizing connection with ancient Egypt!”, ch. 3, p. 53). I wonder if it's true, and if yes, how did a pocket of speakers of Eyptian get so far south, and how it managed to preserve itself throughout so many centuries.

The disintegration of Ik society was not a sudden process. It took some time before the old people died, the ones who could still remember the times when people would occasionally help each other or do something at least moderately altruistic. But once this process was complete, it seems that there is no way back (ch. 9, p. 192).

Near the end of the book, the author mentions a famine relief effort organized by the government. Food was provided for everyone, but the government only transported it as far as the nearest town. The strong and healthy Ik could get there from their villages and were supposed to pick up the food not just for themselves but for their weak, elderly, or ill relatives as well and carry it to them. But almost without exception this idea of bringing food to a weak or elderly person struck them as absurd, as a laughable waste of food, and they would routinely stuff themselves full of it on the way home, even to the point of vomiting, rather than bringing any of it to their starving neighbours and relatives (ch. 11, pp. 232–3).

Turnbull ends with a very bleak view on the future of the Ik: after this disintegration of their society, there is no doubt that they will eventually die out if left to themselves; and as there seems to be no practicable way to help them rebuild their society, Turnbull suggests that it might be best if they were divided into small random groups and forcibly resettled, so that they would lose their identity and merge into the still normally functioning societies among whom they would be settled. But he realizes that this sort of thing couldn't be done, as it would cause an outcry among the human rights organizations (ch. 11, pp. 233–6). Now that more than 30 years have passed since this book was written, whatever was destined to be the fate of the Ik has probably already played itself out; but I wonder what it was.

Of course, a question one can hardly help wondering about when hearing of something like the Ik is whether anything similar could also happen to our modern society. Unfortunately, what Turnbull offers on this subject (ch. 12) is little more than a few generalized rants against modern society. From them it isn't quite clear what specifically it is that bothers him, why he feels that those developments suggest that our society may be disintegrating among similar lines than that of the Ik, what he feels to be the causes of this supposed disintegration (as there clearly is, in the modern world as a whole, no such extreme scarcity of food as the Ik had been subject to), and why he feels (as it seems clear he does) that further disintegration of our society along those lines is so very likely. Perhaps his rants and doomsday-mongering are simply an artefact of the period in which his book was written; the late 60s and early 70s were no doubt a turbulent period, especially in the U.S. (where the author lived and worked when he wasn't doing fieldwork).

As for me, I agree that some amount of disintegration of society clearly is going on, and has been going on for decades before Turnbull's book was written as well as in the three or so decades since it has been written. But at the same time we haven't seen this process go as far as it has in the case of the Ik, nor does it seem likely to go so far in the foreseeable future. We may be more individualistic now than people were fifty or a hundred years ago, but we are not completely oblivious to the notions of kinship, friendship, affection, and so on.

Most of us in the at least moderately developed world live only in relative scarcity, not absolute one. That is, I'm neither starving nor naked, and I own a computer and a bicycle and could even buy a car if I wanted one. But I want, of course, more than that; one wants an SUV, a gigantic plasma TV, a villa, an exotic holiday; things some people have, but most of us don't: that is relative scarcity. I suspect that complete disintegration of society the way we saw in the case of the Ik is only possible in conditions of absolute scarcity, not only relative scarcity such as we have now.

And our society functions entirely on relative scarcity: the basic needs of most people are met, and they therefore have the time to contemplate other less necessary wishes; and the whole of the capitalist economy is based on the process of encouraging these wholly unnecessary desires, so that people buy all sorts of unnecessary products and services: and to earn the money with which to pay for them, they seek jobs, in the process of which they simultaneously create these unnecessary products and services and, most important of all, enrich the capitalists — which is of course the motivation for this whole vicious cycle.

Thus, as long as our present lamentable capitalist system persists, we will probably have as much relative scarcity as possible, but no more of absolute scarcity than is inevitable. Therefore I don't doubt that disintegration of society will continue (it's in the interests of the capitalist class after all — weak, disconnected individuals are more easily made insecure through advertising and thus induced to buy unnecessary products and services), but not quite along the same lines as that of the Ik.


  • For more examples of how societies can collapse due to environmental reasons, see Jared Diamond's excellent book Collapse. Although Diamond doesn't mention the Ik, they are an illustrative example of how dramatic, and how irreversible, the social consequences of extreme environmental pressure can be.

  • Earlier in his career, Turnbull had done a lot of work among the Congo pygmies, and wrote a book about them, The Forest People. This also sounds potentially interesting.

Monday, August 14, 2006

BOOK: Eça de Queiroz, "The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers"

Eça de Queiroz: The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2000. 187398264X. 346 pp.

Another very pleasant novel by Eça de Queiroz, the Portuguese realist writer whose novels I've been reading at a rate of approx. one per year for several years now (see my post about The Relic from last year). Interestingly, Eça never quite finished this one, although a casual reader like me wouldn't really notice this from the text itself. Nevertheless, he never published it, and instead moved on to his next work, which turned out to be his masterpiece, The Maias. As for The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, it was only published in 1980, eighty years after his death, when his copyrights finally expired.

I recommend you not to read the translator's introduction before reading the novel, as she gives away a spoiler regarding the relationship between two leading characters of the book. Without this, you'd only have some hints dropped by the writer a few dozen pages into the novel, while the situation would only be cleared up explicitly at the end, on p. 341 (and a very melodramatic end it is).

Otherwise, the basic story of the novel is simple enough. A beautiful although no longer very young woman named Genoveva returns to Lisbon after many years spent abroad, chiefly in Paris, and becomes the paid mistress of a rich man named Dâmaso, whom however she rather despises and considers him stupid. She falls in love with Vítor, a young lawyer, and spends much of the novel trying to squeeze from Dâmaso enough money to pay off her old debts in Paris, and have enough capital left to enable her and Vítor to live off the interest on it (after kicking Dâmaso out of her life). Vítor's uncle Timóteo is a bit of a libertine and is quite glad that his nephew has such a splendid mistress, but he opposes his idea of marrying her; he goes to talk to Genoveva about this, and this conversation brings the novel towards a dramatic and shocking conclusion.

As I mentioned above, Eça went on to write The Maias after abandoning The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, and it's interesting how many elements of the latter novel he reused in the former. There is, firstly and perhaps most obviously, that to which I refer in the second paragraph above. But there are numerous other smaller things as well; I read The Maias six if not more years ago, and nevertheless I noticed many of them. I suppose that a more careful comparison would turn up many more similarities and parallels. Here are some I've noticed:

  • a diplomat who takes to truly absurd heights the usual diplomatic unwillingness to commit themselves to any explicit statements (pp. 172, 177);
  • an English housekeeper or governess who is not quite so innocent under her prim exterior (pp. 61, 235);
  • a character with the surname Maia already appears in this novel, although in a minor role (see e.g. pp. 255–6);
  • a vile newspaper titled The Devil's Trumpet (pp. 298–9; more details are given here about the newspaper and its editor than in The Maias);
  • a duel almost takes place (pp. 283–6); I seem to vaguely remember that something similar occurs in The Maias, though I'm not sure.

Here are some other interesting passages from the book:

“Dr Caminha hated anyone else sitting on his green velvet cushion when he was out, and to avoid such a crime occurring, he always left the chair primed for revenge; whenever that powerful legal orator — as some described him — was out of the office, he would leave a small nail on the seat of the chair; it was his favourite prank.” (P. 74.)

One of the minor characters is a painter named Camilo, who produces a couple of rather shockingly misogynistic paragraphs on p. 129. Here's one that sounds, in both content and style, very much as if it came from something titled Painter of Gor... :-) “ ‘She's the ideal female for an artist. She's stupid and passive. She eats, obeys, takes her clothes off. She's just a body that takes orders. She doesn't bother me or interrupt me, doesn't speak to me, she's just there. When I need a female, I call her.’ ”

Camilo also makes the following nice contribution to the genre of anti-lawyer quotations: “ ‘[. . .] Lawyers, huh, don't start me on lawyers.  . The lawyer with his disorderly rhetoric is the true scourge of this verbose, astute century! Those jaundiced, wise, ambitious, empty men, full of clichés, are the essence of constitutionalism. [. . .]’ ” This last sentence is particularly delightfully outrageous. I guess Camilo had the fin-de-siècle artist's robust contempt for the masses and anything that the masses could produce, such as constitutions and democratic politics.

João da Maia entertains his fellow diners with the story of a “republican conspiracy in which he had taken part&rdquo: “ ‘[. . .] We already had our list of victims drawn up: at the top, the royal family, then you, Dâmaso, and about two or three thousand other people. [. . .] Father Melo had given us the names of all the bishops, and I gave the names of all my creditors. The thing failed because we didn't have any money for the weapons; [. . .] In the end, Father Melo ran off with the money, and order prevailed. [. . .]’ ” (P. 259.)

“We should speak to women either on our knees or in verse.” (Vítor, paraphrased by the narrator of the novel on p. 264.)

What to say at the end? I've enjoyed every single book of Eça's I've read so far, and this one is no exception. As always, he provides enough melodrama and titillation to keep the reader interested, there's a nice assortment of minor characters, the usual implicit barbs thrown against contemporary society (though their presence is perhaps not quite so strong here as in some of his other novels); in short, everything is as it should be. I heartily recommend everyone to make the acquaintance of what is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable 19th-century realist writers.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

More eBay shamelessness

From the description of an eBay auction currently in progress:

The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night
and SUPPLEMENTAL NIGHTS With Notes Anthropological and Explanatory
Privately Printed by the Burton Club for Subscribers only, n.d.
Limited to 1000 sets of which this is number 235. All 17 volumes are in good or better condition in half leather [. . .]

And here's the punchline: the opening price is $21,500, with a Buy It Now price of $27,500 :-)))

And the seller is a powerseller with 100% feedback. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Several copies of the true first edition of Burton's Nights are currently offered on ABE, mostly in the $7,000–$10,000 range. Thus $21,500, let alone $27,500, is preposterous even for a first.

Besides which, of course, the set offered in the above auction cannot be a first. The true first edition of Burton (Kamashastra Society, Benares — although of course the society was fictitious, and the book printed in England) was in 16 volumes, not 17. The third of the supplemental nights volumes was extra thick and thus many subsequent reprints split it into two volumes.

There were several ‘Burton Club’ reprints in 17 volumes in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, each limited to a thousand copies. So the total number of copies printed was not really all that low, and they aren't scarce now. With a bit of patience, it isn't difficult to get a good set for $200 or thereabouts. In an attractive leather binding, it might cost a few thousand dollars, but no more than that (you could buy a clothbound set and have it bound in leather by a bespoke bookbinder for that kind of money). And judging from the pictures included in the above-mentioned auction, the set offered there is far from attractive; the leather is fairly worn; it really isn't any better than merely good. A few hundred dollars, perhaps. But $21,500 has got to be a joke.

BOOK: Stephen Walker, "Shockwave"

Stephen Walker: Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima. John Murray, 2005. 0719567734. xv + 352 pp.

I noticed this one in the bookstore in early August last year, around the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which I guess is a part of the publisher's marketing strategy rather than a coincidence. Anyway, I was just in the process of reading Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb (see my post of a few weeks ago), and thus was in the mood to buy another atomic bomb book. It wasn't a bad read, but nothing terribly exciting either.

This book describes the main events related to the atomic bomb in the three weeks from the Trinity test (the first successful nuclear explosion, with the same bomb design that was later used against Nagasaki) to the Hiroshima bombing. The emphasis (and indeed the main concept around which the book is written) is on following the chronological course of events quite strictly, showing what the various actors involved in the story were doing at a certain time, even if this means jumping around from one location to another fairly frequently. We see the Trinity test, follow the preparations of the 509th Composite Group (i.e. the airmen that eventually carried the bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in their base on the island of Tinian, and finally accompany them on their mission over Hiroshima. On Tinian, the group was given the best accommodation available (pp. 83–4). They practiced endlessly the unusual manoeuvres that would be required to drop the atomic bomb: the bomb would be thrown from a high altitude, and the airplane would take a steep plunge immediately afterwards to gain speed with which to fly sufficiently far away from the explosion (p. 93). Tibbets, the commander of the group, was big on secrecy: “As well as his own private air force, Tibbets had his own private gestapo—the term is his own—and its thirty-odd agents prowled around the windy air base, eavesdropping on conversations” (p. 94) — people with loose tongues were packed off to Alaska for the rest of the war. Apart from that, Tibbets didn't much care what his men were doing as long as they were competent at their jobs: “He turned a blind eye to the bootleg whiskey, the irate fathers of unmarried daughters, the flood of police complaints about bar brawls and inebriated drivers, even the antics one notorious night in a Salt Lake City hotel when a naked redhead was observed running down a corridor pursued by a bunch of his drunken pilots.” (Pp. 94–5.)

At the same time we see a bit of the diplomatic activity that was going on during those weeks; the Potsdam conference was in progress, with the U.S., Britain and China demanding unconditional surrender of Japan (p. 157); as for the Japanese, they were divided: some insisted on defending the country to the last man, or committing suicide if further defense was impossible (pp. 99–100); others wanted to surrender and end the war, but couldn't accept unconditional surrender that would leave no guarantees that the allies would retain the emperor in his position as the head of state. At the time, the Soviet Union and Japan were still neutral to each other, and the Japanese tried to put out peace feelers via the Soviet Union, hoping that the Soviets might be able to influence the Anglo-Americans and persuade them to stop insisting on the unconditional surrender on Japan (pp. 40–41). But the Japanese hopes were in vain; the Americans, who weren't yet quite sure if the atomic bomb would work (and thus shorten the war), were planning an invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945, and asked the Soviets to help them by declaring war on Japan and keeping the Japanese army in China busy. The Soviets were keen to do this — it would give them more influence in East Asia after all — and so weren't in the least interested in helping the Japanese surrender early and on terms favourable to Japan (p. 158). Therefore they stalled and kept the Japanese ambassador waiting while the Potsdam conference was in progress. After that the ultimatum demanding unconditional surrender was issued to Japan, and although the Japanese tried to persist in their diplomatic efforts, these were now useless (pp. 159–60).

In addition to all that, the book also shows the events from the perspective of the inhabitants of Hiroshima; the author interviewed several survivors and shows some scenes from their lives in the last few days before the bomb and in the first few hours after the explosion.

To my list of hateful characters involved in the atomic bomb story (see my post on Rhodes' books), which so far chiefly included LeMay and Teller, I must now add several others, particularly the crews of the bombers that actually carried the bomb to Hiroshima (or accompanied the bomber carrying the bomb), as most of them didn't seem to show the slightest regret over what they had done. Not only at the time these events were taking place — one can understand that after several years of increasingly bitter warfare (cf. pp. 137, 293), with its hardships and incessant propaganda, even a decent person may end up being somewhat unfeeling and bloodthirsty; but these airmen seem to have mostly retained the same attitude in later years as well, when one would expect some sober reflection to set in that could make them realize that what they had done was, after all, a regrettable and horrible thing. The leader of the group (and pilot of Enola Gay, the plane that carried the bomb), Paul Tibbets, seems particularly disagreeable in this respect. See e.g. pp. 253, 261–2, and especially 317–8. One of the few humane comments is the one by Robert Shumard, assistant engineer on the Enola Gay, on the mushroom cloud, which had been described by others as beautiful: “ ‘There was nothing but death in that cloud. All those Japanese souls ascending to Heaven.’ ” (P. 262.)

Most of the U.S. military leaders as well as the public at large were quite happy that the bomb had been used and that it was so successful (p. 293). Marshall was among the few exceptions, warning “they should guard against too much gratification: the Japanese must have suffered huge casualties” (p. 293). Eisenhower and Admiral Leahy also opposed it (pp. 143–4). And Leo Szilard, the physicist who had done so much to start and encourage the development of the atomic bomb in 1939: “Immediately after the Nagasaki bomb, in a move that directly challenged the current of opinion, Szilard organized a collection for the survivors of both cities.” (P. 312.) Truman, however, never regretted his decision to order the bombs to be used (pp. 312–3).

One person that comes across as one of the more decent and humane characters in this book is Henry Stimson, who was the U.S. secretary of war during most of the WW2 (p. 43). He made efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution that could guarantee the Japanese that their monarchy will be preserved if they surrender, and the war might be ended without the use of the atomic bomb (p. 73); but in the end, he was overruled by Truman and his secretary of state, Jimmy Byrnes (pp. 140–1). A more successful effort of his was to have Kyoto removed from the list of targets for the atomic bomb (pp. 114–5).

There's an interesting discussion on how the use of the atomic bombs was practically a necessity once they had been invented (pp. 143–5). They weren't really necessary to destroy Japanese cities, as conventional bombing was already doing this very successfully; but something as shocking as the atomic bomb was needed to get the Japanese to surrender without an invasion of Japan by land forces (p. 144). Besides, after all the resources that had been used to develop the bomb, not using it seemed unthinkable to many, including Truman (p. 145). In addition to shocking the Japanese, the bomb was also hoped to impress the Soviets; the last weeks of WW2 were also the first weeks of the cold war (pp. 144–5).

The author is quite good at weaving all sorts of little details into his narrative. For example, at the Trinity test, the scientists present were not only wearing sunglasses but even sun cream (p. 60).

A certain military unit stationed in the desert of New Mexico “generally lived a life so cut off from the rest of the civilized world that each of them would one day receive a Good Conduct Medal for the lowest rate of venereal disease in the army” (p. 24).

Oppenheimer “once read all six volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in a single transcontinental train journey” (p. 31). His wife Kitty was apparently a cousin of Keitel, the German field marshal (p. 32).

General Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, was addicted to chocolate (p. 31).

Apparently, LeMay (actually Walker spells this ‘Le May’) had a very curious nickname: “General Curtis ‘Iron Ass’ Le May” (p. 83). I don't remember seeing this in Rhodes' books, but now I see that it's mentioned in the Wikipedia page about LeMay. Truly, some things come pre-pornolized. :-)

There's an interesting description of the mechanism that triggered the explosion of the bomb once it reached a certain altitude on pp. 176–7.

The crews of the airplanes flying the Hiroshima mission were provided with cyanide capsules in case they were shot down and captured by the Japanese (p. 207). The navy also had “a string of submarines and aircaft” ready for the event of an emergency landing at sea (p. 199).

As is well known, the Hiroshima bomb contained uranium; on detonation, chemical explosives would shoot a small blob of uranium into a larger blob, so that together they would exceed critical mass and the nuclear explosion would begin. Obviously, this created a risk of explosion if the two blobs happened to come together prematurely for any reason, e.g. in the case of a plane accident. Harold Agnew, one of the scientists involved in the mission, commented: “ ‘That weapon was completely unsafe. If the plane had to stop in a hurry, that slug would have gone right in.’ ” (P. 210.) The bomb could also be set off by sea water if the plane had to ditch (p. 237).

Moments after the explosion, “Tibbets experienced a peculiar tingling sensation in his teeth—and the distinct taste of lead on his tongue. His fillings, he later learned, were interacting with the bomb's radiation.” (P. 259.)

A number of people survived the explosion itself but died after a few minutes of a zombie-like existence: “It did not look like a human being. It looked monstrous. Every part of its body was black, its arms, its head, its legs, its grotesquely swollen face. Its eyes protruded horribly like golf balls. It had no nose or hair. Its mouth gaped open like a huge hole. Its black lips were half the size of its face. [. . .] Black rags hung from its arms and torso. [. . .] they were burned flesh.” (Pp. 266–7.) P. 271 contains some numbers and statistics that quantify the destruction caused by the bomb.

Due to some unexplained mixup, messages sent from the Tinian air base to general Groves in Washington were delayed so much that he received no information about the progress of the mission until several hours after the explosion (pp. 212, 273–4)

On the Japanese side, the news was slow to spread too. Of course all communications between Hiroshima and the rest of Japan were severed immediately. A radio announcer in Hiroshima was interrupted in the middle of a sentence: “three large enemy planes proceeding” (p. 249); a second later, a control operator in Tokyo noticed that “the Hiroshima station had gone off the air” (p. 278). The first journalist to report on the explosion sent his first report by phone from a nearby town several hours after the bomb struck (p. 279).

It is often said that the Hiroshima bomb had a yield of 20 kilotons. But the correct figure is actually lower (13 KT according to the Wikipedia); the overstatement is due to a mistaken assumption that the bomb was equivalent to the one used in the Trinity test (which did yield 20 kilotons); p. 29. The Trinity design was used over Nagasaki, not Hiroshima.

Apparently Groves had been very good at keeping the secrets about his work from his family. His wife and daughter were “ ‘just as surprised as the Japs when Dick's bomb was dropped’ ” and Groves' name was mentioned on the ratio (p. 296).

Even after Nagasaki, some of Japan's leaders were refusing to consider a surrender: “ ‘Would it not be wondrous,’ said General Anami, the war minister, ‘for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?’ ” (P. 307.) Needless to say, the civillian members of the cabined disagreed. Fortunately, the Emperor now decided to support them and thus Japan was finally able to surrender. Which is probably a good thing, for Groves was getting ready to drop a third atomic bomb over Tokyo around August 17th (p. 308).

There's a blurb from Gitta Sereny on the back cover: “Remarkable. I have been waiting for this book for sixty years”. In fact, seeing how obsessed she usually is with questions of morality and guilt, I'm almost surprised that she herself hasn't yet written some book about the use of the atomic bombs :-)

Some potentially interesting books mentioned in the bibliography:

  • James F. Byrnes: All in one Lifetime. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958. The memoirs of Jimmy Byrnes, Truman's foreign minister.
  • Frank W. Chinnock: Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1969.
  • Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1969.
  • Henry M. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy: On Active Service in Peace and War. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947.
  • Ronald Takaki: Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. New York: Little, Brown, 1995.