What intellectual or moral use does it have to think about a writer’s life? This question becomes all the more salient when — as in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky — it concerns an author, whose life has been systematically obscured for political reasons. Dostoevsky started well enough, from the later, official point of view. He debuted with the sentimental, socially conscious novel Poor Folk (1846), became a member of the Petrashevsky socialist circle, and suffered for his politics during his subsequent Siberian imprisonment and enforced military service. What the Soviets could not countenance, however, was the writer’s infuriating, post-Siberian right-wing turn, the erstwhile socialist dreamer becoming an ardent royalist and defender of personal responsibility. Thus, finding out about Dostoevsky became harder than ever during the Soviet era. The University of Toronto’s Slavic scholar Peter Sekirin, in compiling and translating around one hundred, rare first-hand accounts of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s life and career, attempted to fill this gap and identify as many previously suppressed voices as possible. Recently reissued, ‘The Dostoevsky Archive’ is the result of this painstaking effort. It is, writes BRB reviewer Andre van Loon, quite literally ‘the product of a liberal impulse’.
Geoengineering — the idea that humans should deliberately engage in planetary-level interference with the Earth’s natural systems, in an attempt to partially reverse anthropogenic climate change — is a contentious idea, which nonetheless has quickly spread in policy circles and in the public’s imagination. Partly this is the result of the dismal failure of the global community to agree on, and enact, mitigation measures; partly, it is fuelled by a desire to see human beings as ‘in control’. Adding to several recent books on geoengineering, Clive Hamilton in ‘Earthmasters’ (Yale UP 2013) surveys the types of technologies being talked about under such labels as ‘solar radiation management’ and ‘carbon dioxide removal’, and inquires into the reasons for our collective inaction on climate mitigation. While much of the terrain has been covered elsewhere, reviewer Rose Cairns argues, Hamilton succeeds in bringing to the fore the issue of the enormous scale of the infrastructures that would be required to deploy any of the geoengineering techniques currently being explored.
In a polemical piece published in ‘The New Republic’ last month, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker made ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’: ‘Science is Not Your Enemy’! Gloria Origgi, in this exclusive contribution to The Berlin Review of Books, rebuts Pinker’s curious misrepresentations of the current state of the humanities. Given that Pinker’s piece comes on the heels of similar attacks from scientists against philosophy — and in light of the decline of support for humanities research and liberal education around the world — Origgi also asks the question: Why this denigration of a lively tradition of intellectual tradition? Why this attempt to reignite the infamous ‘culture wars’? Why now?
Two and a half years after the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, a number of books have appeared which explore the impact of the events on Japanese politics and policy-making. In ‘After the Great East Japan Earthquake’, published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, based in Copenhagen, a number of contributors analyze those policy areas most likely to be affected by the tragedy – politics, economics, energy, climate, agriculture and food safety – and describe how the sectors have been affected and what the implications are for the future. This adds up to a useful set of additional perspectives, according to reviewer Hansley A. Juliano, in this review originally written for the LSE Review of Books.
The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of political mass movements and revolts — ranging from the West’s ‘Occupy’ movement to the Arab Spring and recent protest movements in Turkey and Egypt. Participation in these movements is heavily skewed towards the urban, educated classes. Two recent books — one in German, the other in French — approach this phenomenon at a theoretical level, though from different disciplinary perspectives. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein describes in his essay review of Wolfgang Kraushaar’s ‘The Revolt of the Educated’ (Hamburg 2012) and Roland Gori’s ‘The Impostor Factory’ (Paris 2013), both books identify a dissatisfaction with a particular style of governance and formal-instrumental style of rationality as one of the reasons behind these protests. Whereas Kraushaar gives an empirical-historical reconstruction of the figure of the “new global protester”, Gori — in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Jacques Ellul — analyzes the psychological potency of various techniques of ‘normalization’. Together, both books amount to a powerful critique of the social and political impostures that are being performed through false abstractions and misguided claims to universality.
At a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, last month, U.S. President Obama hit all the right notes: he complimented the military on remaining “the most trusted institution in America”, he vowed to eradicate sexual assault, which is rife in the armed forces, and he encouraged the graduates to “live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability”. Of the military academies themselves, and their system of values — perhaps best expressed in the class motto “Surrender to Nothing” — Obama said “our nation needs them now more than ever”. Recent books, such as Lance Betros’s ‘Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902′, tend to provide the historical background narrative to such rhetoric. But do the military academies deliver? Do they deserve their unique status as federally funded institutions of higher learning, for the purposes of training military officers? Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at Annapolis, begs to differ. The academies encourage a misguided sense of entitlement, drain public funds, and do not deliver intellectually. Worst of all, they are about as historically outdated and oblivious to their anachronistic existence as East Berlin in the year 1989.
Looking forward to a Dan Brown novel is a curious psychological phenomenon, writes reviewer Matthew Dentith: Brown has never gathered accolades with respect to clever prose or complex characters. Indeed, until the publication of his third book, “The Da Vinci Code”, a Dan Brown book was merely something you wouldn’t feel guilty reading in an airport lounge. His new novel, “Inferno”, has all the stock Dan Brown features. Characters with distinguishing but unnatural traits (pustulant sores for one, female baldness for another), a daring damsel (with exceptional talents and, crucially, the ability to fall instantly in love with the protagonist), a conspiratorial cartel with no ethical compass and, finally, a hero in Robert Langdon, an academic who is more obsessed by the suits he wears than the courses he teaches at Harvard. So, how is “Inferno” as a novel? Well, it has all the standard set pieces you would expect: chase scenes, a succession of daring escapes and the obligatory chapter-long pieces of exposition. People swap sides and the sinister organisation, which is made out to be very powerful, also turns out to be comprised of very, very stupid people. And it has a protagonist who seems to have lost interest in the plots of his author.
Self-Shadowing Prey, one of the final texts by the Romanian poet Ghérasim Luca (1913-1994), combines surrealist playfulness with an impetus for rigour that does not shy away from revising, expanding, and rearranging ordinary vocabularies and meanings. Indeed, much of Luca’s life and work suggests a poetics of dislocation on several, intensifying levels: first, as self-dislocation, in the assumption of the pseudonym by the emerging Jewish-Romanian artist; second, by the artist’s migration — and movement into another language — from Bucharest to Paris. Finally, there is the dislocation in poetic practice, occasioned by the confrontation with the very historical forces compelling such migration. The result, in the words of reviewer Michael G. Kelly, are works which ‘bathe in a carefully modulated and sustained sense of menace where language’s porosity, the compossibility of contrasting and overlapping meanings, heightens the lack of ease that is fundamental to the poet’s artistic subjectivity’.
The market, we are told, has moods and desires, is ‘jittery’ and ‘sends a message’. We are told to listen and anticipate its every move, preempting adverse ‘verdicts of the market’ through shrewd political decision-making. In his short (81-page) essay, ‘Can the Market Speak?’, Campbell Jones investigates the conceptual assumptions that underlie the idea that the market has intentions, consciousness, and the ability to speak to us. Yet, argues reviewer Mark Bergfeld, by solely focussing on the personification of the markets, Jones reveals a contradiction in capital’s attempt to paint the markets as behaving rationally: The supposed rational actors inside of the markets are themselves guided by “the invisible hand of the market”. In other words, underlying the very rationality of the market one finds irrationality and superstition.
One of the most innovative and daring Hungarian writers of the 20th century, Miklós Szentkuthy wrote such masterpieces as ‘Prae’, ‘St. Orpheus’ Breviary’ (comprising 10 volumes), ‘Narcissus’ Mirror’ and many others. Thanks to recent efforts by Contra Mundum Press, much of Szentkuthy’s work is now gradually being made available in English. In this essay, writer and scholar András Nagy discusses Szentkuthy’s life and work, painting a rich portrait of a man with many masks and a vast – and lasting – literary legacy.