Review: Aldous Huxley “The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell”

Introduction:

 

“That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives that are at the worst so painful…the longing to transcend themselves…is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul” wrote Huxley in his manifesto to liberalise the use of mescaline and psychotropic drugs in society. His 1954 novel reads like an extended essay, primarily concerning itself with a day Huxley spent tripping in 1953. Beginning with this life altering experience, Huxley then incorporates a plethora of scientific and intellectual thought to add weight to his argument.  I read the edition that included the follow up “Heaven and Hell”, which is a considerably more erudite affair, where Huxley argues for mescaline as a choice in a free society purely on an artistic and scientific basis. There is an excellent comparison between the beauty and power of colour in Art and how it is similar to the vivid, ethereal bursts of colours that one encounters when tripping on LSD or mescaline. I’m with Huxley. In a free society, with effective regulation, I believe individuals have the absolute right to make their own decisions regarding their own lives.

 

Once he begins his odyssey, Huxley realises that “the great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant”. It made me wonder if the Post-Modernist thinkers had their own revelatory dalliances with experimental drugs. Derrida’s “The Rhetoric of Drugs” would suggest this may have been the case. The concept of seeing outside of your own perspective to undermine the notion of an objective reality is critical to the Post-Modernist ethos. Foucault was a fan, “we have to try drugs, they are part of our culture”.   “This is how one ought to see,” continued Huxley when trying to articulate how he processed the world while on mescaline.  He articulated his experience as one of “Egolessness” and “Notself”, again advertising the virtues of viewing the world from a previously unseen angle. Of course, it is possible to maintain a sense of there being some universal values whilst acknowledging that getting outside the “self” can be a revelatory experience.

 

He referenced Pascal, pointing out how the sum of all evil would be diminished if men could “learn to sit quietly in their rooms” and enjoy their own company. MDMA, which is used to treat war veterans and couples with relationship trouble, has performed a similar role in modern society. It is generally not as trippy as mescaline, but it massively increases the empathy we feel for our fellow human beings and gets us outside our normal realm of reality. For Huxley, the “contemplatives (in society) are not likely to become gamblers, or procurers, or drunkards, they do not, as a rule, preach intolerance, or make war; do not find it necessary to rob, swindle”. At times, he veers off into whacked out, idealistic twaddle, yet there is a point there. In our “inner world, there is neither work nor monotony” he concludes, a place and time where the mind can think and philosophise.

 

At times, Huxley’s trip was borderline religious, “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation”. The image is evocative. It is not just Christianity that he references, he discusses the Dharma Body and the Arhat’s quest to exist as a perfect being. Huxley viewed mescaline as being a gateway enabler to transcendent experiences similar of that to which the out of body types that Buddhists may achieve. He writes of “Eden alternated with Dodona, Yggdrasil with the mystic rose”. Huxley points out how prevalent alcohol is in the Christian tradition and tries to imagine what it would be like if priests took mescaline instead.

 

Huxley wades into the, now well-treaded, question of why drugs are illegal and cigarettes and alcohol are not, advocating that mescaline really ought to be and questioning the double standard. To my mind, it is impossible to refute this. Even if you acknowledge that cigarettes and alcohol would be illegal if introduced now, the question is still, why? Assuming you do not hurt other people, you should  have the right, in a free society, to do what you want.

 

Huxley conveys the visceral, sensory overload of his mescaline trip, when he described how he viewed the flowers in his vase as the “qualitative equivalent of breathing” before going on to see a “deeper to deeper meaning” in them. Mid-trip, the “mescaline raises all colours to a higher power”. Huxley thinks cogently for large parts of “The Doors of Perception” about how important the processing of colour is to artists and thinkers, understanding that this sensory perception is separate to the intellectual one. However you process the world, heightening one’s senses is a liberating experience. There is hilarious titbit when the mescaline begins to wear off and Huxley saw a blue car outside. He looks at it and “laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks”! This is important. For all the artistic and creative plus points, taking mescaline is fun!

 

In “Heaven and Hell” Huxley critiques the art of colour and the colour in Art and design at length. It is a fascinating read. Truly, he was an exceptional essay writer. I noted down copious references that I had not heard of, adding a chunk onto my reading list. The vividness that the drug user encounters while taking mescaline is inextricably linked to how the artist perceives colour, “what the rest of us see under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful”. Mescaline can help the rest of us to open the doors of perception.

 

 

Huxley believed, with historical logic on his side, that takings drugs were something that the human species has done “systematically, from time immemorial”. It is true. The whole war on drugs farce was doomed to fail when you consider humans have always, and always will, use them. There is a rock solid economic reason too. Supply and demand. Governments can try their hardest to stem the supply, but until demand stops, they will be fighting a losing battle. Safe regulation is the only way to go. We should have the freedom to choose. Leave the government out of the argument, they should not be stopping people from enjoying these experiences. The “Doors” in “The Doors of Perception” came from William Blake’s 1793 work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and signified how we need to break through the doors in the walls of our mundane lives. Huxley decried that there is “no place for valid transcendental experiences” in society yet beseeched us that there should be. Moreover, are said “transcendental experiences” not merely Art in another guise?  It kind of reminds me of the famous Dali quote when an interviewer asked him, “Do you take drugs?”, to which Dali replied, “I am drugs”. J.G. Ballard, in his excellent preface, analyses how Huxley recognised that, over generations, our subconscious has evolved for mostly utilitarian purposes, and that this closed us off to the sensory wonders in life. He hypothesised that experiences such as those on mescaline could help bridge this gap in our evolutionary cycle.  We are still trying to break on through to the other side in that regard.

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Review: “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

Introduction:

 

 

The story begins in September 1910 in the Hebrides as the “rooks (were) dropping cool cries from the high blue”. “To the Lighthouse” is a Brobdingnagian success. Woolf’s use of words was nothing sort of sensational. This 1927 masterpiece is replete with some beautiful descriptions and comparisons. So much so that, at times, the plot seems entirely superfluous! The vast swathes of stream of consciousness make the novel meander like a gentle old river winding in and out of towns, occasionally dropping its old, brown sediment on the river floor. Each sentence is its own systematically constructed, self-contained jigsaw. Read it for reading’s sake. It baffled me when I read that Woolf dismissed “Ulysses” as “brackish, pretentious, and underbred”. I think of them as kindred spirits. Like Joyce’s works, I always endeavour to read the inner monologue style of writing in one sitting if I can. Clearly, this is not always possible. It took me months to read “Ulysses” for the first time.  It is much more realistic, manageable and rewarding to do so with “To the Lighthouse”.

 

Primarily, I read this novel as a homage to a bygone era. It is a quintessentially British affair, where society  has rendered the characters unable to articulate their feelings openly. Consider the dinner Mrs. Ramsey puts on where all the guests stare at each other, whilst simultaneously “each knowing exactly what the other felt”. “To the Lighthouse” stands like a sculpture of a reminder of an epoch that has passed. That the novel is set over an extended period of time is important as it explains how Woolf is writing as the definitive voice of her generation. It is surely a positive thing that present day society has liberalised and we can now communicate candidly in a more tolerant and open society. I remain mystified by those dunderheads who convince themselves that this time was a golden period. That they are mostly men is telling.

 

Leaving aside the pure joy there is to be found by revelling in Woolf’s lyrical flow, the substance of what she wrote about was of equal import. She was on point about the role of women in society, Art and the passing of time. The character development and analysis here is wondrous. Unquestionably, Woolf is one the key voices of the Twentieth Century.

 

 

 

Feminism:

 

 

 

Mrs. Ramsey dearly wishes that her daughters “sport with infidel ideas” that may result in them having “a life different to hers”. Woolf knew that it was too late for her generation to break the cast. Equally, she could sense that change was in the air. I wonder to what extent Mrs. Ramsey is autobiographical. That she passes away throughout the story is revealing- her generation is fading out. Mrs. Ramsey’s function is to spark her children and those around her into action. She imagines, “perhaps a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other” for her female children. She rallies against her role of having to take care of Mr. Ramsey, longing to break free throughout. He is a chauvinistic brute that made her believe that “she was not good enough to tie his shoestrings”.

 

Of course, it is not just Mr. Ramsey that looks down on women, “there was Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear (that) women can’t paint, women can’t write”. This phrase is repeated multiple times for repetitive effect. So much so that the women begin to hear these misogynist remarks even when there are no men present. The point is deliberate and cuspidate, women cannot write and cannot paint. Tansley is the man who is determined that he was “not going to be condescended to by those silly women”. This was a repressive world for women.

 

Mrs. Ramsey thinks that men only look at her “for her beauty”. Having eight children means that she never has time to pursue her artistic and creative side. All society requires of her is her “beauty” so that she can reproduce.

 

After she has passed away, Mr. Ramsey begins to sleaze on Lily Broscoe, “demand(ing) that she should surrender herself up to him entirely”. Lily, being a painter, represents a break in the chain of women being subservient to men. She is not a mere reproductive vehicle and does not feel the need to identify as such. She understands perfectly that Mr. Ramsey “liked men to work and women (to) keep house”. Coupled with the condescending remark that “the vagueness of women’s minds is hopeless” and it furthers the picture of him as a sexist dinosaur. He even derides his own daughter Cam’s inability to work a compass and, in the absence of a new Lily Broscoe like female figure to replace Mrs. Ramsey, expects her to heed “his dominance (and) submit to me”. This attempt by him to dominate his children as much as he did his late wife is Woolf highlighting the patriarchy’s violent need to keep the system in place. The language Woolf used to describe Mr. Ramsey becomes increasingly violent and as the story progresses, we learn that he had previously thrown a plate out the window because he had found an earwig in some milk that Mrs. Ramsey had put on the table for him. He needs women to be subservient to exist. He is the patriarchy.

 

The lighthouse symbolises a way out of the patriarchy. That is why Cam goes there.

 

Perhaps the best description of men is when Woolf describes men as being like an “acrid scimitar”!

 

 

Writing style

 

 

Two of my favourite pieces of prose:

 

“This admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and that, like iron girders spanning the fabric, upholding the world, so that she could trust herself to it utterly, even shut his eyes or flicker them for a moment, as a child staring up from its pillow winks at the myriad layers of the leaves of a tree”. Intricate and beguiling.

 

“Then indeed peace had come. Messages of peace breathed from the sea to the shore. Never to break its sleep anymore, to lull it rather more deeply to rest and whatever the dreamers dreamt homily, dreamt wisely, to confirm – what else was it murmuring- as Lily Broscoe laid her head on the pillow in the clean still room and heard the sea. Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said”.

 

The whole novel is filled with some breath-taking prose and interesting simile’s, “She saw his anger fly like a pack of hounds into his eyes”.

 

 

Art:

 

 

The theme of Art is a constant, playing out neatly against the backdrop of time passing by. Sadly, Mrs. Ramsey “never had time to read (books)”. This is a recurring theme throughout. Recall when she tried to read at night but “there were only a few lines more, she would finish the story l, thought it was past bed-time”. Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsey, via the patriarchy, is afforded the opportunity to read voraciously throughout.

 

The painting that Mr. Ramsey “scientifically” evaluates is that of a mother and daughter which he is symbolically unable to appreciate. The only picture in his Art collection that is worth more than he paid for it, is the Banks of Kennett, where his wedding had taken place. It seems that he was only capable of appreciating Art if it was in some way relevant to him. 

 

When Lily Broscoe returns to an idea she had for a painting ten year previous, she opines about her “brush, the one dependable thing in a world of strife”. Roscoe also associates creating Art with the search for the meaning of life, making its importance paramount.

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

Should one read books twice? My general take on the matter is that life is too short. Yet the older I get, the more I find myself returning to familiar classics. There must be an exceptional quality to make me return though. It needs to have an everlasting appeal and has to exercise my brain. In a sense, the very act of returning to an exceptional novel may be a clue in and of itself. Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” fits the bill. The timelessness and beauty of the prose combined with the delicate manner that Woolf treats the ageless themes of Art and Gender are reasons enough to keep returning.

 

Mrs. Ramsey did not complete her journey to the Lighthouse. She died trying.

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Review: “The Man Within” by Graham Greene

1929 gave birth to a significant literary talent with the release of Graham Greene’s debut novel, “The Man Within”. It is no masterpiece but remains a fascinating study of British society in the early Twentieth Century, an era when religion held considerable sway over people’s lives. The protagonist, Francis Andrews, is racked with the perennial guilt of a Catholic sinner. Sex was a sinful activity and Elizabeth was condemned as being of morally dubious character, merely for socialising with other men. Bizarrely, there are still some in the modern world who pine for this epoch to return. Undoubtedly, modern society has not changed entirely for the better, yet trying to replicate the Christian world as seen in “The Man Within” would be a retrograde step. We should not use religion to judge people’s sexual behaviours. The struggle that Andrews has with himself in “The Man Within” is what differentiates it from the millions of  other similarly mundane crime thrillers out there. 

 

The battle deep inside Andrew’s conscience rages from beginning to end, with one voice imploring him to do the right thing and the other saying, fuck it, just do whatever. There is the “sentimental, bullying, crying child” and the “sterner critic” that makes him doubt himself. There is an autobiographical component at play here too as Greene is expressing both the self doubt a writer has and the religious conviction, or lack thereof, that he lived with during his life. Greene thought of himself as an “agnostic Catholic” so, in that sense, Andrews journey in “The Man Within” represents Greene’s, in a Britain where the theocratic iceberg had just begun to melt.

 

Growing up in 1980’s Ireland, I caught the tail end of a similarly pious society, where the Catholic Church was trying to maintain its totalitarian grip on the populace. People went to Church but increasing numbers of of worshippers lost their faith. I always remember Pop refusing to genuflect on the pew at mass one Sunday morning. When I asked him why not, he said that he wouldn’t bow to anyone. Yet, there is something in the Catholic concept of humans being sinners that remains beguiling. Namely that we all sin is undeniable. Andrews cannot escape his fate, that of the original sinner. Confronted with his most important task in the story, to protect Elizabeth, fear roots him to the spot, “I will return” he lies to himself. “You coward!” replies his inner sinner. His failure to protect Elizabeth, thereby condemning her to death is typical of his weak behaviour, especially after his earlier betrayal of her. “The Man Within” nearly drowns in a sea of his own guilty actions.

 

Andrews criticises the “mechanical” sermon that a priest gave while performing at a funeral.  “There’s no use talking, you can’t get over scripture,” says Mr. Jennings to Elizabeth. Religion dominates the lives of the characters in “The Man Within”. Before going to trial as a witness, Andrews puts in an emergency call to God for courage. It is an interesting moment in the story and one that people can still relate to today, even in the largely secular world that we have created. There is something about that moment of death that makes us think about…our moment of creation. People also call out for their mothers when faced with death. Why? For all that religion is quite clearly irrelevant, is the concept of God equally defunct? I cannot get past the “how does something come from nothing?” question. I do not think that this logically means that there is a God, but it is an answer that we do not have. Certainly, it is a massive stretch to jump from God must have created something to the concept of religion and then creating theocratic societies. “The Man Within” symbolizes the human conscience, with “human” being the operative word. Andrews does not need religion because he has an inbuilt conscience. Was Greene pointing the way forward?

 

Atheism is very much in vogue these days, with the so-called “New Atheists” seemingly everywhere. Have they really added to the debate though? I am not so sure. Rabid atheism seems to me, destined to create a degree of intolerance towards people who choose to believe. The ability to criticise in a liberal democracy is an absolute right. Yet, the freedom to criticise needs to be balanced with the freedom to believe. The supercilious tone that so many new atheists take is not helpful and can result in people not being tolerant of other people. Old atheism seems sufficient to me. Believe whatever you want to believe, no need to force it upon people who genuinely believe that God created the initial “something”.

 

 

“How long have you felt disgusted for…only to sin again?” says the “harlot” in “The Man Within”, personifying how society had already, slowly, begun transitioning to a secular society. Andrews sleeping with her signifies how he is leaving his Catholic world behind. This desire to break free from religion is counter-balanced by Andrews resigning himself to his fate on multiple occasions, “I don’t care how often I fail, I’ll try again”.

 

Elizabeth justifies not leaving with Andrews, “It’s not what you call respectability, it’s a belief in God” to which Andrews retorts, “What’s he done for you?” This is another example of Andrews questioning his faith and longing for a secular world where he is not judged on who he sleeps with. 

 

Andrews believes that the only way to genuinely redeem himself in “The Man Within” is to shoulder the blame for Elizabeth’s murder. It is a desperate last act to atone for his failures. In a sense, it epitomises the Catholic failure of living for the next life. Andrews should have done the right thing and protected Elizabeth when he was able to. 

 

 

There is a hint of sexism at play when  Elizabeth is told multiple times that “you don’t understand”. Women were not treated equally in society. Furthermore, think of when Andrews recalls his father as a “domineering, brutal, conscious master” and it is easy to see how women were discriminated against.

 

 

There are some excerpts from “The Man Within” that embody Greene’s gift with words. Here are some of my favourites:

 

On Andrews attempt to evade Carlyon, “In a pathetic effort to be silent, pathetic with the pathos of a hippopotamus on dried twigs”.

 

Describing his England, “He became aware of the cottage again by the red glow of a hidden flame, which penetrated a little way into the white blanket of mist, with a promise of warmth, and calm companionship and food”. It is Greene’s paean to simpler times, “The olive-green slopes lay bare once more to the spring, which came as Jove to Danae in a shower of gold”.

 

Perhaps the best bit of writing was when Andrews “thought of the seasons they would see together. A summer, blue sea, white cliffs. Red poppies in the golden corn. Winter to wake in the morning to see Elizabeth’s hair across the pillow, her body close to his and outside the deep white silence of snow. Spring again, with restless hedgerows and the call of birds. They would hear music together.” Stunning.

 

 

“The Man Within” also exists as a standalone page rattler with Greene edging along the plot along at a tidy pace. Ultimately, it is a story as old as time, “I came because I love you” says Andrews to Elizabeth.

 

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Samantha Power “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”

Introduction: 

 

 

I cannot help but think that there is a chapter missing from Power’s “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”. Surely the European settler’s wilful elimination of eighty to ninety percent of the indigenous population can now be classified as a genocide in even the most opaque use of the term. This is not to say that Power has written a jingoist tract exonerating the United States of the most abhorrent episode of its history. Granted this book discusses Twentieth Century genocides so perhaps this explains the omission. Published in 2002, it also must be noted that Power went on to serve as the US ambassador to the UN while Bashar Assad was exterminating large numbers of his own people in Aleppo. Power was rightfully vocal on the egregious actions of the Russian backed Syrian army while they indiscriminately targeted civilians. The issue is that, merely a few months later, the US backed Syrian Defence Forces employed the same tactics whilst retaking Mosul and Raqqa. Granted, the administration had changed and Power was no longer ambassador. Yet, does anyone genuinely believe that she would have been putting in speeches to the UN condemning the US actions? It is a difficult scenario to envisage. This is the problem for the US. 

 

Power identifies how US moral authority was at a historically low ebb in the nineteen-seventies after the Vietnam and Cambodian Wars which resulted in them  failing to intervene when Pol Pot committed genocide after the US had stopped bombing Cambodia. Perhaps history did not repeat itself, but maybe it rhymed as Twain would say, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The illegal invasion under false pretences decimated the US’s moral authority throughout the world, and for good reason. The 2003 Iraq war made Obama afraid to act in Syria. Understandably it must be said.

 

The conclusion that I came to whilst reading this is that the US intervene only for their own interests and fail to do so when it is actually necessary and just. Power identifies the Armenian, Jewish, Balkan, Cambodian, Iraqi Kurdish and Rwandan genocides as evidence of the failure of the US to intervene on the right side of history. I would add genocides committed by Stalin, Mao and the Indonesian government in East Timor to the list too. It is certain that if the United States believed in intervening for moral and humanitarian reasons, they would have tried to prevent the millions of innocent lives lost in those countries too. This is without even counting the innocent lives that the US government has itself taken, which further complicates the matter. 

 

All that being said, this is a fascinating case study of US foreign policy. Power begins with the intriguing history of Raphael Lemkin’s obsessive desire to define the term, introduce it to the UN and then ratify it in the US. Having observed the Armenian genocide, he repeatedly warned the US administration about the holocaust before and after it occurred. Tragically, Congress was “uninterested” and chose to politely ignore the mounting evidence on the ground. There is no discussion of what Lemkin must have thought of the US dropping the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Mao and Stalin’s acts, this may not have met the definition of genocide, but surely it must be included in any discussion of the most brutal acts of the Twentieth Century? Indeed, the bombing of Tokyo and dropping of the Atomic bombs were surely two of the worst crimes ever commuted as civilians were deliberately targeted. As the only country to use nuclear weapons in history, the US left a lasting damage on the country and its psyche. I would have thought it merited discussion here when moralising about whether or not to intervene in another country. I visited Hiroshima in 2013 and observed at close quarters how they are still coming to terms with it emotionally and psychologically. The countless stories that local people recount of how the US army visited victims and carefully recorded their symptoms whilst not actually helping them is heart-breaking.   The obvious conclusion to come to is that the US tested out their weapon to see what the effects would be. Their subsequent rebuilding of Japan and Germany may disprove the accusation of genocide yet it is unquestionably up there with the rest of the most insane and violent acts perpetrated by any country in the last one hundred years.

 

 

 

 

Armenian genocide:

 

 

Anyway, let us stick to the strict definition of the word. Lemkin created it by taking “Geno” from the Greek word for race or tribe and combined it with “Cide” from the Latin word Caedere to kill. After creating the term, he fought tirelessly to get the UN to introduce it and on December 11th, 1946, it became defined as the “denial of the right to existence of entire human groups”. Sadly, this was too late to define the Turkish slaughter of one and half million Armenian people from 1915 to 1917, a barbaric act which they still deny to this day. While foreign minister for the Ottoman Empire in 1915, Talaat Pasha ordered the rounding up and murder of, at first, the Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. When the mass murder expanded to the rest of the Armenian population at large, Talaat then downplayed the Turkish role in the affair, repeatedly lying to the British and US governments about what was happening. Clear evidence of their guilt existed when they exchanging thirty- eight British hostages for eight Turkish people who were to stand trial for their war crimes. The Turks were determined and still are, that nobody be brought to justice for their actions.  Power makes the point that the United States knew exactly what was happening as the slaughter unfolded. They had the information and chose not to act on it. In fact, the United States ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau Senior, pleaded with the United States to intervene. This fell on deaf ears as Armenian citizens were banned from immigrating to the United States. The global community did not have any systems set up for identifying this type of heinous act in 1917. The constant denials by the Turkish leaders muddied the waters, a common tactic used by brutal governments. These factors meant that the Armenian genocide never received the coverage that it should have. A situation that led Hitler to comment years later, “Who remembers the Armenians?” This collective failure to acknowledge and act, emboldened future generations of tyrants. There was no deterrence in place.

 

 

Ratifying the Treaty:

 

 

When Lemkin died in 1959, the US had still not ratified the treaty. Whilst many reasons were cited for this, the main one seems to have been that they were worried about whether it would impinge on their sovereignty. This is key. They did not want to be accused of genocide themselves. Surely this was indicative of their mindset? Senator William Proxmire took up the baton for the US to ratify the treaty after Lemkin died. They had failed to act by bombing the railway lines that lead to the death camps in Nazi occupied territory during the Holocaust. Again, they had all the information to hand to prove what was happening. As the US stalled on ratifying the treaty, numerous other allegations of genocide around the globe surfaced. In 1968, Nigeria starved one million Christian Igbos and in 1971, between one and two million Bengalis were killed, including the rape of two hundred thousand women by the Pakistani military forces in their fight for independence. In 1972 the Hutu’s tried to exterminate the Tutsi’s in Burundi. Yet because the US was purchasing its coffee from Burundi at the time, they ignored it. While these acts were taking place, various voices would emanate from within the US government about how they had to respect the sovereignty of other nations. Given their unwarranted intervention in dozens of other countries, we can dismiss this easily. The US was one of the last countries to ratify the convention, with Reagan eventually signing off on it in 1987. There is an interesting parallel with the setting up of the International Criminal Court which was created in a similar vein. The US has still not officially ratified this either, despite indicating that it would. I doubt they ever will, as it would not leave themselves enough legal wiggle room to intervene in other countries as they would be in contravention of International Law. Power highlights a dominant and prevailing line of thought within many US administrations, namely that “foreign policy should focus on promoting a narrowly defined set of US security and economic interests and expanding markets” and should not be used “to undertake squishy, humanitarian social work”.

 

The Cambodian Genocide:

 

This is the quintessential example of why the US cannot take the moral high ground in these matters. Having killed nearly two per cent of the Cambodian population from 1969 to 1973 during “Operation Menu”, the US gave up any moral authority to act or even pontificate about Vietnams neighbour. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia during this period than were detonated during the entire conflict in World War Two. The US created the conditions in which a murderous communist dictator could take power.

Power writes how the US arming of Lon Nol, the American puppet leader, helped Pol Pot and his apparatchiks to take control,  as ordinary Cambodians just wanted a respite from the 540,000 bombs that were unleashed on them.

 

One point that Power makes throughout is the accuracy of the US intelligence services. They reported that a genocide would happen under Pol Pot. Yet, due to previous false warnings about how the same thing would happen after the fall of Saigon, people did not take the threat seriously. Lots of Americans believed it was more anti-communist propaganda. It is easy to see why Herman and Chomsky were so sceptical of the stories of mass murder emanating from inside Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. This is not to say that it was the Brains best moment, far from it. It proves how difficult it is to acquire truthful accounts about closed countries. 

 

It does highlight one lesson that comes out of situations where there are no media in war torn countries: that human rights groups are generally the ones to get it right. Amnesty International was set up in 1961 but did not have the logistical resources to be definitive in their assessments of what was happening inside Cambodia. Where possible, we should listen to the stories from the people fleeing war torn countries, and because human rights groups are frequently the first to document these accounts on the ground, it makes sense to heed what they say. So, speak to the millions of Syrians now displaced in Jordan, Turkey and Europe and the common theme is that Assad butchered any opposition to his rule. Similarly, when the French priest Francois Ponchaud began recounting the tales of how innocent Cambodians were being butchered by Pol Pot, the world should have listened instead of dismissing it.

 

The Khmer Rouge, whilst ruling Cambodia or the “Democratic Republic of Kampuchea” as they called it, systematically targeted ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Buddhists and anybody opposed to their rule, “Brother number one (Pol Pot) saw enemies surrounding him everywhere, enemies in front, enemies behind, enemies to the North, enemies to the South…enemies coming from all directions, closing in, leaving no space for breath”. Whilst the massacre was underway, the Democratic Senator George McGovern in the US, who had been ideologically anti-war became a “humanitarian hawk”. An interesting term that acknowledges the complexity of how to do the right thing. Does any country have the right to intervene in another? It is my opinion that they do not, unless there is evidence that innocent people are being killed on a mass scale. The only time an intervention can be justified is if it will save lives. In the case of Pol Pot, they should have intervened.

 

Vietnam ended Pol Pot’s reign by invading Cambodia. Incredibly, the US then backed the Khmer Rouge with weapons after it was overthrown. They also supported them diplomatically at the UN as they favoured the Khmer Rouge over any Vietnamese expansion in the region.  It took the US until 1990 to admit that a genocide had taken place, putting them firmly on the wrong side of history in Cambodia.

 

 

Genocide of the Iraqi Kurds:

 

 

The US support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war emboldened Hussein to act with impunity. The year after the US had ratified the genocide treaty, they sent weapons to the Iraqi dictator, supporting his genocide. Anfal Ali reacted to the US failure to admonish them by burning down Kurdish villages. In this case, we can say that the US was partially culpable for crimes against humanity, such as the Halabja massacre where five thousand civilians were killed by chemical weapons.

 

Hussein used the excuse that the Kurds had partnered with Iran during the war. However, he continued to burn down Kurdish villages and kill innocent Kurds after the war had ended. Power raises a crucial point about how the “Reagan administration (underwent an) endless search for evidence (which) provided a familiar fig leaf for inaction”. We see this today where people fret endlessly about whether Assad regime committed the Ghouta massacre. Again, listening to the human rights groups who speak to people on the ground is of paramount importance. Amnesty International wrote a report detailing the systematic torture and mass killing of 13,000 people inside the Saydnaya prison in Syria. Human Rights Watch has also been at the forefront of collecting evidence of the Regime’s brutality. The US did not even place economic sanctions on Iraq after Hussein had committed genocide, as they continued to let US businesses sell tractors to Iraq. The message was clear: we will not get involved if it affects our interests, economic or otherwise. Hussein murdered 182,000 Kurds. When the extent of the genocide was revealed, the administration did not even investigate the allegations in a detailed manner. It was left to Human Rights Watch to exhume the mass graves in Kurdish territory. The US was not bothered until Iraq invaded Kuwait, threatening their supply of cheap oil. Had the US been firm with Hussein in 1987, he may not have invaded Iraq which in turn may have prevented the illegal 2003 invasion.

 

 

Balkans conflict: 

 

 

The “top down attempt by Milosevic to create an ethnically pure Greater Serbia” was a systematic attempt at eliminating any non-Serbians after the breakup of Yugoslavia. After Bosnia became independent in 1992 and Croatia in 1991, Milosevic would go onto to kill 200,000 Bosnians.

There were up to 10,000 people killed in camps such as Manjaca, where Muslims and Croats were imprisoned. The usual denials of genocide emanated from the communist dictator. Senator Bob Dole was initially reassured by Milosevic and the George H.W. Bush administration did not want to intervene as they did not believe that sending in troops would solve the crisis, deciding that this was not a fight for the US. Colin Powell claimed that they would need 400,000 troops, a number so high that Power condemns it as a delaying tactic. This was the opposite of the 2003 invasion of Iraq where they deliberately misinterpreted the intelligence to suit their own agenda. Incidentally, the Bush administration called it “ethnic cleansing” and not genocide. This has become a contentious issue. Did Milosevic intend a kind of hyper nationalisation or a genocide? Power and most Western commentators seem certain that it was the latter.

 

On entering Office, Clinton did not act for months, which resulted in the biggest ever walk out in US State Department history, as they had witnessed this US inaction whilst simultaneously viewing evidence of men castrating and forcibly raping each other in the concentration camps. The Clinton administration repeatedly placed the blame on all sides, a classic distraction technique. Think of Trumps abhorrent failure to condemn the neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville or Corbyn’s blaming of all sides in Venezuela, while the government shot innocent protestors.

 

Until 1995, Clinton and Gore, whom Power termed non-interventionists, insisted that they had been correct not to intervene. Then, in July 1995, the massacre of Srebrenica took place where 7,000 Muslims were tortured and killed. 

 

From 1992 until 1995, approximately 200,000 people were killed. The US finally sent in 20,000 troops. Power states that the 45 Albanians who were killed in Kosovo in 1999 finally lead to the NATO bombing in March, which she alleges stopped the killing, deeming this the first time that the US had acted to proactively stop a genocide. Of course, it is impossible to determine what would have happened. By this stage, 1.3m Kosovars had been driven from their homes. 740,000 went to Albania and Macedonia as their houses were burnt and their identification papers destroyed. By the 3rd of June 1999, Milosevic had surrendered. No NATO lives were lost. However, Power does not mention the war crimes that NATO themselves committed, a revealing omission. It does not delegitimise the use of force to stop Milosevic. However, it is essential to be honest about your own actions if you want to, in any meaningful way, critique the actions of others. She does at least acknowledge that 500 innocent people were killed by NATO forces. Power interviewed a survivor, Drita, whose family was killed by the Serbian army, “You must understand we were going to be killed anyway, it was only matter of time. We knew it was better to die with a fight. NATO fought and now we, at least, are free”.

 

 

Rwanda 

 

 

If the conflict in the Balkans constitutes a questionable use of the term genocide, the Rwandan one is irrefutable. 800,000 Tutsi’s were killed by the Hutu’s. One of the main ways in which the US failed here was to refuse to jam the radio broadcasts by Radio Milles Collines. Frank Wisner advised against this on financial grounds, saying would it would cost the US $850 an hour. What cost, the price of human life?

 

Power cites the incredible Canadian General Romeo and Dallaire throughout. At this point, I simply must implore you to read his book “Shake Hands with the Devil” if you have not. It is an astonishing read about the utterly abject failure by the UN to prevent a genocide. He released a new book at the end of last year which I have not gotten around to yet.

 

Dallaire was proactively stopped from taking the machetes that the Hutu’s used to carry out their bloodshed before the murderous rampage began, as the UN did not want to be seen to get too involved. Burundi had recently seen 50,000 people murdered in a matter of days. Said Dallaire of that conflict,  “we expected around 50,000 plus dead. Can you imagine having that expectation in Europe? Racism slips in to change our expectation”. This overt racism was not confined to the UN. The US ambassador at the time, David Dawson, left Rwanda, leaving his chief steward and his wife behind. Both pleaded with him to help them escape, but both were killed.

 

At the insistence of the US and British governments, the UN refused to call the mass killing in Rwanda a genocide, despite the overwhelming evidence. During the three months when the majority of the 800,000 people were killed, Power claims that Clinton did not even “assemble his top policy advisors to discuss the killings”. There can be no more damning indictment of the failure of the US government than this. Furthermore, Power says that the US did not even intervene diplomatically. American lawyer and activist Randall Robinson, “I can’t remember any American foreign policy as hurtful, as discriminatory, as racist as this one”. In an extraordinary turn of events, Rwanda was on the council of the UN Security Council during the genocide. Clinton did not insist on their expulsion or shut the embassy until 1994. Rwanda was a cataclysmic failure of the US and the UN.

 

 

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

Power argues that the “American and European leaders saw that a State’s treatment of its own citizens could be indicative of how it would behave towards its neighbours”. Maybe, given their history, this offers an insight into why the US sat by and watched genocides unfold in other countries during the Twentieth Century.

 

The failure of the US to ratify the genocide treaty for forty years is also instructive of their moral position. As Power adroitly points out when analysing the Cambodian genocide, “drawing attention to the slaughter in Cambodia would have reminded America of its past sins”. Once again, the evidence is crystal clear, the US bombed Cambodia to near total destruction. They should not have. Then when they should have intervened to protect innocent Cambodians, they actually backed the Khmer Rouge, as they wanted to further their own regional aim of minimising the influence of Vietnam. This was another moral failure of the US.

 

The only time intervention in another sovereign country is justified is to save human life. When you look at the record of the US, you question whether this is even possible. Their record would suggest that it is not. Similarly, when you look at the global record of one country intervening in another’s, it is almost never justified. Any use of force must be justified by the country that intervenes and it is an extremely difficult proposition to justify. Certainly, in the case of genocide and senseless mass slaughter, the UN has a duty to protect innocent lives.

 

One key takeaway from Power’s book is to trust the testimony of the victims. Do not let governments on either side obfuscate the truth. As Assistant Secretary Holbrooke said as the genocide in Rwanda unfolded, “the search for intelligence is often a deliberate excuse to avoid or at least delay action”. Power concludes that this “lack of will” was the main reason that the US failed to act. This is true, although it is more important to emphasise that the US has acted in its own empirical interests. In 2001, Power’s report on genocide landed on George W. Bush’s desk. I think we can safely conclude, from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that human rights were not at the top of his agenda.

 

It is unfortunate, but maybe appropriate, that Power finishes her book by quoting the violent Stalinist George Bernard Shaw, who was not exactly a beacon of human rights himself. Much like the United States itself.  The hope is that they will be. Although not anytime soon, if the current administration is anything to go by. Sadly, the rising Superpower, China, does not provide a better alternative. 

 

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Review “Thirst” by Benjamin Warner

We never get to find out why the water runs out in “Thirst” yet the implication is clear. Sadly, we will not be able to unburden our global conscience quite so easily if this happens on Earth. We all share collective responsibility after systematically destroying our environment and we cannot say we did not have a fair warning either. Authors have been at the forefront of foretelling our downfall. “Thirst” takes its place in the deluge of recent dystopian novels. It is closer in spirit to Patrick Ness’s “More Than This” than say Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves” or Emily St Mandel’s “Station Eleven”, although the result is still the same: humanity as we know it is finished.

 

The narrative of “Thirst” is told through the eyes of former track star Eddie Chapman. The language is suburban, with some considered urban licks from Warner, “Someone’s headlights were lighting up and the dust swirled in a dramatic way”. Not spectacular, but sets the scene nicely. I enjoyed Warner’s turn of phrase when Mike Senior embarrassed the young couple, “Eddie could feel the heat of Laura’s blush”. Similarly, when Eddy is in his frantic, desperate quest for water at the stories climax, “It was strange the way his energy left him like a plug had been pulled at the base of his spine”. The prose is tight and occasionally delivered with aplomb.

 

The streams and rivers have all dried up, forcing communities to distil salt water from the sea. People drink their own piss to survive. The reservoir is burnt out. When Eddie and Laura cover themselves in ash to hide from a gang of vandals whom they have stolen water from, it is near impossible not to think of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.

 

The theme of religion is interesting. Steve McCarthy fakes being religious to extort water from Eddie and Laura. He harps on about how it is part of Gods plan to save them. Naturally, this is all nonsense and McCarthy turns out to be a huckster trying to stay alive. The point is marked and important. Religion will not protect anyone. Remember when Eddie dreams of how Laura’s father would speak to him about “God and faith” after he imagines informing him about Laura losing her baby. Laura’s father thinks only God and faith can answer the big questions we face as a species.

 

The main takeaway from “Thirst” is just how quickly civilisation can break down. Even before the crisis becomes serious, Eddie and Bill Peters end up in a physical fight over the dwindling water supplies. Granted, Peters is not seriously hurt at this early stage, but it makes me think of how precarious our collective society is. We have evolved to, largely, subdue millions of years of fighting instincts within us to live peacefully. I realise that statement may not stand up to scrutiny when you think of the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, the Holocaust and the Stalinist/Maoist purges. Still, “Thirst” highlights how even peacefully existing societies can degenerate into paroxysms of violence within a matter of days when basic resources run out.

 

An interesting parallel in 2017 is the Israeli government cutting the supply of electricity to the Palestinian people in the West Bank. Within a few short weeks, the number of murders and attempted murders increased dramatically. The implication is clear: when people do not have humane conditions to live in, violence is inevitable.

 

Logically, as we destroy the planet we have kindly been bequeathed by our ancestors, the resources will dry up just as they do in “Thirst”. We need to reverse the effects of Climate Change now. It is no longer enough to fail to meet our targets. Drastic action needs to be taken. Petrol, diesel cars and all plastics should be banned rather than focusing on hitting opaque targets. Let us focus on the actions we can take as a society and not just the goals. We are sleepwalking into self-destruction. How long before the water runs out?

 

When Eddie goes looking for the boy that he and Laura had found, he takes a golf club with him, the threat of savagery latent. The lack of water creates fissures in Laura and Eddie’s relationship, “there was no reason for them to be arguing like this” as Eddie says. Being starved of their resources did it. This year saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, another example of how a supposedly peaceful society can deteriorate within a matter of days. It is not something that we consider all too often. It should be.

 

The rule of law breaks down with similar alacrity in “Thirst”. When Paul tries to make a “citizen’s arrest” on Eddie for assaulting Bill Peters, the idea is scoffed at. Without a deterrent in place, Eddie kills Bill Peters. Once the first domino has fallen…

 

The civil unrest further unravels when Mike senior shoots at Steve McCarthy, who has brought water to…help! Tensions are sky high and the normal steps to resolve disputes have been replaced with the threat of immediate violence. Mike Senior’s wife Patti shoots him in the shoulder then kills herself, unable to live in this insane new world.  Mike Senior then begins firing randomly as he demands “all of” Steve McCarthy’s water. This selfishness and unwillingness to share is a hallmark of a societal decline. Survival instincts begin to override any sense of the collective.

 

How close are we to ending up decanting our own piss, like Laura and Eddie have to, in order to survive? Stephen Hawking, Yuval Noval Harari and a plethora of other writers and thinkers are sending out strong signals that our time as a species is limited due to there being “something deeper, something wrong with the earth”. We need to listen to our planet. Currently, we are living out Eddie’s pre-lapsarian philosophy, “it’s just nature you don’t have to think about it”.

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Review “Who moved my Cheese?” by Dr Spencer Johnson

A work colleague recommended this book to me some years back and I had completely forgotten about it, only to be reminded of it last year by a different colleague. I finally got around to it last week. In retrospect, my subconscious must have been hinting at me not to read this for a reason. It is truly dreadful.

 

It is written for people who cannot manage change well. Let me be clear, I am in no suggesting that I am in some way suggesting that I am an expert in changing. Far from yet. Yet, I have got my head around the fact that we are spinning around the sun on a rock, in space, hurtling into an uncertain future. This much seems relatively straightforward to grasp. Apparently not.

 

The story is about two mice and two “littlespeople” who reside in a maze. It is dark and their sole objective is to survive on a diet of cheese. Hem & Haw are the two littlespeople who stay in the same spot in the maze until their cheese runs out after it has gone mouldy. Hem wants to go looking for further supplies while Haw stays put. All the while, the two mice, Sniff and Scurry, had immediately learned that they had to journey into the dark maze to find more cheese and survive. They were able to change. Yawn.

 

There are a plethora of mundane aphorisms such as “if you do not change you become extinct”. There is the obligatory segment on overcoming fear, no book on management would be complete without this, “what you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine. The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists”. For that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know…

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Review “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath. 2004 Edition with a foreword from Frieda Hughes

I have no idea how I managed to misplace my battered and beloved copy of Plath’s “Collected Poems”, which contains all the missing compositions that Hughes omitted from the original 1965 edition of “Ariel”, released after Plath’s untimely death. I came across this 2004 release of Ariel, in which her daughter Frieda has written an intriguing introduction to. It is short but revealing. She does not take either side but does make a point of reproducing Ariel with the twelve poems that Hughes had taken out and also reproduced them in the order that Plath had originally planned, a key indicator in itself. This edition also has copies of Plath’s handwritten notes on some of the poems that were originally released.

 

Plath’s poetry is as shocking and visceral today as it was when I first read it in school in the nineteen nineties. The words scorch off the pages and laser guide themselves into your mind. It is difficult to imagine how people read it when it was first released. To date, I have never read anyone who writes about depression and mental health issues with as much honesty and directness. It is disconcerting at times. Throughout her life, Plath observed “unmiraculous women, Honey-drudgers” before pointing out that “I am no drudge”. You can say that again! In the introduction, Frieda recounts a story about her burning some of Hughes poetry. “Ariel” contains a number of themes that will beguile readers as long as people continue to read.

 

 

 

Mental health:

 

 

The honesty and bravery she wrote with endures. In “Tulips”, Plath describes her experience in hospital, “My body is a pebble to them” she wrote. “They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep”. The use of words is extraordinary. When I first read her as part of the supposed pantheon, her confessional style struck me as being completely separate to anything else out there. It still does. I do not think there has been a better articulation of the struggle with mental health than Plath’s thoughts about how “the vivid tulips eat my oxygen”. She envies the fresh flowers but can only see a normal existence in “a country far away as health”. There was no escape for Plath 😦

 

“Cut” may have been about the mundane injury Plath sustained in her kitchen, yet I cannot read it neutrally, “My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone”. She wrote with an airy sense of detachment as if her body was not her own. Maybe it was not. When she depicted her physical pain, it seemed to pale in comparison with her mental health issues. In “Elm”, Plath informs us she is “terrified of this dark thing / That sleeps in me”. Reading Plath makes me thankful I have never suffered any mental health issues and also reminds me that I have a duty to help anyone I know that is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with them.

 

 

 

Plath’s life as a Mother of a baby:

 

 

Is there a better opening line to a poem and book of poetry than, “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” from “Morning Song”? It is a line that has stayed with me. She described her new born baby as a “new statue in a drafty museum”. This museum theme continues in a poem that Hughes excluded in 1965, “Barren woman”, “Empty, I echo to the least footfall, / Museum without statues”. This concept of her living life in a museum is revealing. She elevated her daily life with her child to that of a permanent work of Art. The isolation and timelessness of the museum.

 

She expressed life with her young baby directly in “Thalidomide”, “All night I carpenter / A space for the thing I am given, / A love / Of two wet eyes and a screech. / White spit / Of indifference!” I adore this image of Plath trying to fit this screaming human being into her life as a curator in her museum.

 

My favourite single phrase she uses to depict her new-born is in “Lesbos”, where she wrote that Frieda was her “little unstrung puppet”. Wonderful!

 

Plath enunciated the resentment of a baby too, “We’re here on a visit, / With a goddam baby screaming off somewhere. / There’s always a bloody baby in the air”. The frustration and anger seep off the page. Some of this antagonism was clearly being levelled at the cheating Hughes too.

 

Plath is devastating about her married life with Hughes in “The Applicant”, “It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk”…”Will you marry it, marry it, marry it”. The repetition purposeful and pointed.

 

 

Life and Death:

 

 

You can listen to Plath read plenty of her poems for free on Spotify and Soundcloud. She discussed her inspiration on “Comments on Poetry”, speaking about how she liked to draw inspiration from personal events that she experienced and then relate them to global situations such as the Holocaust or Hiroshima. In “Lady Lazarus”, she treats her life like the Nazis treated their prisoners, “My skin / bright as a Nazi lampshade”. Aside from the dramatic effect, it is sad to think that Plath viewed herself as inhuman.

 

 

The fascist overtones continue in “Fever 103”, where she details, “Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash”. It must be pointed out how shocking the word “Nazi” was even when I read it for the first time in the nineties. For a person to describe their life in these terms was unheard of. The word “Nazi” is now so utterly overused that it has lost all meaning. Godwin’s law is something that irritates me immensely. I cannot scroll Twitter without seeing the term being misused. As Orwell put it, the term fascist has lost all meaning. Did Plath add to that by normalising it when writing about her life?

 

In “A Birthday Present”, she wrote “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. / After all, I am alive only by accident. / I would have killed my self gladly that time any possible way”.

 

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

I have only covered a tony number of topics that Plath dealt with in Ariel. It really is an all-encompassing, with each poem as intriguing as the one before it. “Ariel” is undoubtedly her poetic masterpiece. I did not even go into detail about “Daddy”! One of my favourite poems. “I could never talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw”, she wrote of her relationship with her father. “I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe”. A terrifying image. She dubbed her father a “Panzer-man”. It is the standout poem from a standout poet from her standout collection.

 

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