Sunday, July 31, 2022


A Most Abstract Dream

Both the fate of my ship and the fate of the Ukrainians somehow hung in the balance.

My charge was to complete a Japanese spiritual ritual that was supposed to replicate an old myth in which the Spirit of Water, as the highest of the natural elements, defeated all of the lesser ones.

I knew that my performance of this ritual would be feeble because of my relative cultural ignorance and my lack of experience, but I also knew that the performance would be accepted because of the sincerity, the seriousness of purpose, with which it was offered.

Thursday, July 28, 2022


You Are In the Netherworld

But only as a temporary parking place.  You are male, unalterably it seems (not that there's anything wrong with that).

In your next return trip, your trial will be to cope with fame without allowing your fame to go to your head.  You will be given a choice among four incarnations only:  (1) Franklin Delano Roosevelt; (2) Antonio Carlos Jobim; (3) Duke Ellington; and (4) Thomas Edison.

Whom will you pick and why?

Tuesday, July 19, 2022


It Seems a Paradox

That at this moment of maximum frailty, of maximum existential dread even, she would ask for the power to bless all creatures great and small, all men and women great and small in particular.

But she is an instrument of the blessing, not the ultimate hand behind it.  She is blessed with the power to bless.  It is one of the ways in which the humble are exalted.  (Father Zosima in Karamazov of course comes to mind.)

Some have argued that the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are mistakenly translated.  It is not "Blessed are the meek" but rather "Beloved are the meek."  Perhaps, in the foundational text, one word captures both meanings, or there is a single meaning that we followers have artificially cloven.  "It comes to the same thing" I want to say.

Friday, July 15, 2022


Kotkin and Catalonia

In "Homage to Catalonia," George Orwell tells the fascinating tale of his time in Spain fighting the fascist forces of Franco in the 1930s.  Such service was romanticized by Ernest Hemingway and many others in the West who took up arms. In Orwell's case, he escaped doom twice, which naturally tempered his romanticism.  The first time was conventional -- he took a bullet through the neck and was left at the mercy of dubious Republican medical services.  The second came to pass when he and his wife -- British citizens -- were placed on a list of those to be arrested, not by the "bad guys," but by the same Republican government with which Orwell was allied, a government which, in an echo of the Russian show trials («показательние процессы») then taking place in Moscow, tied the far-left faction under whose banner Orwell was fighting to Leon Trotsky, and fantasized that the far left and the far right were engaged in a giant conspiracy to subvert the global Communist aims of Joseph Stalin, who was supplying much needed arms and other material to the Republic.  In fact, there were many factions allied against the Nationalists in Spain.  Orwell had chosen his, which was called "POUM," almost on a whim.  The Republicans knew that POUM was not conspiring with Franco, but cynicism and desperation led them to cave to Stalin, just as cynicism and desperation led his domestic comrades to point fatal fingers at countless Russian victims of the terror, some of them Stalin's personal friends and life-long fellow travelers.

Thus "Catalonia" helps us to understand what nation-state served as Orwell's model for the nightmare controlling authority he fashioned in "1984."  There was not one model, it's true, but the clear commonality with Soviet Russia led to the suppression of that most famous of Orwell's books in many Western circles.  Orwell never gave up the allegiance to the left that had led him to Spain, but his vision of it was clear.

Stephen Kotkin, in his biography of Stalin, explains how direct was the dictator's hand in orchestrating the events that nearly cost Orwell his freedom and perhaps his life.  Kotkin also points out for us that at the very same time that he was engaged in these machinations, Stalin was exercising veto power over the Reds in China in his capacity as leader of the global Comintern.  Those Communists were wrestling with the question whether to concentrate their efforts against Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist government or rather against the imperial designs of the Japanese.  Stalin intervened to save Chiang's life after he was arrested and given over to his great enemy -- Mao Tse-Tung. Kotkin is not given to wild speculation, but he permits himself a tempered speculation that had Stalin not so intervened, Japan's next imperial moves might have been directed against northern China and not against targets in the Eastern and South Pacific, including Pearl Harbor.

Madrid and Barcelona are a long way from Nanking and Tokyo.  Yet this was Stalin's chessboard during the period when, in Kotkin's words, he was "waiting for Hitler," a period we tend to think of as a lull before the real action came into play with the invasion of Poland on Sept 1, 1939 and, more directly for Stalin, Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941.  How then can we reject Kotkin's central premise that Stalin was indeed the "essential man" of the bloody 20th century?

Tuesday, July 12, 2022


A Gangster Writ Larger Than All Others

I am immersed in the second volume of Stephen Kotkin's colossal three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin, which is called "Waiting for Hitler."  (The third volume is in development.)

The picture that emerges has much in common with Tony Soprano - an utterly ruthless and ambitious man, but a complex one.  The suicide of his wife and the assassination of his best friend Kirov seemed to affect him deeply.  (The Kirov murder precipitated the great purges of 1936-38.)  He was a genuinely committed Communist, but he feared that a purer form of Communism, inspired by Trotsky, would emerge out of Spain and sweep him away.  (George Orwell was a victim of this high-stakes family squabble.)  He had a very large personal library, and the books were not "for show."

If Russia had been the size of Latvia or Estonia, Stalin arguably would be remembered as a mere Tony Soprano.  What distinguished him was the geographic scale of his playing field, from Finland to Vladivostok and the Black Sea. Seven hundred thousand Russian soldiers were lost just in the encirclement of Kiev early in WWII.  Twenty thousand rail cars were needed to move Russian industrial capacity east of the Urals after Barbarossa.  Millions of peasants died in the forced collectivization and "dekulakization" of the early 1930s.  Millions more were shot by the NKVD, most often victims of paranoia or petty score settling.  Paranoia and petty score settling trickled down from the top.

It is not as if Tony Soprano could have been handed the reins of such an enterprise and ridden the beast for as long, or as effectively, as Stalin did.  Stalin had colossal energy and an iron will on the same scale, as well as, it seems, little or no remorse.  Thus he became the greatest figure of the 20th century.  When he died, his people descended into paroxysms of grief and even panic.  Who could possibly step into his shoes?

Friday, July 8, 2022


Her Beauty Shines Bright

It's the incandescent kind.  Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Scarlett Johannsen. But it's a burden for her to be seen through such a lens and only such a lens.

Her mind is constructed like a fine old clock.  It cannot help but see the world clearly.  She has read "Chilly Scenes of Winter" and much more.  A change of "attitude" will not Disneyfy the actual world.

She can rest reliably in the cocoon of her husband's arms, as he can rest in hers.  But even then the clouds are sensible, if not seen.  She knows that there is such a thing as a 100-year flood, and that it is highly unlikely that the flood will wait for 99 years before it sweeps the cocoon before it, just as it is highly unlikely for the die to show the number six only on the sixth roll.

And so, from time to time, I pray that she never take matters into her own hands, thinking that it is best to exercise agency if nothing else.