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Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

The second wisest [Babylonian] custom is this: they carry those suffering from illness into the agora, for they have no use for physicians. And coming there to consult with the sick about their illness are any who have suffered from the same disease or who have seen others doing so, consulting and exhorting how they or others flushed out the disease. And it is not permissible to walk past the sick person in silence, before having asked after the illness.

δεὺτερος δὲ σοφίῃ ὅδε ἄλλος σφι νόμος κατέστηκε: τοὺς κάμνοντας ἐς τὴν ἀγορὴν ἐκφορέουσι: οὐ γὰρ δὴ χρέωνται ἰητροῖςι. προσιόντες ὦν πρὸς τὸν κάμνοντα συμβουλεύουσι περὶ τῆς νούσου, ἔι τις καὶ αὐτὸς τοιοῦτο ἔπαθε ὁκοῖον ἂν ἔχῃ ὁ κάμνων ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε παθόντα, ταῦτα προσιόντες συμβουλεύουσι καὶ παραινέουσι ἅσσα αὐτὸς ποιήσας ἐξέφυγε ὁμοίην νοῦσον ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε ἐκφυγόντα. σιγῇ δὲ παρεξελθεῖν τὸν κάμνοντα οὔ σφι ἔξεστι, πρὶν ἂν ἐπείρηται ἥντινα νοῦσον ἔχει.

(Histories 1.197)

It is probably for the best that Herodotus didn’t live in the age of the internet.

What’s Making Me Happy: The Good Place

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.

Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.

Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.

All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.

Still Midnight – Denise Mina

It is Ramadan in sleepy, suburban Glasgow when a brutal home invasion staged by Pat and Eddie (two white men) throws everything into chaos. They are demanding two million pounds of the Anwar family, which seems to not have access to such resources and accidentally fire a bullet through the hand of the family’s youngest daughter before kidnapping the patriarch, Aamir, declaring it to be retribution for Afghanistan, and fleeing into the night. Of course, the family is from Uganda. Is the middle-class veneer hiding deep pockets full of illicit activity, is the home invasion a hate crime, or is there something different going on altogether? This is what detective Alex Morrow needs to find out while Aamir Anwar is still alive, if only her superior would give her the lead of the case instead of passing it to his (male) protege.

Mina gives approximately equal space to the stories of Alex Morrow, Aamir Anwar, Pat and Eddie (the kidnappers). The first two make sense, the former because she is our protagonist, and the latter because it is clearly foreshadowing that will have agency in his escape. The last inclusion is made for Pat because of a romantic angle to his story, but largely dissipates the tension that the best crime novels create because the reader knows more about the mystery than does the protagonist. Far be it from me to reject this story structure entirely, but it struck me as representative of larger problems with the book.

I picked up Still Midnight looking for a good crime novel written by a woman since that has been my resolution for the month. In small ways the book met my expectations, with a female protagonist who has to deal with rude coworkers, micro-aggressions, and with an eye for details I’ve not seen in male-written books in the same genre.

My problems arose when the story veered from Alex Morrow’s role in the case because much of it came across as half-realized or far-fetched. For instance, there are multiple plot threads that deal with Alex’ relationships outside the police department, including a failing marriage caused by a recently deceased child that felt airlifted into the story and a half-brother criminal who is loosely connected to the case. Both relationships could be seen as filling in parts of Alex’ character, but they don’t seem to fit into this story. Similarly, Aamir gets flashbacks to his escape from Uganda and the horrors that beset his mother, but while the scenes are moving, they aren’t exactly central to the plot. Then there is a strange, sudden, and largely unexplained romance between Pat and one of the family members. I could go on (e.g., the lack of a sense of place, the lack of depth to the characters other than Alex, how the case returns to Alex seemingly because her colleague doesn’t feel like dealing with paperwork), but will let it rest.

Still Midnight was extremely frustrating. I wanted more of Alex and a fuller sense of her Glasgow, perhaps with the tension building to a breaking point with her husband and her job as she fought these conflicting interests. Instead, Still Midnight offers a promising start, but devolves into a shallow drama punctuated by interesting moments, featuring a too-large cast of uninteresting characters.

ΔΔΔ

Continuing with my month-plus of only reading books written by women, over the weekend I started reading N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-award winning novel The Fifth Season. In short: it is mind-blowingly good, combining her penchant for interesting world-building with a leap in the poetry of her writing. I’ve been too busy to just read it in a single sitting, but it is so good that not being able to is making me angry. Stupid responsibilities.

Writing and Experience

When I find an author whose work I like, I tend to seek out everything I possibly can from that person. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly in genre fiction where I can be turned off by a particular premise, but working through an author’s catalogue is my general m/o. In part this habit is a way to hedge my bets that I will enjoy each new book I pick up now that I have basically stopped re-reading books, but it has also led to an observation: writers improve.

Trite, I know, but true. Some authors may hone their craft such that each book in a series is more precisely paced and formed as though from an assembly line, but in others the craft of writing is more finely-tuned.

My favorite example of this is in Hemingway’s novels. His earliest novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) offer the classic examples of the spare prose style that is associated with him, but by To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and definitely Old Man and the Sea (1952), Hemingway had mellowed the harsher edges of his prose. From a technical standpoint, he had improved. Hemingway’s unfinished novels show similar improvement, even in their unfinished state.

More recently, I’m noticing a similar improvement in N.K. Jemisin’s novels, from her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) to The Fifth Season (2015). The former is excellent, refreshing for many reasons, the latter is a pleasure to read, almost poetic in its presentation.

This observation is not meant as an endorsement or indictment of any particular book. There are plenty of experienced writerly ticks that drive me insane and first books that set an impossibly high bar, but, nevertheless, experience is an excellent teacher. Why mention it, then? Simply because it gives me hope that, given practice, my writing will continue to improve too.

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

I am not particularly religious. I generally don’t begrudge people their religion and am frequently awed by the faith of others, but personally fall into the categories “agnostic” and “skeptic.” My fascination with holy books comes out of my instincts as a historian rather than in a search for answers. All of this is rooted in my personal philosophies and while I am happy to discuss them, both the philosophies and religion generally, I am not in the business of proselytizing. This was not always the case, but I have more interesting things to do with my time than argue about religion, provided that it isn’t being used as an excuse for bigotry.

It is for this reason that I do not feel a strong attachment to my Jewish heritage. I had a moment to reflect on this at my grandfather’s funeral earlier this year. He was particularly active in the Jewish community in Minneapolis, helping settle refugees among other things, and in his synagogue. I’d be best described as adjacent to Jewish culture—loosely conversant, barely observant, and mostly there for the food. I’ll light candles at Channukah and know a lot of the stories, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to services for high holidays and don’t keep kosher (the home kitchen is vegetarian, however). I’ve been to Israel on Birthright and attended Brandeis, but, as I thought about in January, this part of life that was so important to my grandfather is something that I could see from the outside, but never fully enter.

Here’s the thing: I’m Jewish enough. I don’t count myself a Zionist, I don’t look particularly Jewish, and I don’t attend temple, but none of that matters. For the purposes of the intolerant, rationalized with pseudo-scientific concepts of genealogy or loosely conceived and broadly construed labels about culture and lifestyle, I count.

Ultimately this post has been formulated in the tumult following the rioting in Charlottesville. In the past I have been largely indifferent to neo-Nazi posturing, not because it isn’t important (it is), but because “Nazis are bad” seemed to be one of the few points of consensus in mainstream American politics. Even with strains of Holocaust-denial breaking out like a bad rash that could never quite be eliminated, anti-semitism in the form of anti-Judaism seemed mostly benign, contained by social contracts. To follow through on the medical analogy, this sort of anti-semitism is chronic, but treatable and not fatal.

This is hardly an endorsement of anti-semitism, rather that I was more conscientious of other forms of bigotry, against African Americans, Muslim-Americans, women, and people who fall outside the hetero-normative gender and sexuality spectrums—i.e. forms of intolerance that, if not deemed acceptable, are more widely tolerated.

Now, I am not so sure.

Other forms of bigotry are still more common and that obviously makes them more dangerous, but it is becoming difficult to dismiss the increasingly visible anti-semitism. A recent poll showed that nearly 1 in 10 Americans believe that holding Nazi beliefs is acceptable. A glance at the numbers show a decent amount of noise in this poll; “only” 3% agreed strongly with the statement and it did not get specific about specific beliefs. Allowing for the undecideds and the somewhat-agrees to be mere defenders of free speech does not improve the situation because it means that a growing number of people are willing to tolerate antisemitism, and in this tolerance is a slippery slope toward tacit endorsement.

Throw this situation into a mixer with the polarization and toxicity that the internet can facilitate and a dash of a void in leadership, strained over easy access to weapons and you have a dangerous cocktail. Just this morning Brandeis University announced it is closed today because of threats sent by email.

Like the poll linked to above, the recent rally in Boston demonstrated again that many more people oppose these forms of intolerance than support them, but recent events have been pointing to a trend moving in the wrong direction. There are no easy answers or solutions, and the longer that the current political atmosphere persists, the more toxic things are going to get.

Let me offer two relevant quotations by way of conclusion.

“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, 1948

“No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
– Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770

Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb

Note: as this this the second book in a trilogy, there will be minor references to the events of the first book.

The second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy picks up roughly where Assassin’s Apprentice leaves off, with FitzChivalry, royal bastard, recuperating after nearly dying in the mountain kingdom. He was successful in ensuring that Kettricken managed to marry King-in-Waiting Verity, but the underlying problems—including the continued raids from the Red Ships and the ambition of Prince Regal—have only intensified. All is not right in the Six Duchies.

Royal Assassin is a long book, and felt it, with the plot covering a lot of ground. It may be effectively divided into two halves: one where hope for salvation comes from men, and another where the hope is straight from legend. In the first, Fitz works alongside his mentor Chade and Verity to thwart the Forged Ones and build a fleet to confront the raiders at sea. In the second, Verity leaves on a quest to find the Elderlings that legend says once saved the kingdom, while Fitz works with Kettricken to hold the kingdom together against Regal’s worst excesses as King Shrewd’s health fails. Bridging the two parts of the story are the continuing personal relationships that so defined the first half. Fitz courts Molly Chandler, reduced temporarily to a maid in the castle, but King Shrewd has other ideas about his romantic future. At the same time, Fitz has to build rapport between Kettricken and Verity who are so different, yet more alike than they care to admit, and negotiate a family drama between Chade, his half-brother King Shrewd, and Prince Regal where the first two are unwilling to accept that the third is willing to sabotage his own family to satiate his own pride.

There are of course more of these relationships, including another one with an animal, a wolf, that plays a critical role in the plot. Rather than parse these relationships in any sort of detail, though, I want to double down on the central point I made in the post about the first book, which is confirmed through the text of Royal Assassin. Fitz is adequate as a character, but what makes this story so effective in its first-person narrative is this web of relationships and the emotional connections they create (including hatred), whether through mundane interaction, through magic, or through their absences in the case of the Forged Ones. Hobb’s genius in this book is how thoroughly she develops the connections, so when they are ripped away, Fitz’ pain is conveyed all the more powerfully. Along the way, the reader gets a sense of both positive and negative relationships in a variety of contexts. If the humanistic purpose of reading is to develop emotional maturity, I cannot think of a fantasy or science fiction book that does this more successfully than this.

Royal Assassin relies on emotional tension enough that it frequently a difficult book to read, even as I became ever-more enamored of its craft. The story feels condensed because so much of the plot takes place in the same handful of rooms in Buckkeep, while, at the same time, there are two powerful threats. The one is nameless and apocalyptic, threatening the very existence of the kingdom as the Red Raiders bear down. Where other fantasy stories might make this the primary conflict, though, Royal Assassin doesn’t. Our central villain is the vain and influential Prince Regal, easily dismissed, but supremely dangerous. Our protagonists suspect what he is up to, but can’t prove anything and so are forced to largely watch helplessly while he schemes his way to the top—and proves better at doing this than at actually governing.

It is possible to pick nits with Royal Assassin. The conclusion, for instance, struck me as both too much like a variation on its predecessor and it suffers a bit from second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome, but its positives vastly outweighed the negatives and I am looking forward both to concluding the series and reading more in this world.

ΔΔΔ

I am really enjoying this month (or more) of reading books written by women. Last night I started reading Denise Mina’s Still Midnight, a Scottish detective mystery featuring detective Alex Morrow. Without being able to speak to the book’s overall quality just yet, I am already noticing subtle differences with, say Wallander, in terms of the types of details Alex attends to regarding her presentation.

Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

ΔΔΔ
Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

Wishful Drinking – Carrie- Fisher

Like real life is this other thing, and we’re always trying to determine what’s going on in this distant, inaccessible, incomprehensible place.

“What are they like in real life?”

“That happened in real life? Really?”

Stuff like that.

When I was working in Boston in 2008-2009 my then-boss went to a Carrie Fisher stand-up show, Wishful Drinking, giving it positively rave reviews. I missed my chance to see the show in Boston, but it has been hovering near the top of my list of books I’ve wanted to read ever since. A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a copy in my local library and so it became the first book in my month(+) of reading books written by women.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t a post where I write up reflections on a book with a personal anecdote, saving those comments for a final, reflective section, but if there is any book to invert this structure for, it is this one.

Wishful Drinking is memoir version of that stage show. These origins were particularly evident sometimes as it had a particular rhythm that felt spoken. It could be repetitious, with repeated phrases and punctuation designed to evoke the experience of watching someone perform. Mostly this worked; many of the pictures shown during the show are in the text, but it was also a constant reminder that this material would be even more spellbinding in the hands of a skilled performer.

But this is all prelude, without actually talking about what the book is. Wishful Drinking is a memoir that is candid about mental illness, fame, drug use, and the intersection of the three. Fisher doesn’t focus on a particular episode in her life, but ranges widely over her life and is by turns funny and heartbreaking. She is up-front about her problems, in terms of her personality and her mistakes, and, in the process, making light of the the discontinuities of her life. For instance, she talks at length about how her parents were famous and yet her family was decidedly backward in culture and her experience with becoming a sex-symbol at a young age.

Fisher has a relentless focus on her own experiences and issues without offering wider commentary in a way that might be construed as narcissistic. And yet I don’t think it is. Wishful Drinking is a slim and engaging read and Fisher holds her audience’s attention for as long as she wants it, whatever the medium. But neither is this memoir just entertaining fluff. The focus on mental issues is a poignant look into otherwise invisible problems that are only slowly becoming appreciated.

Along the way, Fisher delivers observation after observation about the intersection of class and fame, illness and profession. The one that leads this post stuck out because it is one that seems particularly important to the modern world where people’s professional lives are looking increasingly unlike they have in the past. College? Athletics? Graduate School? Academia? Writing? Each of these things are bandied about as processes from which one must eventually give up and join the real world. As though that isn’t what those people are doing.

Wishful Drinking lived up to my lofty expectations and I’ve added her more recent memoir about her experiences filming Star Wars to my list.

ΔΔΔ

Continuing with my plan to read more books by women, I finished reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter and have now begun reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin.

More political wisdom from Ancient Greece

In a speech alleging to defend his educational program, Isocrates offers the following political advice, to his errant pupil, Timotheus, in the form of a fictional dialogue. Timotheus’ tragic flaw, Isocrates suggests, was his trust that the people of Athens would recognize the services he performed, while others went about flattering them.

I (and others) frequently advise that for those who wish to engage in public life and want to be looked upon favorably it is necessary for them to do the things that are of the greatest good and to speak the truest and most just words, but neither can that person neglect consideration as to how everything they say may demonstrate their graciousness and philanthropy, since those who esteem these things little are considered by their fellow citizens burdensome and overbearing.

You see the nature of the masses, how disposed they are to sweet words, and better love those who indulge them than those who do well by them and (prefer) those who cheat them with joy and amiability than those who succor them with honor and solemnity. You have given these words no regard, but believe that if you attend to matters affairs abroad, then the people at home will look upon you favorably.

This is not so, and the opposite often comes to pass. If you please those people, they will not judge you by the truth of the matter, whatever you do, but will support you, overlooking mistakes and praising the things you do to the high heavens. For good will disposes all men this way.

καί τοι πολλάκις καὶ παρ᾽ ἐμοῦ τοιούτους λόγους ἤκουσεν, ὡς χρὴ τοὺς πολιτευομένους καὶ βουλομένους ἀρέσκειν προαιρεῖσθαι μὲν τῶν τε πράξεων τὰς ὡφελιμωτάτας καὶ βελτίστας καὶ τῶν λόγων τοὺς ἀληθεστάτους καὶ δικαιοτάτους, οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κάκεῖνο παρατηρεῖν καὶ σκοπεῖν, ὄπως ἀπιχαρίτως καὶ φιλανθρώπως ἄπαντα φανήσονται καὶ λέγοντες καὶ πράττοντες, ὡς οἱ το´των ὀλιγωροῦντες ἐπαχθέστεροι καὶ βαρύτεροι δοκοῦσιν εἶναι τοῖς συμπολιτευομένοις.

ὁρᾷς δὲ τὴν φύσιν τὴν τῶν πολλῶν ὡς διάκειται πρὸς τὰς ἡδονὰς, καὶ διότι μᾶλλον φιλοῦσι τοὺς πρὸς χάριν ὁμιλοῦντας ἤ τοὺς εὖ ποιοῦντας, καὶ τοὺς μετὰ φαιδρότητος καὶ φιλανθρωπίας φενακίζοντας ἤ τοὺς μετ᾽ ὄγκου καὶ σεμνότητος ὠφελοῦντας. ὦν οὐδέν σοι μεμέληκεν ἀλλ᾽ ἤν
ἐπιεικῶς τῶν ἔξω πραγμάτων ἐπιμεληθῇς, οἴει σοι καὶ τοὺς ἐνθάδε πολιτευομένους.

τὸ δ᾽ οὐχ οὕτως ἀλλὰ τοὐναντίον φιλεῖ συμβαίνειν. ἢν γὰρ τούτοις ἀρέσκῃς, ἅπαν ὅ τι ἂν πράξῃς οὐ πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν κρινοῦσιν ἀλλὰ πρὸς τὸ σοὶ συμφέρον ὑπολήψονται, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἁμαρτανόμενα παρόψονται, τὸ δὲ κατορθωθὲν οὐρανόμηκες ποιήσουσιν, ἡ γὰρ εὔνοια πάντας οὕτω διατίθησιν.

(Isocrates, Antidosis 132-4)

Timotheus was put on trial, found guilty, and given a staggering fine. Isocrates is a difficult writer and not always the most charitable to the virtues of democracy, often considering true democracy not that differently from how the founding fathers did—that is, fickle and dangerous—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong.

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa

What if the revolution became a business opportunity for a few rogues?

The Way to Paradise is a double portrait of outcasts, both of whom believe that their purpose is to help humanity transcend its limitations. First, Flora Tristán, the illegitimate child of a French mother and Peruvian father who grew up in poverty, excluded from her father’s inheritance. As an adult, Flora entered into a brutal and unwelcome marriage, bore children, fled to become a writer, publishing a memoir Peregrinations of a Pariah and a manifesto The Workers Union. Now, in the early 1840s, she is traveling around southern France in a vain effort to organize the working class. The second arc takes place some 50 years later on south pacific islands for which her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin, has abandoned his wife and children in pursuit of people untouched by western civilization. This pursuit, combined with eccentric tendencies, increasingly debilitating syphilis, and only erratic income from his paintings leaves him on the margins of the colonial outpost. Paul is convinced that Western society is strangling humanity, which can only be liberated through artistic expression that recaptures paradise.

Despite certain similarities such as skepticism of religion and their obvious blood-relation, the protagonists could not be more different. Flora has revulsion toward sex, a consequence of her disastrous marriage marked by physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and dedicates herself to a cause: uniting workers for the betterment of the oppressed of society—men and women both. This crusade gets her labeled a potential subversive, though, and Flora is stymied by the police and the church, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with her estranged husband.

Paul, by contrast, is the estranged husband, leaving his wife and children in Copenhagen and abandoning his once-promising career as a stock-trader for artistic inspiration first in Brittany and then Tahiti. Sex, Paul believes, is central to his artistic process, and so he takes up a succession of (mostly young) lovers from the native women who he also believes will bring him closer to culture unconstrained by centuries of “civilization.” His values, moreover, remain the same as syphilis ravages his body, making him increasingly repulsive to behold (let alone touch). As Paul’s health declines, he continues to produce surreal and spectacular paintings and sculptures that capture the sights and sounds of the south pacific, slowly becoming received as critical masterpieces back in France.

The Way to Paradise is a challenging book with deceptively simple structure. The novel unfolds alternating chapters between these two stories, but is also richly textured because the alternating stories a) parallel the events in the other timeline as the two protagonists wend their way toward the grave, and b) consist simultaneously of the contemporary events and character memories sparked by those events. Both characters, moreover, are given arcs that are difficult to read. Flora consciously makes quixotic choices, and her pain, both chronic and inflicted, comes through in spades. Paul is also in pain from his advancing and advanced case of syphilis, but it is harder to be sympathetic when this is (largely) self-inflicted and he repeatedly abuses his treatments. The difficulty of his story, then is in watching his distressing sexual politics, in one graphic rape scene in particular, but also more generally in his obsession with personal gratification that is at such stark odds with the legacy of his grandmother.

I struggled with The Way to Paradise at times, finding Flora’s story on the drab side and being troubled by the treatment of Paul with respect to both the search for pristine civilization and his disturbing relationship to sex. Part of my problem, I think, is that I was reading too much of the author in Paul’s appetite, which led to me to presume that this artistic vision was being presented as accurate. I was hasty in this, and the juxtaposition of the two plots goes a long way toward undercutting Paul’s artistic vision, even while the sporadic reports we hear from his agent back in Paris demonstrate its success. Watching Paul spread his STD across the South Pacific remains difficult to read and feeds his monstrosity, but nonetheless is central to balancing the two portraits. Whatever is one’s obsession, paradise is unobtainable.

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I recently finish my first installment in my August of reading books by women, Carrie Fisher’s short, funny memoir Wishful Drinking and am now reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter.