Out of control

Woodward Fear

Bob Woodward: Fear. Trump in the White House.  ISBN 978-9-526-53299-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I knew that reading this book would not be a source of joy. Though it is meticulously researched and extremely well written, its subject, as it unfolds, comes close to a political horror trip. Welcome to the White House of President Donald Trump aka @realdonaldtrump. In Bob Woodward’s book, he is more real than ever, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I will not go into the details of Woodward’s description of how amateurish the Trump campaign was organized, how he hijacked the Republicans and how willfully unprepared he arrived at the White House. The old warhorse of the “Washington Post” does it much better than I could ever do. I will not delve into the daily chaos that marked the White House after Trump had taken office, triggered by the president’s emotional tweets, the absence of rules and procedures, the exit of hundreds of experienced public servants and the arrival of ignorant nobs. Woodward has interviewed hundreds of people, and his fact-checking team must have spent thousands of hours verifying each statement illustrating the pervasive anarchy. It’s all in the book, and it’s worth reading it.

You may be asking why. Perhaps you think the worst is over, now that the Democrats rule the House of Representatives. I would like to temper your optimism. It’s not yet over. Trump has already profoundly changed politics in Washington, and one may even say that he has profoundly changed the United States. Here are a few take-aways related to the book.

Polarize the Nation!

Steve Bannon, the alt-Right ideological sharp-shooter, the brain behind Trump’s electoral success and the first presidential decisions in 2017, set the tone for the political dialogue in Washington: Polarize the Nation! Attack the establishment! Annihilate any enemy, left, right, centre! Republicans inside and outside Congress went along with that strategy. And many subscribed to it in the recent mid-term elections. Us versus them. No prisoners taken.

This style appeals to those who voted for Trump in 2016: Disenchanted people, with no optimistic outlook that the “American Dream” will ever become a reality for them. The forgotten ones in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt, in the conservative south, those for whom globalization brought unsecurity and often misery. These people and their legitimate griefs will not go away. They will embrace Trump again or anyone emulating him. For they have nothing to lose.

Life in the Trump bubble

Since Inauguration Day, the White House is ruled by a man who seems to have lost touch with reality long ago. He lives in a bubble, shaped by excessive TV consumption, Fox News mainly, by the yes-sayers around him, by rallies with adulating crowds and the absence of any knowledge about economics and politics. According to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump has the comprehension of “a fifth- or sixth-grader”, as Woodward writes.

Trump lives in a world where smoking factory chimneys mean progress and prosperity, where climate change is a scientific fraud and where the United States is a self-sufficent country, capable of handling all kind of challenges on its own. This makes it so easy to manipulate the president, with unforeseen consequences for the United States and the rest of the world. You just need to dangle the right type of carrot in front of Trump. Russia quickly understood this, Steve Bannon’s alt-Right too. That reminds me of that wonderful bon mot “Now we have them exactly where they want us.”

Outbursts and lies

Trump’s virulent attacks on all kind of multilateral agreements, from the “Iran Deal” to the Paris Climate Agreement and free trade treaties, have changed the international landscape already. Stockmarkets are wary of trade wars, while former allies will distrust the US government for as long as Trump and his ideas are around. And for good reason. There is no coherent foreign policy and there is no orderly policy-making process in the White House anymore. It’s all emotions. The president gets set up by CNN or the “Washington Post”, by the investigation on his ties to Russia, by a staffer taking longer than 10 minutes to explain an issue, and all hell breaks loose. Trump throws a tantrum and has to break something: a treaty, the relationship with an ally, anything.

Speaking about the Russia investigation, I relished Woodward’s account of the US president’s interaction with his lawyer John Dowd, who did everything possible to protect Trump from himself. To do so efficiently, he needed Trump to trust him, to faithfully recall what had been said and done during the campaign… are you laughing already? That’s precisely the point. Trump didn’t know, didn’t recall, didn’t trust. Dowd faced a pathological liar, for whom reality and fantasy have become one. One must assume that most of the time, the US president doesn’t know himself which of his statements are true actually.

Donald Trump’s presidency is about destroying the current order without replacing it by anything else – just for the sake of media coverage. Trump’s presidency is about an embattled ego, longing for recognition. Trump’s presidency is about Trump. Nothing else. The title of Woodward’s book stems from a quote of the presidential candiate: “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” Trump spreads fear, no doubt. But his anger and his destructive actions are the symptoms of a suffering man.

As Woodward subtly shows, Trump himself is filled with fear. The fear to fail. He was filled with that fear probably since he was a boy, growing up in the shadow of his successful father, the New York real estate tycoon Fred Trump. What makes Trump dangerous, is his fear to fail. It makes him weak too. The first step to counter Trump and his disruptive potential is to let go any fear, to think for ourself and to speak our mind. There’s nothing to fear except our own fear that makes us helpless.

A dysfunctional system, not unlike the White House, has been described by the composer Aribert Reimann in his opera “Lear”, based on Shakespeare’s play:

Lear – You are men of stone

Exploring an uncharted world below sea level


Jules Verne: Voyages extraordinaires: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (English title: 20 000 Leagues under the Sea) ISBN: 978-2-07-012892-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The ambition of Jules Verne (1828-1905) was to combine the scientific education of his readers with the pleasure of reading a thrilling adventure novel. The French writer succeeded marvellously, his books sold well, and quickly they became part of the classics of French literature. Verne was a visionary as far as science is concerned: His heroes flew into space decades before man had built a rocket capable to overcome the earth’s gravity, they explored the abysses of the oceans well before the technology of modern submarines had been invented. Verne had invented the genre of science-fiction literature avant la lettre and ranks among the best and most important European writers of all times.

I clearly recall my first contact with Verne’s fantastic worlds as a young boy. It must have been in the late 1970s in southern France, not far from Nice. I went shopping with my family at the first shopping mall I ever saw. It had a cart circuit on the roof – I made very big eyes when I saw it – and a movie theater. And so I watched “20 000 Leagues under the Sea”, shrieking in terror when the giant octopus grabbed the submarine with Verne’s heroes on board. I do recall nothing from the film, except this specific scene.

Curiously I had never read any of Verne’s novels up to now. I realized what I had missed once I had started with “A Journey to the Center of the Earth”. After the first pages, I had caught fire and read four Verne novels on a row, the last being “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” in the French edition of La Pléiade, beautifully illustrated, heavily annotated and with an excellent introduction. It was one of those books that I had trouble to put down; needless to say that it didn’t take me much time to read it.

I will not spoil your pleasure by giving away key scenes, but I will summarize the story nevertheless. In the late half of the 19th century from different spots in different oceans mysterious sightings are being reported. A giant whale? A man-made machine? Nobody knows, but everybody has an opinion. Some reports indicate that the mysterious object is capable (and willing) to attack ships, but the brightest scientists cannot come up with a convincing explanation. It is decided that an expeditionary team shall search the ocean and uncover the secret. Part of the team are the whale hunter Ned Land, the marine biologist Prof. Aronnax and his servant Conseil.

A dramatic event leads to a situation where the three heroes discover the truth behind the enigmatic sightings: The object is man-made. A technological miracle in many respects. Land, Aronnax and Conseil end up in a submarine named “Nautilus” and commanded by a mysterious man: Captain Nemo. His origin is unknown, his wealth unlimited. He sails the ocean and flees humanity, which seems to fill him with a singular hatred. A very intriguing man. Prof. Aronnax is fortunate enough to create a kind of intellectual bond with Nemo and slowly discovers the multiple facets not only of the submarine’s commander, but also of sea life as such and the hidden treasures of the oceans.

However, the three heroes are aware that being privy to Nemo’s world means that they will not be permitted to leave the “Nautilus”. While Ned Land develops quite a few escape plans, Prof. Aronnax is torn between his fascination by Nemo’s way if life and his desire to report the marvellous marine world that Nemo had made him discover and compels him to flee. Eventually they will flee, as to how and why and when – read the book! “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” is a real page-turner with a lot of suspense, at the same time Verne’s beautiful, elaborate language makes reading an almost sensual experience.

The “Nautilus” is the submarine of my dreams. Captain Nemo not only had a well-stocked library built into it, it also features an organ and a vast collection of sheet music. For all his hatred against mankind, he does not repudiate its cultural artifacts. Nemo names a few of his favourites: Weber, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Wagner and Haydn. Joseph Haydn precisely wrote an opera called “L’Isola Dishabitata”, that perfectly fits into the context:

A pocket-size opera inspired by Robinson Crusoe

Controversial notes about an embattled composer

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Solomon Volkov (Ed.): Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. ISBN 978-0-571-22792 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Such a thrilling book! Brimfull with interesting details and funny anecdotes. Written in a riveting style. My insight into the motives and emotions, my understanding of the brilliant mind of one of my favourite composers grew in leaps. A fascinating life, full of contradictions, marked by sorrow and joy, desperation and optimism, narrated by Dmitry Shostakovich himself. If only I could be sure that these memoirs are authentic.

Since the book was published by Solomon Volkov in 1979, the discussion has been raging. Is the story, as Volkov renders it, true? Volkov claimed it all happened very quickly, since the composer wanted to give his version of the story as he sensed hus own death. He and Shostakovich would have met between 1972 and 1973 for several lengthy interview sessions, and Volkov claimed to have scrupulously noted the composers memories, explanations etc. The manuscript apparently was smuggled into the West, and was to be published after the composer’s death. Volkov has been challenged by musicologists to share the original notes, which he refused to do.

So did Volkov make it all up? He and Shostakovich were well acquainted, and several witnesses confirmed that the two met several times to write Shostakovich’s memoirs. The common project’s goal was to portray composer caught between party loyality and creativity. To shed some light on the ideological constraints that Shostakovich sometimes accepted and sometimes overcame, at great personal risks, at least as long as Stalin lived.

Volkov shows the composer as a clandestine opponent to the Soviet system, his music being full of hidden allusions about Stalin’s tyranny. He casts Shostakovich as an implaccable accuser of Soviet (un)cultural policies, an eyewitness of the destruction of Russia’s artistic heritage in the name of “Socialist Realism”, the official cultural ideology. A riskless endeavour once Shostakovich was dead – he died in 1975 – and Volkov safely lived in the United States.

But is this Shostakovich narrating his life or Volkov narrating Shostakovich’s life? The New York musicologist Laurel Fay identified eight passages in the book which she asserts had been copied by Volkov from articles or speeches previously published by Shostakovich. This casts a shadow over the authenticity of the whole book. Volkov’s refusal to share the original notes, apparently reviewed by the composer, makes it hard to tell where Shostakovich ends and Volkov begins.

In 1990, the biographer Ian MacDonald published “The New Shostakovich” explaining the composer’s life and work within the context of Soviet history. The picture painted by Volkov gains some credibility, but it doesn’t mean Shostakovich said what Volkov wrote. MacDonald pointed out that the composer’s son Maxim, who had repudiated Volkov’s account while he still lived in the Soviet Union, had endorsed “Testimony” after his emigration.

Testimony, pitching the personal memory of an embattled individual against the official memory of an all-powerful state, is contentious to the last full stop”, MacDonald writes. He recommends to approach it with caution. The Soviet Union officially denounced Volkov’s book as a fabrication, MacDonald sees it as a provoking piece of counter-propaganda. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and remains fuzzy. That was the state of play then, and it will remain so for the near future, I guess. It doesn’t matter actually. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure, and, as they say in Italy: Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Since Shostakovich’s memoirs are such a controversial issue, let’s see, here is a controversial piece, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77:

Shostakovich crosses the desert of solitude

Zero K – a book I wasn’t ready for?

Don DeLillo: Zero K ISBN 978-1-501-13807-2 ⭐️ I did not understand this novel. If it has message, I did not grasp it. I appreciated DeLillo’s unique and intriguing language, which had struck me already when I read his novel “Underworld” (review here). But language alone was not sufficient to convince me. The novel deals with important issues like age, mortality, the power of science and father-son relationships. But what did DeLillo want to tell me? Perhaps I will have to read “Zero K” a second time, in a few years, when I have grown a little wiser.

I am tempted to say I might add ⭐️⭐️⭐️ after having read it a second time. It is a kind of premonition, I cannot get rid of. I am comforted by this review of “The Guardian” for the reviewer too struggled with “Zero K”. Knowing DeLillo’s oeuvre better than me, he was able to draw parallels to DeLillo’s earlier novels, and to identify those subjects, that are of primordial interest to the writer. So yes, I probably wasn’t ready for this book right now.

Reading the novel was a like a déjà-vu. I remember a piece of music written by Arnold Schönberg that I did not understand at all. I left the concert bewildered and, to some degree, horrified. It took decades for me to learn to appreciate his music, like his String Quartet No. 2 for instance:

Transcending tonality and harmony

What if Karl Marx was right after all?

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Jürgen Neffe: Marx. Der Unvollendete. ISBN 978-3-570-10273-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A colleague of mine once remarked that one had to believe in Marxism at least for a short time in life. Well, after my studies is was done with Karl Marx and Marxism-Leninism. Five years of political science had taught me enough to disregard both as out-of-date and as failed experiment with disastrous consequences for millions. But… my judgment may have been both too harsh and premature with Karl Marx. Since in 2018 the revolutionary philosopher would have celebrated his 200th birthday and since he has been born very close to my home country, I decided to read Jürgen Neffe’s biography on Marx. Quite an eye-opener as I quickly had to admit.

No, I will not become a defender of an ideology that I still consider as failed. Marx once quipped he may be called anything except a Marxist. But Neffe’s book connects Marx’ reflections on the evolution of a form of capitalism, marked by a quickly developing industrial society with most of the wealth detained by a handful of factory owners, to the present day capitalism characterized by an incredible power concentrated in the hand of stock markets, rating agencies and banks. The dependence of workers and the middle class on more or less wise decisions of an elite represented by investment bankers, central bank directors, stock market traders and shareholders is worse than anything that Marx had imagined. Proletarians, unite? It’s rather the wealthy elite that stands united against any form of substantial top-to-bottom wealth distribution resulting in an ever-widening gap between the very rich and the very poor, the famous one percent pitted against the 99 percent, criticized by the movement “Occupy Wall Street”. Has Marx been finally proven right?

It is still too early answer affirmatively. But when I read how meticulously Marx had studied the capitalist mode of production of his time I was stunned by the fact that many – not all – conclusions he derived from his observations still applied today. The proletarian world revolution obviously never happened. But the fact that today even governments are at the mercy of capital owners and stock markets is something Marx had anticipated. He was frighteningly right in this respect.

Neffe must be applauded for his endeavour to link Marx’ theories to the world we live in some 150 years later and to highlight that this great thinker is not yet out-of-date. This said, the biography as such is a fantastic reading experience: the evolution of Marx’ political thinking, the birth of the Communist Party and its many failures, the rift between Communists and Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchists, the important logistical and intellectual role that Jenny Marx, the philosopher’s wife played, the birth of the twin-like relationship between Marx and Friedrich Engels – so many interesting chapters catapulting the reader into the 19th century and making him relive an epoch of tremendous societal changes and challenges.

The detailed explanation of Marx economic theories obviously required a minimum of knowledge on how a national economy is run. Nevertheless, it remains an indispensable part of any Marx biography as it is not possible to dissociate the man and the theory. Only a mind like Marx could come up with such a theory at this turning point of his history. Historical materialism always was and still is a tough nut, but again, it is worthwhile to read since the comparison of Marx forecast and the actual evolution of history shows where Marxism underestimated the inventiveness of capitalistic societies to ban the Communist ghost haunting Europe and prevented a revolution in these countries that according to Marx were most likely to experience one.

Marx was an enthusiast of classical music, but unfortunately Neffe doesn’t mention whether he had any preference in terms of composers. That’s why I picked a contemporary of Marx, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, as a music teacher, supported the revolution of 1905 in Russia and defended the rights of his students to demonstrate at a time when the struggle between students and authorities became increasingly violent. In 1897, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Piano Trio in C minor:

Landmarks and memories of sunny days