Warning – Children Are Liable for Their Parents!

John Lanchester: The Wall ISBN 978-0-571-29872-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You are familiar with the feeling: You did something wrong, you begged for pardon, pardon was granted, but the feeling of guilt lingers on, the remorse remains palpable, a barrier between you and the other. “The Wall” is about guilt and it is about us and them. Us, well, that’s us, the present generation. Them, that’s our children, people like Josef Kavanagh and Hifa. What separates us, is the fact that we were born before an irreversible climate catastrophe occurred – the one we did not prevent – while they were born after “the Change” and into a world that is not necessarily worth living in.

For Kavanagh, us refers to the inhabitants of Great Britain, living behind a heavily guarded wall built all along the coastline to protect the country from a rising sea level and refugees fleeing their submerged home countries – them. Or as they are euphemistically called in the novel: the Others. Kavanagh and Hifa are Defenders, young people doing their duty on the wall, watching out for refugees that might approach the wall from the seaside and shooting them. Kavanagh is perfectly aware that if a refugee will come through on his watch, he will be put to sea and no longer belong to what he used to call “us”, but become one of “them”.

“The Wall” is about guilt and responsibility. Lanchester’s novel is a tough one. It pitches us against our children or rather it shows us how our present choices will pitch us against our children. The moral dilemma he sketches strongly resonates with my remorse for not doing enough against climate change, which may lead to a situation where our society will kill less fortunate people so that we may live. And I have to ask myself how I will justify my lack of action in ten or 20 years when I will be challenged by my daughter. A bit like our parents may have challenged our grand-parents by asking why they hadn’t prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The wall, as a construction, isn’t perfect, neither are the people defending it. First of all, there are not enough Defenders. After the Change the incentive to reproduce has dramatically sunk. Furthermore there are traitors among the Defenders, siding with the Others. Finally, there are so many Others, many more than there are Defenders. Courage, good planning, luck, desperation – all play a part when a refugee manages to get across the wall, and as Lanchester, says “Others who get over the Wall have to choose between being euthanised, becoming Help or being put back to sea”.

Help. Help are everywhere and do the daily chores for those who are entitled to a little luxury. Help have no names, no feelings and hardly any rights. They are an anonymous mass, owned by the British government, with their only raison d’être to serve as modern slaves in all but name.

The world Lanchester shows us is a gruesome dystopia and fascinating at the same time. An intellectual experiment masterfully narrated and leading to painfully interesting ethical reflections. The world after the Change being what it is, Kavanagh reflects his situation throughout the novel and his personality evolves with each new turning point of the novel.

Exposed to solitude, monotony and bad weather while mounting the guard, his only thought is to get away from the wall as soon as possible. When his squad enjoys a well-deserved rest, it begins to dawn on him that after his two years on the wall, he has nowhere to go to. He harbours ambitious, but vague dreams, at the same time he enjoys the comradeship among the Defenders.

Once Kavanagh has experienced a life-or-death moment, his personal life takes a new trajectory, which leads to the question of responsibility turned upside-down. What kind of responsibility does Kavanagh have towards the generation following his own? Finally betrayal kicks in, and Kavanagh’s ethical considerations become absurd. In a violent society where the “greater good” is more important than basic rights, life is reduced to physical and mental survival. Or so it would seem.

Taken together, all this should be enough to wet your appetite for novel with an exciting plot. I like Lanchaster’s style, and his familiarity with the weather on the British Isles shows the multiple ways to describe cold and wet and windy. I loved that since I experienced the combination of cold and wet and windy myself many times, and yes, there are many different types of cold and wet and windy. And since the weather is what it is, here or on the wall, I recommend a cup of tea and some lovely music from an Other who made it to London before the wall had been built. In the second half of the 18th century, Jacob Kirkman wrote his lovely Sonata I in A Major:

Chamber music from a continental immigrant

Following the Mendelssohn Family

Diane Meur: La carte des Mendelssohn ISBN 978-2-253-06894-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Being an author is no trivial thing. When I was young, very young, I had the fantasy of becoming such an author. I believed I had a message and I wanted to write a book about it. I quickly realized my message was trivial – something about youth and rebellion – and once I had understood how much patience is required to research source material, to organize the work and to actually write a book, I was dissuaded to write anything exceeding in length my MA thesis to finish my studies.

Unlike me, Diane Meur didn’t back away from the challenge. She researched the ups and downs of the lives of the Mendelssohn family, starting with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and following a millions streams flowing from that genealogical source. She got confused by all the material as one could have predicted, she dropped the project, took it up again, drifted away from the subject and came back – and in the end she wrote a lovely book less about the Mendelssohn family and much more about her discovery of the Mendelssohn family, allowing every now and then for a detour, narrating her emotions, her daydreams, her philosophical musings.

Experts on the Mendelssohn family will not discover much new information, but any reader interested in a non-scientific exploration of the life of Mendelssohn the Philosopher, Mendelssohn the Composer, Mendelssohn the Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, Mendelssohn the Composer’s Sister, Mendelssohn the Banker etc. will find Meur’s book both informative and entertaining. A good read, a good gift too. Thank you, dad!

And as you may expect, there will be no book review without a music suggestion. And since we had Fanny Mendelssohn now twice in a short time on that other blog of mine, I will honour today Felix with his Symphony No. 5 in A minor (Op. 56) “Scottish”:

Soul-searching far, far away from home

On Propaganda, Brainwashing and Other Forms of Manipulation

BNWR combo

Aldous Huxley: Brave new World/Brave New World Revisited ISBN 978-009951847-1/ 978-009945823-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ “Propaganda in favour of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest, offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign and domestic scapegoats, and by the cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that […] the most cynical kind of realpolitik becomes a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty.” Does this sound familiar to you?

It was written in 1956 under the impression of Stalin and Hitler’s success in rallying and manipulating the masses on the one hand, and the excessive consumerism of the US society on the other hand. The author was Aldous Huxley, the mind and hand behind the dystopian novel “Brave new World” and a collection of related essays under the title “Brave New World Revisited.” In “Brave New World revisited”, Huxley devotes two chapters to propaganda, the good and the bad propaganda, and furthermore offers interesting ideas about the over-population of the world, brainwashing, chemical alterations of the mind and other forms of willful manipulation.

“Brave New World” itself needs no recommendation. The novel, published in 1932, features on the curriculum of most English classes and has lost none of its attraction. It portrays a society with custom made humans, genetically pre-determined to do certain tasks, and the liberty to think individually replaced by the liberty to consume without limits and to drop out of reality by taking drugs. I read the novel in high school with fascination, although I didn’t fully understand it, and I reread it a few months ago. This time I devoured it with a sense of exhilaration, rediscovering many angles I had forgotten about. I was overwhelmed by Huxley’s tremendous foresight and his talent as a writer.

I was even more surprised by the depth of his reflexions in “Brave New World Revisited”. As with Karl Marx, it is funny to identify the points where Huxley was wrong in his predictions (cf. the chapter on over-population). It is much less funny to find out, that he was right in many instances and anticipated the effects of propaganda when disseminated  through social networks, of changes in behaviour through indoctrination and a reward policy for compliant behaviour. Every page is fascinating in a frightening way.

“Brave New World Revisited” furthermore exposes how modern science – sociology and psychology mainly – can quickly become useful tools of dictators to brainwash the individual. Extended periods of stress make men succeptible to believe in values opposed to those he used to believe – Pavlov’s theories at work. Huxley explains here the scientific background of the conditioning of the human race as it happens both in “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s 1984. It’s brutal.

The lines quoted at the beginning of these posts obviously lead to reflect President Trump’s election campaign and the strategy of the Brexiteers to manipulate the UK referendum to leave the European Union. Or the genocide in Rwanda, greatly favoured by the insidious hate-speech broadcasted by “Radio Milles Collines”. Or the videos shared by Daech. Or the TV station “Russia Today”, mxing facts and fiction to confuse the audience.

Huxley’s yardstick of efficient “bad” propaganda is Joseph Goebbels for under him, the Nazis perfected this black art like no one else. Today, our societies are under threat again. Not by some foreign countries, terrorists or immigrants, no, they are being threatened by our own politicians, by complying social networks and by millions of users tagging along. Passivity is no option, for the numbers are against us who defend truth, equality, the rule of law, plurality and democracy. It is time to stand up.

The fascination of horror – that was one of the ideas that flicked up when I read “Brave New World” and “Brave New World Revisited”. At the time I often listened to a piece written by Bela Bartok, written during World War I, the Piano Quartet No. 2:

A Piano Quartet Ressurected from the Archives

To Write or to Love, to Be or to Fail

kafka schloss.jpg

Franz Kafka: Das Schloss (English title: The Castle) ISBN 978-3-596-90456-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ⭐️ A surveyor comes to a village and tries to gain access to a castle and the clerks who seem to work there. His name is K. He fails. K. is confronted with the hostility of the local population. He is an alien, and aliens are not welcome. Aliens disturb the established order, by not knowing the rules, by not fitting in, by not having a defined place in society. At the same time K. becomes a victim of auto-suggestion in a way people fall victim today to conspiracy theories. The population of the village stands in awe before the clerks, though it is not known whether they have any leverage over people’s destiny. The surveyor imagines a battle with the invisible clerks and interprets events only within this mental framework.

The unfinished novel deals with social isolation, loss of control, the feeling of being manipulated by an opaque system, elements that today trigger fear among the vulnerable parts of Western populations and contribute to the success of populists and extremists. Kafka started to work on this novel in 1922 after he had suffered a collapse, triggered by a worsening lung tuberculosis. At the same time he felt the constant need to assess whether he had made the right choices in his life. He wrote the first two chapters from his own perspective: I, Franz Kafka. While he was working on the third chapter, he switched to the third person singular: K. Why? His biographer Reiner Stach hints at the fact he was about to describe an erotic scene.

The novel deals with another issue: the essence of social relations. In Kafka’s novel, the surveyor tries to get to know people who may help him gain access to the castle. Some of the people in the village switch sides for the same reason. They try to manipulate K. for their own personal goals. The utilitarian aspect eclipses the emotional content of human relationships. Kafka had difficulties with people. With almost all people. His family, especially his father, his friend Max Brod, for whom he felt at times deep friendship and at other the need to distance himself. His relations with women were rides on a psychological roller-coaster and marked more by fantasies than by an acknowledgment of the facts.

Kafka’s novel “Das Schloss” certainly is the most mysterious one. Many interpretations have been advanced, most of them focus on what the castle may stand for. Kafka had told Brod the broad lines of the end – K. dies of exhaustion and solitude – and he interpreted the castle as a symbol for the mercy of God. Kafka identified himself with his Jewish origin and was sympathetic to the Zionist cause, but he had no substantial religious feelings. Psychologists, linguists and sociologist have came forth with different ideas about the novel’s meaning.

I have come up with an idea of my own and you are at liberty to reject it. The castle could stand for something that Kafka longed for and failed to achieve: a true, symbiotic relationship with a woman he could respect, venerate and live with. Love, actually. Kafka’s relationships with women were permenantly interfered with: He was thrown off course by his own dilemma of having to chose between writing and marrying his fiancée Felice Bauer, by his desire to be alone and to be with someone, by the moral codex of his and Felice’s parents, by historical events like World War I, a deteriorating health and his at times excentric way of life and sexual anxiety. The sheer number of obstacles on the way to happiness is a central element to understand Kafka’s life and a key idea of “Das Schloss”. And Kafka enjoyed a few happy moments with Felice in a Czech hotel of the name of “Schloss Balmoral”.

I think one of the great strengths of Kafka’s novel is the fact that a number of different interpretations are possible. Modern art makes the audience, the spectator, the reader part of a piece of art, and as such any reader can find his own truth in “Das Schloss”. Kafka could not stop thinking about himself; if his novel made readers think about themselves, their place in society, the essence of their existence, I think he would have been pleased.

Another strength is the language. Towards the end of his career, Kafka had developed a way of writing that not only became his hallmark, but also defined a new style as such, the language of modernity. He focused on the essence of words like some composers focuse on the essence of single notes, omitting any ornament, writing in a totally unadorned, almost bureaucratic style. At the same time, his style is never boring, Kafka develops momentum, tension, beauty even, and keeps the reader under the spell of his words, without distracting or manipulating his perception.

Kafka’s technique has two effects: First, he gives the reader a frame and a canvas with a few silhouettes, the reader’s fantasy is supposed to fill in the rest. Second, his style also confers the oppressive emotions that penetrate the story, emotions originating in the modern industrial and bureaucratic age, where life is governed by forces that the individual can not control or understand. Both effects taken together make thecreading of “Das Schloss” fascinating. It is a mysterious work, but a masterwork nonetheless.

Music that leads me to reflect my life, my past, my possible future, the meaning I give my existence – there are quite a few pieces that come to my mind. I will settle today for a little known and little played composer: Nikolai Medtner and his Sonatina in G major:

Exploring parallel universes

Overcoming Fear and Speaking Up

Fallada Jeder stirbt

Hans Fallada: Jeder stirbt für sich allein. (English title: Every Man Dies Alone) ISBN 978-3-7466-2811-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Fear corrupts the human being more than wealth or poverty. Fear dissolves the social fabric like acid, it makes the individual feel alone and powerless, it paralyses him and perpetuates the miserable condition it propels him into. Fear can have multiple facets: the fear to lose a job, a family member, the fear to fail other people’s expectations, the fear of physical violence, of permanent surveillance, the fear to stand out or to be held responsible. Fear is a terrible thing. And the longer I observe society, the more I have to realize that many people I know or deal with are victims of some kind of fear and see not way to get rid of it.

In 1947 the German writer Hans Fallada published a novel about a couple that decided to overcome their fear of the all-powerful Nazi state and engage in a small act of resistance in Berlin during World War II. The plot was inspired by a the case  of Otto and Elise Hampel, who anonymously distributed between 1940 and 1942 post-cards with slogans calling into question the official propaganda and encouraging Germans to speak up against the war, the SS terror, the prosecution of the Jews, the lack of freedom of the press. A perilous act.

Fallada’s heroic couple are called Otto and Anna Quangel. The death of their son as a soldier during the campaign against France propels them into action. Fallada’s description of the two main characters, the evolution of their psychic condition and of the love that binds the two, is riveting. The many side-plots with very authentic secondary characters make for an entertaining read. The violent events – the arrest and death of the Quangels, the fate of some of the secondary characters – perfectly illustrate what fear can do to a society.

An extraordinary novel and an appropriate read at a time when tw types of fear seem to pervasive in Europe and the United States: the fear of uncontrolled immigration, the fear of right-extremist populists grabbing power. Fear leads to terror, terror generates new fear, and if fear isn’t countered it will destroy society. Courageous people are needed, people who dare to think and to speak their mind. Everybody’s voice counts. The Hampels didn’t wait for someone else to save Germany from the Nazis’ totalitarian state. They did what they had to do.

In Fallada’s novel, Otto Quangel is portrayed as a self-absorbed carpenter, interested only in his work. And at the beginning of the novel this is his true nature. It becomes a useful mask, once he has decided to resist. Who would suspect such an old, boring, reclusive fool? Once he has been imprisoned by the Gestapo, he meets another inmate, a conductor suspected of harbouring Communist ideas. He makes Quangel discover the music of Mozart and Beethoven. A defiant piece of music, written as an act of artistic resistance, is Beethoven’s incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 84:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness