World History Seen Through a Middle-Eastern Prism

Peter Frankopan: Silk Roads. A New History of the World ISBN 978-1-4088-3999-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The subject of this book is so vast that I hardly know how to begin this review. Perhaps I should start by saying that I was overwhelmed both by the author’s detailed knowledge and his analytical ability by which I mean his way to connect the past to the present and to show hidden links between events that do not seem connected in the first place. I have rarely seen a researcher presenting such a complex issue in such an intelligible way.

For complex the subject is: the history of the world. One has to be a little ambitious, hasn’t one? But why a new history? Peter Frankopan’s stroke of genius consists in a shift of perspective as he explains in the preface. We tend to have a Eurocentric view of history: the Neanderthal, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, Enlightenment, World War I and II. Perhaps we may spare a thought for the colonisation of the Americas, feel a little guilty because of the genocides we orchestrated, and even after the United States seemed to be the biggest winner of World War II, we tend to view the history of the world through the prism of Europe. After all, the likelihood of the Cold War turning into mutual nuclear annihilation would had the first and most violent impact along the Iron Curtain.

Frankopan takes a different look at the past 2500 years. He and this book’s readers board a time-machine and fly back to the times and places of Cyrus the Great, the founder of a powerful Persian empire. Location is paramount here. Frankopan analyzes how the power balance in this region, the wealth of its natural resources, the industriousness of local traders at the origin of the Silk Road, the genius of the local intellectuals, and, last but not least the refinement of arts impacted over the centuries first on Europe, than on China, India, on what today is Russia and finally on the New World.

This completely new perspective on the correlation of political, military, economic, sociological and philosophical events affecting us Europeans is the key issue of Peter Frankopan’s monumental work. His research was both broad and deep, his sources are well documented. His analytical brilliance is matched by an easy-to-follow narrative leading in my case to many new insights, insights that many years of studies in political science, in political journalism and in government service did not give me. I was truly impressed and at the same time frustrated about my past ignorance. So much had not known or understood!

Let me just name a few examples. Fact 1: Jews and Muslims supported each other politically and economically in the early years of Islam, both gaving identified a win-win situation and a common religious heritage. Fact 2: A transcontinental slave trade between Europe and Asia, spanning over several centuries, was economically of the highest importance to the political entities of these times. Fact 3: Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union had an important economic rationale as Nazi Germany needed the grain harvested in the Ukraine to feed its citizen and the oil of the Caucasus to feed its war machine. Fact 4: Not only the United States, but China too supplied Afghan insurgents against the Soviet occupation force with weapons and trained Islamic fighters from its western province; a support it would letter regret – just like the United States – when these fighters turned their arms against their former patrons.

In each chapter of this highly recommended book, Frankopan focuses on a different type of “Silk Road”. At times human ambition was motivated and fuelled by the appetite for textile, furs, gold, silver, oil or grain. At others Man embarked on the road to moral salvation or hell on earth, to crisis and war, to revolution and genocide. The earth’s political and economic center of gravity shifted east and west, and the last chapter of the book remains to be written.

If the original Silk Road linked China to Europe with the Middle East as the indispensable transit point, the current government in Beijing intends to rebuilt this political and economic power axis with its “Belt and Road Initiative”, a system of overland corridors and shipping lanes from South-east Asia to Eastern Europe and Africa. It is an ambitious project aiming to translate economic into political leverage and to make China the leading nation of the world at the expense of the United States, perceived by many inside and outside of China as having passed its zenith as a superpower. “The Guardian” had published an excellent piece about this project.

I am looking forward to a new edition of Frankopan’s book in ten years and another one in twenty years. It would have to address in a new chapter China’s emergence as the world’s economic leader or, alternatively, the fall of an ambitious state that failed to address migration issues, civil unrest, political corruption and ecological disasters. In which direction the centre of gravity would shift in the second scenario will remain a challenging question.

It is this context that makes “The Silk Roads” a highly stimulating read. It shakes our Eurocentric view upon world affairs and encourages us to look at globalisation with the eyes of an Iranian banker, a Chinese entrepreneur, a Kazakh railway engineer or an Indian aerospace scientist. If George Orwell coined the phrase “Who controls the past controls the future”, I am tempted to believe that who knows the past is well prepared to anticipate the future. Human life is 50 percent ambition turned towards the future and 50 percent experience gained in the past by himself or his ancestors. Frankopan concludes the book with a stern warning: “What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history – about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region.”

When I closed the book I felt that politicians and citizen in Europe and in the United States would be well advised to display a little humbleness when dealing with Asian countries, their governments and their citizen. There is no natural law that makes our countries more important than others. We may dictate the rules now. A look back shows that others have written them in the past, and it is not unlikely that they will write them again in the near future.

Obviously the treasures of the Orient have tempted many adventurers to explore the Middle East, and the legends around both the treasures and the adventurers have excited generations of story-tellers and their audiences. “Sheherazade.2”, a piece composed by John Adams, is part of this tradition:

Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive

I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

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Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs

Music and the freedom of expression in Nazi Germany

Hans Hinterkeuser: Elly Ney und Karlrobert Kreiten. Zwei Musiker unterm Hakenkreuz. ISBN 978-3-929386-53-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ This interesting book presents two outstanding German musician whose lives took radically different directions under the Nazi reign over Germany: The pianist Elly Ney, an unconditional admirer of Adolf Hitler, embarked on a glorious career, supported by Hitler’s regime. The pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, as such an unpolitical man, was condemned and hanged by the Nazis after he had in private voiced the opinion that Germany was losing World War II after the defeat in Stalingrad.

By juxtaposing not only the professional evolution of both musicians but also their ideas about art and aesthetics, Hans Hinterkeuser shows that arts were intimately linked to politics in Nazi Germany, and that no musician could pretend to be exclusively concerned by music. If politics threaten the existence of large parts of the population, humanitarian obligations take precedence over artistic considerations. Music had to serve the glorification of the Führer, of Nazi Germany, of the Aryan race and the will to be the strongest. Elly Ney was an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. Kreiten wasn’t.

Ney was obsessed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and sincerely believed that only someone with a pure German soul could correctly perform Beethoven’s compositions. She saw herself as such a person and developed a real, or rather a surreal, cult around Beethoven where playing Beethoven’s music became a holy act with rituals codified for eternity. This fit very well into the Nazi propaganda emphasizing the superiority of the German race.

Karlrobert Kreiten was different. He played works from a large variety of composers: Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. He had no hesitation to recognize the genius of foreign composers and he would not have questioned that any piece of art is interpreted at two levels: at the level of the performing artist and at the level of the audience. The idea that there could only be one way two perform a piece would have sounded absurd to him.

Kreiten was a bright mind and refused to stop thinking during the Nazi era. Ney was a narrow-minded believer who did never question the official truth. While she must have known about the forced exile of many of her Jewish colleagues and while she could not possibly have ignored the rumours about the genocide in the East, she chose to support the Nazis. Kreiten however identified the news of the glorious battles on the Eastern front as propaganda and did not hide his opinion. He was betrayed, arrested and executed, despite a courageous protest from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, while Ney was unrepentant and embarked on a second career after 1945. Her allegiance to Hitler was passed under silence.

In my opinion, the use of classical music as a propaganda tool by Communists or Nazis is an important subject. Identifying the underlying rationale my help us today recognize current instances where arts are misused to propagate racist or undemocratic ideas. In this respect, Hinterkeuser wrote an important book. It would however benefited his message if he had been able to deliver it in a neutral, less emotional way. His indignation about Ney’s career is understandable, however his personal judgment is irrelevant in a scientific publication. The case against Ney is sufficiently strong already.

Music is about creativity and creativity requires freedom of expression, freedom that cannot be total, but must be limited by other people’s freedom to live without being discriminated in their fundamental rights. Beethoven was an enthusiastic supporter of modern civic rights and the freedom of expression as you may hear in his incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 81:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness

A Guide for Tyrans and Would-Be Dictators

Gustave Le Bon: La Psychologie des Foules. (Psychology of Crowds) ISBN 978-2-13–062062-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Over the past two decades, several historic developments have baffled me: the high approval rates of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the naive belief of Islamists that they can submit Western democracies, Brexit and finally the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Each event involved fascinated crowds, masses of people obeying a type of logic that defied my understanding. I was intrigued, and while I was reading books about Putin, the grief of ordinary Americans and the theories of the political scientist Eric Voegelin assimilating Communism and Fascism to modern religions, a distant memory from my studies in sociology re-surfaced: Gustave Le Bon’s early study of the psychology of crowds.

I had only read a short introduction to Le Bon’s theories as a student, which was good enough to pass that exam, but now that I actually had read “Psychology of Crowds”, I realize I should have read it much earlier. Even if certain ideas of Le Bon did not survive the test of time – social sciences, psychology and medicine have made a lot of progress since 1895 – the general trust of his theory remains valid.

Crowds, in Le Bon’s sense, are marked by “the evanescence of the conscious personality [of the individuals forming the crowds] and the orientation of feelings and thoughts in one direction.” Crowds cannot undertake actions that require a high degree of intelligence, they are easily manipulated, animated mostly by emotions and prone to violence that can take the shape of an act of heroism – soldiers charging in a battle against all odds – or an act of riot or vandalism. One of Le Bon’s basic ideas is that a crowd will act in a way that may harm its individual members, but since the individual’s conscience has been switched of, this apparent contradiction becomes irrelevant. Thus a crowd will take decisions that the isolated member of the crowd would most likely not take.

A crowd easily takes up any ideas “whose time has come”, ideas that have been around for some time without being articulated by a large number of people. Le Bon identifies long-term factors preparing the ground and short-term factors triggering a crowd into action. Crowds just as easily switch ideas, and the attention of a crowd is best captured by an image that embodies such an idea. Two telling examples came to my mind:  Christ on the cross and Donald Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Even if the fact of Jesus’ existence and his crucifixtion can be scientifically disputed, the oral transmission of this “breaking news”, the exceptional character of the story and much later the graphic representation made this, real or imagined, act of martyrdom a symbol so pwerful that it became one of the key elements of a 2000-year-old religion.

A more modern idea is Donald Trump’s wall. Everybody can picture a wall, the image suggests a means of defence against an invasion of “bad hombres”, another powerful Trumpesque image, a protection against an external enemy. It may also suggest the protection of an internal resource, like the US steel economy. Again, it is not important whether the wall will ever be built or whether it will actually keep criminals out. A positive emotion is attached to the image, and that’s why this idea animated so many to vote for Trump. That’s also why Trump fights so hard for it. The key element of his credibility is at stake.

From these initial findings, Le Bon moves on to other interesting theories. A dysfunctional society cannot be changed for the better by remodeling its institutions. What has this to do with crowds? Le Bon identified in the French society at the turn of the century a crowd of unhappy citizens, the product of a misguided educational system. He was greatly concerned about it and he was right. World War I was seen in France as a great chance to purify the a society deemed rotten. An illusion of course, but it explains the initial enthusiasm of French soldiers and the huge public support for the war.

In our days we see unhappy crowds too: the “Gilets jaunes” in France, the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. The European Union has failed to mitigate the consequences of a globalised and deregulated economy. They angry crowds have no constructive solutions at hand, their power is exclusively destructive. If Le Bon is right, these crowds could only be tamed by a new narrative of Europe, a convincing image of prosperity, hope, pride and protection, embodied in a new a European identity. What is Europe supposed to be? What do we Europeans want it to be? Those are the questions to be asked. Giving the European Parliament greater leverage and holding a referendum on the issue of summertime was not nearly enough. Europe suffers an identity crisis. If Europeans cannot be fascinated by the idea of building a peaceful, economically thriving and cosmopolitan society, then the European project is dead.

To amuse you I would like to quote Le Bon’s idea about leaders, leaders of a crowd or leaders of a pack. “They are being recruited among those neurotic, excited, half-alieniated who border the insanity.” Well? Anyone coming to your mind? I bet. And how did this person come to power? Partly by aaccusing the media to spread “fake news” and circulating through social networks a counter-narrative, full of lies, half-truths and distorted facts that appealed to his voters.

Le Bon would have been horrified by the possibilities of social media. At the end of the 19th century he identified three elements threatening good governance: the weakening of traditional beliefs, the freedom of speech of the crowds and the many newspapers printing everything and anything. At this early stage of modernity already, Le Bon observed that politicians lose the initiative in setting an agenda and are increasingly driven by the opinions popular with the crowds. “If one single opinion could gain sufficient track to impose itself, it would soon exert a tyrannic power”, he writes. Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s totalitarian regime, Trump’s wall and Brexit – they all fit perfectly into this scheme. What a prescient man Le Bon was!

However his book deserves a cautious interpretation. Le Bon derived a large part of his theories from his personal observations. He did not collect and analyse empirical data as modern sociologists would do. His opinions about the natural inferiority of women and a hierarchy among races are obviously wrong. Nevertheless Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds” remains a n interesting read, especially in these troubled times. I am sure that Steve Bannon has read it. I am sorry Hillary Clinton did not read it.

The Nazis used a powerful, evocative music written by Franz Liszt as a propaganda tool. It was broadcasted several times a day as the jingle announcing the news from the Eastern front. It’s from the symphonic poem “Les Préludes”:

How a romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Understanding Shostakovich

Rosamunde Bartlett (ed.): Shostakovich in context. ISBN 978-019-816666-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Any reader familiar with my music blog will be aware that I am a great admirer of Dmitry Shostakovich’s music. Both his works and his difficult life as a composer in the Soviet Union have been fascinating me for years. After the deception caused by the fact that “Testimony”, published by Solomon Volkov, is a falsification of Shostakovich’s memoirs, I was glad to read a collection of contemporary scientific essays dealing with Shostakovich’s works and exploring certain aspects of his life so far unknown to me. I will limit this review to those essays that interested me most.

Richard Taruskin shows us that the composer’s works intentionally carry ambiguous messages. Was he an ardent supporter of the Communist Party or a secret opponent? Both aspects shine through in his compositions, and his Soviet audience in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was certainly able (and avid) to decipher the subtext of Shostakovich’s works. One can feel sympathy for, even believe in the Communist idea and still criticize the behaviour of party officials. One can officially acknowledge the all-powerful Soviet state and still write subversive music. There is no black-and-white in Shostakovich’s life, there is none in his works.

Laurel E. Fay, author of an excellent biography, offers new insight in Shostakovich’s relation to the Leningrad Association of Contemporary Music (LASM) and to his fellow composer Boris Asafiev. Asafiev was the éminence grise behind the LASM and initially gave Shostakovich a boost of confidence to have his first symphony performed. However, Shostakovich did not see the LASM as being representative of Soviet contemporary music, he leaned himself towards the less formal Circle for New Music, and when Asafiev failed to attend the premiere of the symphony, “the honeymoon ended”, as Fay writes.

Ludmila Mikheyeva-Sollertinsky illustrates the faithful relation between Shostakovich and his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, professor at the Leningrad Conservatory and the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Both lived Leningrad and saw each other very often up to World War II, nevertheless Shostakovich wrote no less than 150 letters to Sollertinsky. The analysis of the correspondence sheds a new light on the composer’s character and his sense of humour.

Finally I would like to highlight Manashir Yabukov’s study of the composition “Anti-Formalistic Rayok”, a sarcastic description of the Soviet cultural policy, performed only in Shostakovich’s private circle. I was unaware of this piece, and it is wonderful to discover not only a new piece, but also a real testimony of Shostakovich’s defying attitude towards the USSR. Lyudmila Kovnatskaya’s exploration of parallels in the life and works of Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten was of great relevance to me. Britten is one of those composer’s exerting absolutely no attraction on me. Why? I have no idea. Ignorance? Perhaps. If Shostakovich would lead me to become interested in Britten, now that would be an achievement!

Dmitry Shostakovich wrote revolutionary music, but one of his musical beacons was Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1850/51 he wrote a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, inspired by Bach’s “Well-tempered Klavier”:

A fugue or a prelude every third day