Milan Kundera on the totalitarian mind

I’ve been rereading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, in the back of which is an interview with Kundera from the late ’70s/early ’80s, given by Philip Roth.

His words here seem as important as ever. These days, grand utopian visions as such may be a little thin on the ground, but the impulses he references take other forms as well. In particular, I think they should remind us of that perennial delusion of omnipotent security so many of us seem to subscribe to, borne, of course, by fear. We really are True Believers in power: the power of science and technology ultimately to solve all human problems, the power of military strength to create a world free of anger and violence, the power of punishment to generate goodness.

Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise – the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

Referencing the poet Paul Éluard, who publicly turned on his friend Závis Kalandra when the latter, in 1950, was sentenced to death by “the rulers of paradise,” he goes on:

People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The devil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarian poesy which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra’s body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.

bottom of the barrel

The more I’ve learned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their dangers, the more convinced I am that their prime promoter and beneficiary – Monsanto – has got to be reckoned one of the most recklessly, fiendishly destructive entities on the face of the earth.

I read Seeds of Deception, by Jeffrey M. Smith, shortly after it came out, along with a couple of other shorter books on the subject. I’d already had a great deal of skepticism on the subject from my understanding of how thoroughly interdependent are all phenomena and how cataclysmically powerful and dangerous human manipulation of the natural world can be (cf. nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; a great many pharmaceuticals; pollutants of all kinds). The argument that genetic engineering is just another form of what nature itself has done all along has never washed with me: nature is simply not capable of forcing genetic material from a salmon into tomato DNA. (Or spider into goat, jellyfish into pig, human into corn and rice, hepatitis into corn…)

But as a non-scientist, the study of scientific papers takes me a great deal of time. It’s not very cost-efficient, as it were, and furthermore – at least in the case of real “science” science as opposed to social “science” – I simply lack a deep enough background to feel comfortable, much of the time at least, forming fairly certain conclusions. (What I am capable of doing, as is anyone with the interest, is asking the larger philosophical questions about scientific paradigms of one sort or the other. And querying certain more general assumptions, aspects of design and methodology, and the basic health and integrity of scientific culture today.)

Taking all of this into account, my judgment has been that GMOs have already been shown unsafe in at least several important respects to both humans and other species, along with the earth as a whole, with much more evidence of further danger likely to come over time. Leaving all this aside, it’s been incomprehensible to me how the US still doesn’t have GMO labelling laws in place, given the newness of this technology, with all of its long-term unknowns.

But gradually, also, I have been forced to conclude that the Monsanto Corporation is more-or-less at the bottom of the barrel. They have already given us Agent Orange and DDT, and for decades now have been producing more and more of our food, promising complete safety in their technology, yet exercising all kinds of veto power over research into this (see the 2009 Scientific American editorial reprinted here).

There is a wealth of important information on GMO health risks here (see in particular the eye-opening articles under the headings “GMO Education” and “Fraud.”)

According to the ETC Group, Monsanto owns 23% of the global proprietary seed market, far and away the largest share (DuPont is second with 15%; Syngenta, another chemicals company, is third with 9%) – the article is here).

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our government believes Monsanto’s assurances every time, despite a mountain of evidence of serious health risk and ecological danger in this technology.

I can’t think of any issue more important than the very integrity of our food. A good starting point to understanding what is at stake is this FAQ page.

[ae:::h], or, English needs more interjections…

My last post, a frustrated shriek concerning the now seemingly complete acceptability of cell phone use in public indoor spaces, ended with the well-known non-word “aargh.” This reminds me of the relative poverty-strickenness of our language with regard to interjections.

Yes, seriously.

Two cases in point. There’s a word I say all the time that doesn’t exist, but sounds rather like the IPA symbols given in the title to this post. For those unacquainted with the IPA, the symbol “ae” indicates a near-open front vowel, unrounded (like our “a” in the word “hat”), and the colons after it indicate lengthening (“h” is like our ordinary unvoiced “h”). I say that a lot, although more precisely the vowel is somewhat in-between an [ae] and the slightly “closer” (tongue higher) [ɛ].

But we have no word for this, so I can’t type it! “Eh” doesn’t work: this nearly always is used interrogatively, meaning “huh?” So I end up typing something like “ugh” or “aargh,” but that’s not what I mean.

The other “word” I say a lot has a vowel sound like the i in “is,” though slightly more central, followed by a sound somewhere in-between our English “h” and German “ch.” When I use it it means something like: “what can ya do?” or like an abbreviated alternative to “oy vey,” or something like that. But again if you were to try and write that you’d get something like “ihh,” and no one would understand it at all.

And come to think of it, we all say a lot of “words” which basically consist of just a single, often in-between kind of vowel, sometimes with some kind of optional “h” at the very end. And they are all very expressive. The only problem is they don’t happen to be words…

I always used to devalue interjections as a part of speech. When you begin studying a new language you become gradually more and more immersed in all the semantic intricacies and profundities of Verbs, find yourself engulfed in the endless sea of Nouns. You master the various classes of Pronoun, pick up comparative and superlative forms of Adjective and Adverb along the way, learn those basic twenty or so Prepositions, and bow at the feet of the mighty Conjunctions and Particles which structure and clarify larger units of thought. But Interjections? I always used to think: why are they even a part of speech? Grammars and vocabulary books only ever give you, like, two of them! What’s the point?

Our word “interjection” comes from the Latin “interiectiō,” literally meaning “throwing something in.” The idea is that there are no structural ties there to the rest of the sentence. In any case, I’ve decided they do need their own part of speech after all, because I’ve realized we need more of them. However … “ihh” just isn’t going to catch on, I understand this. Or [ae:::h]. Oh well. Who’s in charge of all this anyway? Someone should write a letter…

time for a grouse

It does appear we have lost the battle of the Cell Phone…

What I mean is: any sense of restraint regarding public use.

It’s strange. Really not all that long ago – maybe 4 years? – we had a general cultural understanding that yakking on one’s phone in public indoor spaces was, well, rather rude. And that’s just vanished now. What to do?

Personally, I can’t get used to the idea. I know I should probably try harder, since clearly, as I say, we have lost, but it’s so hard. I will be sitting in a quiet space over lunch or tea, reading or reflecting, and suddenly … “HELLO? …” (and my head literally jolts backward as if struck). “HEY DUDE, YEAH, WUSSUP? … YEAH … YEAH … HUH? … OH, YEAH … NAH … WHAT? … YEAH … NAH I’M JUST EATING LUNCH … HUH?” And on and on, for 5, 10 … 30 minutes. So I give up, put the book down or stop reflecting, and start fuming… What is wrong with me? Why can’t I accept this is the way it is now?

But I find it ridiculously hard. And I’m certainly not alone. One of the owners of a place where I eat lunch all the time tells me he feels exactly the same way, even more so, since he would prefer if people didn’t even pull out laptops and tablets, but rather took the opportunity to unplug for awhile and have a peaceful, relaxed meal. A teahouse in Montréal, I’m told – I think Camellia Sinensis – has adopted that policy in fact.

What to do, what to do? Once or twice I have seen someone actually get up and very firmly tell the phone yakker that they really ought to walk the 20 steps or so to be outdoors – they can still talk, but no one else is bothered. Usually, I’m a coward in this: I just privately fume.

What is it about this? After all, a loud conversation nearby can be distracting too. I think it’s a combination of different things:

1) There’s something inherently private about a phone call. Traditionally they only occurred, after all, in private spaces: one’s home, or a (closed) phone booth. So when they go off and you hear the loud (see point 3) “HELLO?,” I at least have the sensation of being an eavesdropper, of – more to the point – being forced to be an eavesdropper. There’s just something not … quite … fully decent about it somehow.

2) Since you are only ever hearing one half of a conversation, the experience is disorientating, and thus pulls you in. It’s distracting in the way something on the radio continually cutting out is, or the way a film would be if it kept flashing on and off. We naturally strive to fill in gaps in perception, and cell phones continuously stimulate that tendency, while definitively denying us any possibility of success. And that very fact is what makes them startling, makes them endlessly interrupt concentration. Not an issue for most people having a conversation themselves there, but an effective destroyer of peaceful public space for those of us who still greatly value such a thing.

3) Most people, not all but most, do talk more loudly on a cell phone.

So yes, I should try harder to get used to it. There are still places – blessed be they! – who maintain cell-phone-free environments, but they have dwindled rapidly in recent years. The other day I was told by someone who works at one of these that after asking a customer if he might simply step outside to finish his call, said customer responded quite irately, left altogether, then phoned 10 minutes later to complain further! Amazing: it’s now even become something of a “right” … And I mean, people even gabber on them in libraries now, even blatantly within yards of the sign saying: please no cell phones… (That, by the way, is where I do take charge.)

Not at all a healthy development, if you ask me.

This is leaving aside the fact that, more and more, that annoyingly ugly MIDI jingle (or more sedate buzz) signalling an incoming phone call or text, causes the person you thought you were having a conversation with to cut you off: “excuse me, I just need to take this call…” Actually, no, 9 times out of 10 you really don’t need to take that call. Your mind has just been marinating in a super-speedy high-octane cacophonously hyper-distracted culture for too many years, and… AARGH!

“On a Clear Day” (the Chris Peterman Quintet at Discover Jazz)

Last night the annual Burlington Discover Jazz Festival began. I’d actually somehow forgotten which day it was when I approached Church Street in search of a light dinner and heard a cacophony of sound – at least three different bands playing outdoors within a couple of blocks of each other.

There are the big names over at the Flynn – Branford Marsalis, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, among plenty of others – but then there is also jazz everywhere else around the center of town for the next 10 days, much of it outdoors. I sat outside Das Bierhaus the rest of the evening listening to the Chris Peterman Quintet, who were superb. They are (or at least were at this particular gig): Chris Peterman on saxes, John Rivers on bass, Caleb Bronz on drums, Matt Wright on vocals, and Tom Cleary on piano. Chris I’d never properly heard before and he was brilliant: I loved the fluidity of his playing, the long melodic arches to his solos, effortless inventiveness. Matt – also new to me – shone in some adventurous scat singing, and the rhythm section as usual played with spot-on precision and clarity.

As for Tom, I took a jazz improv class with him a few years ago and always look forward to hearing him. His playing is stylistically versatile and virtuosic, above all always immaculately musical whatever he’s playing – in part stemming from a deep study of jazz history (a journal he’s recently begun exploring musical questions within jazz is here). I was hoping to link to some really amazing samples of what he can do from the CD Frame Problem, a release by Fragile Zoe, but haven’t found anything online as of yet (and am unable to upload my own audio files until I upgrade to self-hosting – hopefully soon). Fragile Zoe are a jazz-funk fusion band consisting of several members of the University of Vermont faculty (Tom and John, and Patricia Julien on flute), along with Patricia’s husband Alec on guitar, and Caleb from last night’s group also.

One tune from last night was “On a Clear Day” (written by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner), which I hadn’t heard in a long time. I’d forgotten what a great song it is. The band played it uptempo and its soaring openness really brightened up the overcast Burlington night sky. Afterward I asked Tom for a recommendation of a recording, and one which he mentioned was Oscar Peterson’s (below). As always when I hear this man, I can’t help laughing from time to time at the level of seemingly effortless virtuosity on display – and check out how his left hand joins the party at 2:26 here… Always fiercely swinging too – I dare you to listen to this with stationery feet…

But then I wanted to find a vocal recording of it and there were fewer choices on YouTube than I expected. Most of these are from Barbra Streisand, each a little different, and then there is one from Shirley Bassey too. In general I find a wee bit too much belting out of this song, which doesn’t feel right to me. The lyrics here are kind of stupendous and don’t need exaggerated force to communicate themselves. At the end, sure, some crescendo, though to my taste not as much as I’m mostly hearing in these recordings. The following – the actual 45 single from way back when – builds too quickly I think, and has the usual triumphalist kind of interpretation. But that hushed opening is pure magic.

On a clear day
Rise and look around you
And you’ll see who you are
On a clear day
How it will astound you
That the glow of your being
Outshines every star
You’ll feel part of
Every mountain, sea and shore,
You can hear from far and near
A world you’ve never never heard before

And on a clear day
On a clear day
You can see forever, and ever, and ever more.