Monday, August 28, 2006

School's In Session

Which alas probably means a temprary end to reading for pleasure. I've already read some stuff for my Business Ethics class (first class later this morning). I suspect classes will keep me too busy to read for fun, unless the for fun reading is extremely unchallenging...

Straight Man

The Richard Russo books I’ve read have all taken place in decaying New York mill towns. Straight Man varies that by taking place in a decaying Pennsylvania railroad town. Actually, it differs from his other books quite significantly by belonging to another genre—it’s a campus comedy, a genre I associate with writers like David Lodge. Russo does a hell of a good job with it, as would be expected. William Henry Devereaux is the creative writing professor at a small state college, a place where his colleagues are mostly mediocre, as are his students. Devereaux is the temporary chair of the English Department (while they search for a permanent head), and the university administration is hinting at layoffs. He is therefore placed between the administrators and the faculty, loved by neither side, assumed by each side of favoring the other. Considering his basic lack of leadership ability (not to mention temperament), it’s a position that is very uncomfortable for him. His body reacts—he can’t seem to piss, he had near-blackouts, and his nose has been ripped-open Chinatown-like by an angry colleague (a bizarre accident—she only meant to hit him in the face with a spiral-bound notebook).

All of Russo’s books start slow and build. Straight Man, being a comedy, builds more quickly and reaches a somewhat manic pace. This kind of book depends on a piling on of events, and tends to end abruptly. Russo doesn’t depart from that time-honored approach, and consequently by the end, I was reading faster and faster, unable to set it aside. A very funny book.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Spiritual Inertia

When I was a college student in the 80s, I experienced drunkenness in its richness and varieties. One thing I observed was the sensation of motion even when there was no motion, For example, I could close my eyes and feel myself rotating, even though I knew I was stationary. I called this “spiritual inertia.” “Spiritual” because the non-physical part of me felt motion, and “inertia” because inertia is, in a way, the sensation of motion.

I felt that way tonight, the first time in a long time, after drinking with members of the class of 2008, EMBAs from 2007, and a few of my classmates from the class of 2007.

“It’s coming through a crack in the wall/on a visionary flood of alcohol.”
—“Democracy” by Leonard Cohen

I love that song, As much as any psychotropic drug, alcohol can invoke visions.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I read Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake and Wrong About Japan, and didn’t like either of them. I just couldn’t get hooked into the effusively praised My Life as a Fake, and Wrong About Japan, though it had a few clever insights, seemed too slight to be a book.

So I wasn’t planning to read any more Carey, but a review of Theft made me waver. I like books about fictional artists, and the subject of art crime and fraud has long interested me. The fine art trade is very lightly regulated, but places a high premium on authenticity. So many crimes are crimes of falsified authenticity—forgery being the best known, but deliberate misattribution, misdating, and so on are probably more common. Theft deals with forgery, misattribution, and misdating, and uses the authenticity endowing concept of droit morale as the mechanism.

Butcher Bones (actually Michael Boone) is an Australian painter who had his day in the sun in the early 70s, spent time in prison for trying to steal his own artwork from his recently divorced wife, and by 1981 is living with his retarded brother Hugh (“Slow Bones”) at the vacation house of a former patron. He is painting very high quality works when he meets Marlene Liebowitz, the daughter-in-law of a great cubist painter, Jacques Liebowitz. He husband has no interest in art, but does have droit morale—he can authenticate Liebowitz paintings. So her deal is to find questionable works (particularly ones that Liebowitz started, abandoned, and then were later finished by his scheming wife) and, usually working with a dealer of collector or some other partner, get Olivier, her husband, to officially authenticate them.

Butcher is somewhat appalled by this, but he sees all collectors and dealers as immoral scum anyway. He and Marlene start an affair, and Marlene uses him in her complex scheme to get a Liebowitz out of the country to Japan, then to New York. Part of her plan is to establish provenance—a key aspect of authentication. If you can track where the painting has been since the painter created it, then you have the real thing.

Her plan is so complex and worth so much money, that part of it is for a Japanese collector to buy Butcher’s entire new show for $200,000. In other words, the potential profit of the scam is so great that $200,000 is a small capital expense.

In New York, Butcher hatches his own plan to forge a Liebowitz—partly for the challenge of doing so. But Olivier is no longer cooperating with his faithless wife, and she murders him (or so it is implied). Suddenly the game of art crime, which Butcher played along with because it seemed a way to revenge himself on the art world, was too much.

One out of three is a start. What can I say—this was a thoroughly entertaining book. The characters were deeply unpleasant and yet fascinating. Carey has some fun with the idea of people who have the eye for great art and those who don’t—Butcher, Hugh, and Marlene all do. (When Butcher intentionally paints a bad painting, Hugh can’t understand why.) The point being made is that “the eye” has nothing to do with intelligence or morality. Perhaps the bigger point is that art itself has nothing to do with these qualities. I embraced this sort of belief when I was younger because I thought it was cool. I still believe this, but I don’t comfortably embrace the idea of the artist who is beyond morality. On the contrary, I wince with guilt when I learn that an artist whose work I love turns out to have been a rotten sort of fellow.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

More Al-Qaeda

The Looming Tower is sort of alike a prequel to The One Percent Doctrine, and like that book, Looming has a hard time deciding what to focus on. So most of it is a history of Al Qaeda and its predecessors, with a bit also about the FBI’s anti-terrorism efforts prior to 9-11. Obviously these two histories overlap to a certain extent. The FBI not only investigated Al-Qaeda, it successful prosecuted a number of Islamist terrorists.

But what is really interesting in The Looming Tower is the intellectual history of Al-Qaeda and other Islamists movements. This always starts with Sayyid Qutb’s visit to the U.S.A. in the 40s, and how this encounter with modernity turned him toward a profoundly anti-modern concept of Islamic revolution. This was simultaneous with Nasser’s Arab Nationalist movement, and Arab Nationalists used Islamists when it suited them and suppressed them otherwise. Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism were, for so long, the key movements. They had success in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and the P.L.O. was, of course, nationalist instead of Islamist. The Left in the West could have sympathy for the Nationalists because they claimed to be socialists and were certainly anti-imperialists. But they were (and still are) quite brutal. The descriptions of Egyptian tortures of Islamists are bloodcurdling. The description of Zawahiri’s trial and his carefully planned denunciations of torture (including a simultaneous disrobing of the defendants to show their scars) is gripping. And almost beyond comprehension was the raping of little boys to turn them against their Islamists fathers.

While some on the Left supported Arab Nationalists, Western governments were more wary. Egypt only got the OK after the peace treaty with Israel (which led to Zawahiri’s pre-Al-Qaeda group, Al-Jihad, assassinating Sadat). Iraq got a tentative nod of approval only because they were anti-Iran. But we supported all kinds of Islamists—that included alliance with the Saudis and the arming and financing of the Afghani freedom fighters. (If you include Israel as part of the West, which I certainly do, their early support of Hamas as a counterweight to the secular Nationalist P.L.O. also counts as Western support of Islamism.)

The Left always seemed to oppose Islamism, when they knew it for what it was. Certainly some of the few people to forcefully speak out against the Taliban prior to 9-11 were feminists, appalled by the grotesque diminution of the status of women in Afghanistan.

The book also details the chilling intellectual path of Zawahiri (a true intellectual) and Bin Laden (who is influenced by Zawahiri). They find ways to justify killing Muslims (and recall that Al-Qaeda and Al-Jihad have killed many more Muslims than “infidels”). They devise a means for excommunicating Muslims, and in their reductionist world, most Muslims deserve death for their many deficiencies. And they find a bizarre justification for suicide, which is normally one of the gravest sins in Islam.

Their main strength is their patience. They were never quite as powerful as they are popularly portrayed; their willingness to spend years on an action is what makes them dangerous, along with their increasingly insane ideology.

This was a gripping book—far better than the similar Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman, who unconvincingly tries to make a grand unified theory of totalitarian ideology. Looming really gets into the meat of what is unique about this ideology, and why the struggle against it is different from struggles against fascism and communism.