The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori – Chris Hedges Deftly Defines WAR.

“The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them. Many have their bellies swollen up like balloons. They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises.”

Erich Maria Remarque, from All Quiet on the Western Front

In my sophomore year of high school I read Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of war, and it changed me.

All Quiet on the Western Front was a book that captivated my mind, laden in the grotesque horrors of violence and the unblinking, unflinching nature of modern warfare. Young and angry when I read it, the refracted nihilism that scorches Remarque’s words created slow burns of thought inside me, and I was so in love with it, I stole a copy from the school library one evening. It was late 2002, and 9/11 had already struck. The cogs and pistons that would turn the engine of the Iraq War were being built; my country was wounded, and vengeful. I still have that mass market paperback, its spine riddled with crags, its corners dogeared and torn. The many hours I spent with Remarque’s novel, began to shape questions I wouldn’t be able to put answers to for years. What war was or wasn’t. What violence meant or did not mean. What victory or shame lied in mass murder and death.

In Chris Hedges descriptive and moving work, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, I was hearkened back to that time; that time of upheaval and new thought, and the challenges of examination into the unmanageable, unimaginable aspects of murky human action. For me, the book is a vindication. My study and thinking has always led me to understand Violence and Power exist not in parallel to each other, but in polarity. The same deep-cut axis runs through them, but their motives and roles play in opposition to one another, with Violence as the perversion of Power. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book that validated and echoed these long held feelings and thoughts of mine, and Chris Hedges accurately and elegantly, with harrowing prose and lived experience, explains war by explaining the continental clashes of Violence and Power.

WAR_Hedges“We are humiliated in combat. The lofty words that inspire people to war—duty, honor, glory—swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads. The abstract rhetoric of patriotism is obliterated, exposed as the empty handmaiden of myth. Fear brings us all back down to earth.

Once in conflict, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. When this move takes place we have nothing to do with a world not at war. When we return home we view the society around us from the end of a very long tunnel. There they still believe. In combat such belief is shattered, replaced not with a better understanding, but with a disconcerting confusion and a taste of war’s potent and addictive narcotic. […]”

It should be understood that War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is not about combat, but is a novel about the mechanisms that drive war into being. Cultural and governmental mechanisms like propaganda and mythos, pedantry and jingoism, and the destruction and perversion of tangible and intangible heritage. Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent, having spent large portions of his life as an observer in warzones and combat scenarios; from the Croat-Bosniak War of the early 1990’s, to surviving imprisonment in Sudan, to escaping ambushes in Central America, Hedges has witnessed firsthand the brutality, and emptiness, that is war. Hedges openly speaks of such painful and disturbing memories, and through the keen pen of a journalist is able to bring clarity and compassion to horrid scenes often never seen by citizens back home. Bit by bit, Hedges picks apart war, eradicating the radiant myths and elaborately ornamented slogans, and so strips it raw to reveal it butt naked. What is left is a disturbing portrait of addiction and denialism, corruption and greed, and of course, violence.

Living in this time of an unprecedented refugee crisis, and the inexhaustible rise of quibbling dogmatism and hate, Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a balm of rationality, analysis, and humility. The book does more than provide a window for the reader to peer into violent conflict, but provides a mirror into our darker, deeper selves. Hedges, in his heart, is a psychologist, and through his words performs a sort of logotherapy on us; we are caught off-guard by his undeniable authenticity and intuitive mind. The bite of the statistical, and emotional truths presented through him leaves one stranded on a very small island, and we are forced into a reckoning with the cold, hard realities of war, and our own individual parts within it.

Hedges does acknowledge that sometimes war is unavoidable. With maturity, it is acknowledged that human folly and power grabs are inevitable and that diplomacy will sometimes fail; yet, through this acknowledgement Hedges takes us out of this often overused excuse, and brings us back down to earth. War in its foundations is sinister, unrepentant, and destructive. In what Hedges calls “a collapse of the moral universe”, war turns right and wrong upside down, and all things are liquidated to “the cause”. People, men and women and children, are transmogrified into objects. War diversifies nothing and coagulates everything, stuffing the veins and preventing blood flow to the heart and mind. In essence, war is a collective stroke. In what Hannah Arendt coined “nihilistic relativism”, all loathful deeds are canceled out by other loathful deeds, each horrible act justified by each other horrible act; by dispelling the existence of moral truth, the parties of war create a vacuum in which no light can get in. War sits in this void, and after it is over, this void does not evaporate but persists, and is more often buried, rather than confessed. This demolishment of truth perpetuates the myth of war, and therefore war becomes not a teacher, but an invalid, dumb and deaf. No lessons are learned, no honest accounts are passed down. The hollowness hangs in the graves.

In the first pages, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” is shared. Though at the front of the book, for this review, I believe the poem works best for closing. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is required reading, not because it is heavily anti-war, but because of the unfiltered reflection of all ourselves that exists within its pages. The old Lie, is at last, swept away.

Owen I think would be proud.

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patria mori.

Wilfred Owen Portrait
Portrait of Wilfred Owen, beloved WWI poet and soldier. Image Credit BBC – Thank You.

The featured image is a screen shot taken from the 1930 movie adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander.

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Looking At Stars With Alan Lightman

Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.

I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.

When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.

Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.

In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.

Searching_Stars_Lightman“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”

Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.

Alan_Lightman
Portrait of Alan Lightman. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.

I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.

Stars in Maine
Beautiful photo of the Southern Maine forest and the sky. Image Credit: USM/Southworth Planetarium – Thank you

Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.

The Origins of Creativity: E. O. Wilson’s Search For A Third Enlightenment

While reading Edward O. Wilson’s latest book, The Origins of Creativity, a quote from a recent read by Abby Smith Rumsey kept coming to mind.

 “Scientists separate how questions from why and dwell exclusively on what is, not what ought to be. This is a moral hazard Socrates warned against—that by alienating our knowledge, making it ‘external to us,’ we have brought an immense measure of power over the world at the expense of having power over ourselves.”

Abby Smith Rumsey, from When We Are No More

It is these divisions between how and why, what is and what ought to be, that is the crux of the current clashing between the sciences and the humanities, which is the topic of argument in The Origins of Creativity. E. O. Wilson, for his part, attempts to remedy this poisonous conflict. The methods he uses are reason and (of course) scientific basis, and in doing so he seemingly accidentally pits the two against each other, plays favorites, and in a parental fashion portrays the two opposing parties as siblings who can’t get along: the sciences are the high-achieving older sibling who gets first picks, and the humanities are the younger sibling who doesn’t do the homework and has a ballooned head stuck in the clouds.

This, as you might expect, makes for a rather lopsided read.

Origins_of_Creativity“The humanities, particularly the creative arts and philosophy, continue to lose esteem and support relative to the sciences for two primary reasons. First, their leaders have kept stubbornly within the narrow audiovisual bubble we inherited happenstance from our prehuman ancestors. Second, they have paid scant attention to the reasons why (and not just how) our thinking species acquired its distinctive traits. This, unaware of most the world around us, and shorn of their roots, the humanities remain needlessly static.”

Peppered with images and classic art, The Origins of Creativity through a series of short chapters takes one on a logical anthropological dive into deep time and the buried instinctual underpinnings of human psychology. These scientific explorations are then used as the two oars E. O. Wilson paddles up the stream with in his personal observations of two notable and often very at odds subjects: sciences and the humanities. It’s a bit of slog, full of holes and fragmented musings, and instead of the top comes out the side, leaving the sensation of having experienced a horizontal fall. This book from the cover (and jacket) proposes to be about creativity in some vein or another. This is misleading, as the book rather meanders through this topic. Creativity is sometimes vaguely used as a referral to how the sciences and humanities will bridge the gap, but it’s a three legged table. Even so, after a couple days of mulling, I’ve decided this is a good book, despite its failings.

Yes, I didn’t like it. But it’s still a good read. I came to realize (or perhaps gave in), that this book is not about the past or the present, but the future. It should be pointed out that clearly this is E. O. Wilson’s goal, to have you peer ahead into the beyond and envision the world as he would like to see it – unified. But the scope he builds is muddy and speckled. This book seems incomplete, as though he had a grander work in mind but couldn’t cobble it together in time for the publishers. It reads more like a series of essays, or blog posts, and all this information and murmuring of his inner mind are stuffed together. With each page turn I kept giving Wilson the benefit of the doubt, that by the end all the pieces would be in place and he would unroll a marvelous patchwork quilt, a photomosaic of the proclaimed Third Enlightenment. Upon finishing, it’s just not there.

The book is broken down into five parts, and each part is (I imagine) suppose to act as a steppingstone to get to the matter at hand: the attainment of a Third Enlightenment. On this journey, E. O. Wilson takes jabs at everybody as to why we aren’t there yet, but humanities takes the brunt of it. The star students he openly lists: paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. In E. O. Wilson’s opinion, organized religion has flunked. Organized religion has been in the hot-seat for some time now, so this is unsurprising.

E. O. Wilson is a naturalist, so the way living things came to be, how they operate, what they think and feel, and where they are headed is of particular importance to him. These are the bright parts of this book; his love of the natural world and the intricacies of the ever running earth inspire him, and Mother Nature’s endless forging of diversity and wellspring of creativity is Wilson’s rapture. Several chapters hearken back to other books authored by him, such as Half-Earth and many from what could be called his ‘ant days’, often co-authored with Bert Hölldobler. E. O. Wilson is in the twilit years, so his memories of the past he looks back on fondly. Wilson’s age might have something to do with the fragmented feeling of this book – but I don’t think so. In fact, I think his age is more a strength, and lends much to an otherwise empty read. Authors and writers who are on the way out have a particular taste in their writing that I’ve never been able to wholly put a name to. It’s a sense of settlement in their opinions. Conviction? It seems a bit stronger than the word I’m looking for. E. O. Wilson is a brilliant man who has lived a life with much wonder and discovery; he is a seeker, in heart and mind, and his journey has taken him far and wide and through all this he has developed his Truth. And we should pay attention. E. O. Wilson has made his decisions, knows what path he would suggest we take. This is the saving grace of the book, and makes it worth reading.

I debated long and hard how to rate this book, and in the end I’m giving it a good review. I disagreed with a good much of his presentation; it left me frustrated. But long after I closed The Origins of Creativity, I kept thinking about it. This alone is enough of a reason to give the book a decent rating, for a book that makes you think – even if it gets you thinking in the opposite direction – is a good book. (Most the time anyway.) The research is sound, and Edward O. Wilson’s accolades speak for themselves, and if they don’t impress for whatever reason, E. O. Wilson is still a damn good writer.

At the end, E. O. Wilson chooses someone else’s words to send us off. I would like to do the same, with words from Buckminster Fuller regarding to what I believe E. O. Wilson is trying to say.

“We are going to have to find ways of organizing ourselves cooperatively, sanely, scientifically, harmonically, and in regenerative spontaneity with the rest of humanity around Earth. […] We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”

Buckminster Fuller, from Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Earth_From_Space
A photo of the Earth taken during the Apollo 11 mission. Source: NASA/Flickr; NASA

Three out of five stars for The Origins of Creativity, and also, that I hope Edward O. Wilson has one more book in him. (Would it be selfish of me to ask for two?)