Sunday, October 18, 2009

False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, by John Gray

First published in 1998, False Dawn pretty much predicted the current economic crisis, and Nassim (Black Swan) Taleb has even declared it “a prophetic book”. We can now read sentences such as “How would America’s fractured society cope with a collapse in the stock market such as occurred in Japan in the early 1990s?” with a sense of proleptic irony. In a new Foreword John Gray reminds us that “America’s position is much worse than that of Japan in the 1990s” and insists that globalisation has undergone “an irreversible collapse”. Given his prescience in the past, his predictions are well worth reading: with the US in permanent decline, a period of “disorderly globalisation” has begun, complete with “resource wars” (oil, water, land) and accompanied by the rise of the far right everywhere. And then, with a nod to James Lovelock, he concludes that all this will eventually be “derailed by a backlash from the planet”. All humankind can do now, says Gray, is prepare for a “sustainable retreat”.

The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, by Tariq Ali

Pakistan offers rich pickings for conspiracy theorists. Who killed General Zia in 1988? The Soviets? The CIA? Mossad? Who was behind the group that kidnapped and killed the journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002? Was Benazir Bhutto shot in 2007 or did she fracture her skull on the sunroof of her car, as claimed by Scotland Yard? Did Washington tell Musharraf “we’ll bomb you into the Stone Age” or did he exaggerate to promote his memoirs? Pakistan is not a failed state, says Tariq Ali in this lively account of the nation’s history, but it is a dysfunctional one, largely because of US interference, which has shaped Pakistani policy for decades. Afghanistan – occupied by the Soviets, then by the Americans – plays a major role in Pakistan’s future. Pakistanis need stability there before they can address their own history of brutal military dictatorship and political corruption. An unhealthy reliance on dynastic politics has also resulted in the current “medieval charade”, says Ali, whereby the “venal and discredited” Asif Zardari became president, with the full support of the US.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives, by Brian Dillon

Charles Darwin suffered from terrible flatulence, varying from "slight" to "considerable", "baddish", "sharp" and, on bad days, "excessive". We know this because he kept meticulous records of his bodily state. The pianist Glenn Gould (another flatulence sufferer) also generated "voluminous archives of his symptoms", from blood-pressure statistics to pulse rates.
Hypochondriasis, Brian Dillon tells us in this ingenious and intriguing book, is characterised by an intense scrutiny of the body. We should all listen to our bodies, of course, but the nine people examined here were hypersensitive, possessing a heightened awareness of having a body and of being embodied in the world.

Dillon accepts that hypochondria is to some extent a chimerical illness, but there are enough similarities and convergences to just about string these disparate lives together, although clearly Daniel Paul Schreber – who experienced "divine miracles" and was convinced that he was turning into a woman – was insane. As Dillon observes, there is something rather impressive about Schreber's delusions and "the prodigious unreality of the mental world he inhabited", although in his classic 1911 case study, Sigmund Freud saw only a paranoiac who could not admit his homosexuality.

In Tormented Hope Dillon looks beyond the comic stereotype of the hypochondriac to the tragicomic reality. He also makes a strong case for there being a link between "health anxiety" and creativity, following the philosopher Gilles Deleuze's observation that many great artists have frail health, the idea of the writer or artist being simultaneously the médecin and the malade of a civilisation. Charlotte Brontë's hypochondria, he shows, was displaced on to Lucy Snowe or Jane Eyre, and Proust's was an essential aspect of his art. Dillon is a self-confessed hypochondriac and his conclusion that "the power of imagination . . . is in itself a kind of pathology" has profound implications for literature.

A major theme here is seclusion or, more accurately, reclusion. Darwin was a semi-invalid for much of his adult life, although the nature of his malady remains a mystery. His debility had its advantages: "It meant that he could retreat from the world," says Dillon, "the better to pursue his scientific inquiries." Florence Nightingale's illness was similarly undiagnosed, but like many Victorian women she probably welcomed a stay in the sickroom: "The invalid fled into an interior world, a kind of secret garden from which she had so far been barred by convention."
In her essay "On Being Ill" Virginia Woolf wondered why the sickbed has not been among "the prime themes of literature", and indeed, as Dillon shows us, Marcel Proust's bed was "a well-provisioned craft in which he set sail on a darkened ocean" (a far cry from Heinrich Heine's Matratzengruft or "mattress-grave").

A morbid fear of illness often conceals a fear of death. "A Hypochondriack fancies himself at different times suffering death in all the various ways in which it has been observed," wrote James Boswell, "and thus he dies many times before his death." An exception to this is Alice James (Henry James's sister), who was perversely happy at being told she had breast cancer because her "career as an invalid" had reached its apotheosis.

Dillon quotes from a 17th-century thesis which observes that hypochondriacs can suffer spasms as a result of "sudden Outcry, or the very opening of a Door". When Andy Warhol's silver wig was snatched from his head at a book signing, he complained that "It hurt. Physically." A more extreme example is Gould's response to being patted on the shoulder by a Steinway employee in 1959. He recoiled, muttering: "Don't do that; I don't like to be touched," and later claimed that this incident had resulted in a problem with his left hand. It was the excuse he needed to withdraw from public performances, and his recording studio, like Proust's bedroom, became a refuge, "a technological cocoon that finally satisfied his urge to separate himself physically from his public".

Warhol's obsession with his red nose is reminiscent of another of Freud's famous patients, the so-called Wolf Man, who became convinced that his nose had been disfigured by electrolysis. The problem that hypochondriacs wrestle with on a daily basis, according to Dillon, is the imperfectability of the body. They unreasonably expect their bodies to be perfect (and in Warhol's case, unattainably beautiful) and are disturbed when they don't match this ideal. "The hypochondriac's historical mistake is to imagine a condition of bodily being that is physically and psychically null or neutral, a state of simultaneous (therefore impossible) vigour and inertia." They seek the achieved body, but our bodies are dynamic systems susceptible to decay.

Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1944–1945, by William I Hitchcock

“It was rather a shock to find that we were not welcomed ecstatically as ‘Liberators’ by the people,” wrote a British corporal in his wartime diary. “They saw us as bringers of destruction and pain.” Other soldiers also found the French peasants “sullen and silent”, and in this important but provocative book William I Hitchcock has given himself the difficult task of looking at the last year of the war in Europe from the point of view of the civilians whose cities were bombed or loved ones were killed in the name of liberation. Nazi brutality cannot be denied, he says, but the “harvest of innocent life by the liberators” also needs to be addressed, along with “the indeterminate nature of liberation, its paradoxical joys and miseries”. Liberation is a useful antidote to the usual triumphalist narrative of grateful citizens cheering on our boys. Similarly, Hitchcock shows how Allied soldiers were disgusted and repulsed by the “ape-like gibbering skeletons” they liberated from the death camps, and could not relate to them as fellow human beings.

For Love and Courage: Letters Home from the Western Front 1914–1917, by Lieutenant Colonel EW Hermon, edited by Anne Nason

Edward William Hermon (1878–1917) wrote some 600 letters to his wife in the two years before his death at the Battle of Arras. This well-edited selection begins in 1914, with Hermon looking forward to “the game” or “the show”, and pausing during nights of calm to write words of heartfelt love. He still manages to get letters and newspapers in the trenches, but early on he is most preoccupied by food parcels: tea, jam, Oxo, Bovril and “Gentleman’s Joy”. It is quintessentially English (“After tea the Germans had the lip to start shelling us”), the quaint language (“what ho!”, “capital”, “top-hole”) evoking a lost era. While he cannot conceal his joy at mixing with fellow officers who know about hounds and hunting, Hermon has a high regard for his men, and is surprised to find them sharing their rum, cigarettes and even breakfast with German POWs. His loving good-humour cannot survive the constant noise and squalor, however, and his last letters are tense and weary. It’s a touching record of one man’s experience of war.