Recommended reading

Children continue to be main victims of Iraq war by Dr. César Chelala. César has for many years been a leading expert on health issues and how they are affected by war and politics.


Recent reading: Death in Venice

While thinking of things German, I decided it was high time I read this famous 1911 novella, which has become emblematic of a kind of fatal obsession.

Thomas Mann, "Death in Venice." (Der Tod in Venedig) In Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. Tr. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Vintage Books, 1954 (though there are many other editions).

Gustave von Aschenbach, a famous but lonely 60-ish author in Munich, decides to spark his dull life by a an unscheduled vacation in Venice, where he is so overwhelmed by the beauty and youth of an unreachable object that he dies of desire.

The love-object is a young boy (12? 10?) who is called, Aschenbach thinks, "Tadzio" and whose Polish-speaking family is staying in the same hotel. The language barrier could be easily breached, if this were a realistic story; those prosperous Poles would surely be able to communicate in French or German. Rather, it is Aschenbach's inhibitions that prevent him from ever speaking directly to the boy, while desire drives him to spy on him. Death comes to Aschenbach from a plague that he could easily have avoided, if he had not been sneaking around the infested parts of town for further glimpses of the boy.

Mann was himself a famous author by this time (1911), though only 36. The story seems to be an ironic commentary, a mean-spirited joke, about his profession -- that no matter how cultured a writer or other artist may seem, animal desires win out. Mann uses the story as a structure to hang various reflections about art and desire, his and Aschenbach's. For example:

"Men do not know why they award fame to one work of art rather than another. Without being in the faintest conoisseurs, they theink to justify the warmth of their commendations by discovering in it a hundred virtues, whereas the real ground of their applause is inexplicable -- it is sympathy." (Pp. 10-11 in my edition)

"Sympathy" as in just liking the author's voice, I suppose. Or the cover photo. There's probably something to that.

Here Aschenbach imagines himself as Michelangelo:

"And yet the pure, strong will which had laboured in darkness and succeeded in bringing this godlike work of art [Tadzio] to the light of day -- was it not known and familiar to him, the artist? Was it not the same force at work in himself when he strove in cold fury to liberate from the marble mass of language the slender forms of his art which he saw with the eye of his mind and would body forth to men as the mirror and image of spiritual beauty?" (44)

"Marble mass of language" indeed! Aschenbach is a more pretentious version of Updike's pathetic Bech, a kind of negative alter ego. Mann was having wicked fun. But here's a passage that may (possibly) express Mann's own view of his profession:

"This life in the bonds of art... had been a service, and he a soldier, like some of them [Aschenbach is thinking of his warrior ancestors]; and art was war -- a grilling, exhausting struggle that nowadays wore one out before one could grow old. it had been a life of self-conquest, a life against odds, dour, steadfast, abstinent; he had made it symbolical of the kind of overstrained heroism the time admired, and he was entitled to call it manly, even courageous." (56-57)

Well, maybe Mann did not really mean that. It sounds pretty ridiculous today.

"Some minutes passed before anyone hastened to the aid of the elderly man sitting there collapsed in his chair. They bore him to his room. And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease." (75)

One hopes the world awarded him a Purple Heart to match his face.

A one-and-a-two-and... The monkey polka

In case you're wondering why I've suddenly become a Lawrence Welk fan -- judging from the ads on this blog -- it's not true. Google's trained monkeys who choose the ads saw my reference to "Lawrence" -- T. E. Lawrence, he of Arabia -- and connected it to the band leader from Minnesota. (Maybe they're all Polish-American monkeys.) Anyway, happy polka-ing!

"Civil Society" & uncivil aims

I just reviewed a book about how US-based NGOs misinterpret the societies they operate in, for H-LatAm (part of the huge Humanities and Social Sciences family of scholarly websites). The book is Wiarda, Howard J. 2003. Civil Society: The American Model and Third World Development. Boulder CO: Westview Press.

Wiarda's concern is that Americans in NGOs abroad will be so naive as to think they can reproduce US-style "liberalism" (as he calls our system) and the "unfettered sociability" of US civil society in other countries, which tend to be suspicious of US-type "civil society" associations. No wonder. "Empire" is the unmentioned factor that might explain the suspicion. While the US government may tolerate "liberalism" at home with little interference in NGO operations or missions, Wiarda fails to note that overseas it uses the NGOs it funds to implement US policy -- e.g., overthrowing governments in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, trying to do the same in Venezuela and doubtless many other places.

Look for the full review to appear on H-LatAm in about a month (the editors are backlogged).