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Posts from the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Dante’s Two Suns

“Soleva Roma, che ‘l buon mondo feo, 


due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada 


facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo”

 

“Rome, which formed the world for good,

once held two suns that lit the one road

and the other, the world’s and that to God.”

 Purgatorio XVI

 

Dante Alighieri is well known for being the author of the Divine Comedy, probably one of the most important works written in the West in medieval times, given its continuing influence over the creative arts up to the present day. And yet not everyone knows his other works in quite the same way, particularly the Convivio and De Monarchia, which reveal his many interests and proficiencies as well as the staggering wealth and depth of his knowledge. As he shows off this encyclopaedic knowledge, certain themes crop up more than others, revealing the author’s particular interests. Perhaps the most prominent of these is politics. For Dante, to meditate on this theme meant to take stock of his own condition, so tragically determined by his political choices. Immersed in the Classical authors, Dante had assimilated the political thought of Aristotle and Cicero. As a result, he conceived policy as the way to create a pacific coexistence for citizens through laws and justice. In line with Classical ideals, Dante considered it a moral duty for everyone to be involved in political life if they had the capacity to do so. 

Being a politician in the Middle Ages was not exactly an easy ride. A centuries-old and at times ferocious struggle for supremacy was ongoing between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. On the one hand, the pope wanted to exercise his power over the emperor as the head of a Christian nation. On the other, the German emperor was determined not only to obtain complete autonomy from the pontiff, but also to influence certain important decisions within the Roman Church, such as the designations of bishops and even the election of the pope. 

In the peripheries of the Empire, the tensions between these authorities reached a violent climax in Italy, at the time one of the richest parts of Europe, both culturally and economically. These violent conflicts, probably owing to the area’s proximity to Rome, were not only well documented in city records, but also in Dante’s own private reflections. There were two factions: the Guelphs, who traditionally supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, allies of the emperor in opposition to the pontiff. The period was characterised by wars between neighbouring cities as well as within cities. This generated the climate of terror and bloodshed to which the Divine Comedy bears witness. The poet himself was banished from Florence and later sentenced to death for his political activism. It is worth noting the traditional reluctance of political theorists to deal with practical administration, from Aristotle to the early 16th Century. Indeed, only a generation after Dante, Petrarch, although he did write about the troubling Italian situation, carefully abstained from involving himself in it. In this regard also, the Florentine showed himself to be the brightest star in the Medieval cultural environment. 

Dante’s fascinating progression from Guelph to Ghibelline is not our main concern, however, as I would like to focus the discussion on his philosophical speculations, which were aimed at resolving the moral paradoxes of Christians who were involved in policy. To obey the rules of the Church or to obey the laws of the state? The debate was an age-old one, dating back as far as the 5th Century BC in Athens, when Antigone made her touching decision in Sophocles’ well-known tragedy. For the first time in the history of western literature, freedom of conscience had been recognised by the Theban heroine’s choice to prioritise the law of the gods over earthly laws. However the dichotomy which led her to sacrifice her young life remained intact and irreconcilable.

Dante recalled St Augustin’s idea from De Civitate Dei and developed it, enabling him to heal this rift by illustrating the autonomy and necessity of both institutions as they descended directly and naturally from God. His explanation was a philosophical one: given that man is made of body and soul, his nature is both corruptible and incorruptible. And as any nature must have a purpose, Dante found that living in peace was the purpose of the body, and eternal happiness the purpose of the soul. Moreover, he identified two guides appointed by God to lead the people towards those aims: the emperor was the leader of earthly life and the pope was the leader of eternal life. 

As such, he argued that the emperor must have unrestricted power, since only a person who has everything does not desire anything else, and is consequently in a position to treat people equally. (Some of you may remember an Italian Prime Minister who used the same argument to win votes, but the final result did not quite match up to the idea!). The pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was only supposed to be concerned with giving moral instruction to humanity in order to secure their salvation, while supposedly being immune to all power and riches.

Thus Dante, as a Christian and politician of the early 14th Century, was able to corroborate the “Two Suns Theory”, an early version of secularism according to which the Church and the empire were two separate entities that were both necessary for humankind. Although his philosophical thought is rigorously scholastic, the poet approaches problems from an ethical stance, rather than treating them purely speculatively. His reasoning is never merely an end in itself but a tool with which to discover the solution to existing problems and situations.

It doesn’t matter if much of our later reading gives Dante the role of a tireless and blind loyalist, belonging to an antiquated world. It doesn’t matter if he did not adequately consider the Italian bourgeoisie’s reinforcement as a pressing request of freedom and autonomy hardly compatible with the absolute power of the Emperor. It doesn’t matter if national kingdoms were appearing on stage as competing powers for the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore representing a serious threat for the political unity of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if Dante’s ideological structure, which he meticulously constructs in his works, was going to collapse like a house of cards.

The great Florentine writer and philosopher should not be considered as a laudator temporis acti; that is, an inactive, slow and pessimistic reader of contemporary society. Rather he should be considered as a man who courageously made his critical skills available for the advancement of society, which, according to him, was the only possible means to achieve the advancement of mankind, and therefore the only way to reflect the divine order on Earth.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it

The God Argument

 GraylingThe God Argument – A.C. Grayling

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” Mark Twain

With the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still looming behind a fragile ceasefire, and with ISIS still rampaging their way across northern Iraq, now seems like a good time to talk about atheism. A.C. Grayling’s short book is essentially a step-by-step guide to giving up religion, with absolutely no ground conceded to my kind of wishy-washy agnosticism. Grayling takes us through each of the main arguments for religion before savagely but politely uprooting them and tossing them aside. The second part of the book is then a celebration of humanism, which is the author’s preferred alternative to God.

The book is chiefly memorable for the way in which Grayling goes about his business of dismantling preconceptions regarding religion, basically doing a lot of the intellectual groundwork that most of us can never summon the energy for. A particular favourite of mine is the manner in which he illustrates the nature of proof via Carl Sagan’s story of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire – the lesson being that an inability to invalidate a hypothesis is by no means the same as proving it true. The implications of this are twofold. Firstly, that redefining religion to fit modern science smacks of inconsistency. Secondly, that not being able to disprove the existence of something does not make the odds of its actual existence 50-50, as is sometimes assumed when we say we can’t know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Grayling points out that this is exactly the same as saying we can’t know that fairies, goblins, unicorns or mermaids don’t exist, but we usually reconcile ourselves to the extreme improbability that they actually do.

More important than the powerful logic Grayling deploys in his favour, however, is the fact that the author is clearly motivated by a genuine preoccupation with the effect of religious belief in the world, and not by a proselytising desire just to make sure everyone agrees with him. I say this is important because I think a lot of atheistic thinkers get caught in the proselytising trap, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. This is, of course, not to say that they are necessarily wrong, but that the way in which they put forward their case harks back to a manner of ideological persuasion we might normally associate with religious preaching, not the opposite. In other words, more or less impartial observers of the religious debate, myself included, need to feel that it is more than a frenzied bout of intellectual masturbation – the stakes may be high but I have always preferred Sartre’s approach, which is to say that even absolute certainty of God’s existence wouldn’t deprive you of responsibility over your own actions (i.e. it should make no difference to how you choose to live your life).

Unfortunately, the reality is that organised religion does make a difference, and for the most part it makes a difference in a profoundly negative way, as has been made abundantly clear to everyone over the past few weeks. Grayling is uncompromising in setting out exactly what he finds distasteful about religion, from its fundamentally divisive nature, to the way it perpetuates itself by targeting children for indoctrination. The latter point is one that bears remembering – no one chooses which side of the wall they are born on.

The Editors

Tuxedo Park

Tuxedo ParkTuxedo Park: The Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II, by Jennet Conant

I have had a latent interest in amateur invention since I first read a book on Sir George Cayley. Cayley was a gentleman inventor, born in 1777  who practised his inventing on an estate in Cumbria that had been passed down through -six- generations of his family, along with his title.


Among his achievements were a fountain pen, a caterpillar track (for gardening), an aeroplane which it seems likely would have flown one hundred years before the Wright Brothers (Cayley died in 1857) had Cayley not half-killed too many of his butlers in prototypes so that none were willing to trial it.

He even confounded office clichés everywhere by literally re-inventing the wheel: using a hub and rim joined by spokes under tension he invented the wheel which is now common to most modern bicycles.

His particular interest in invention stemmed from the early encouragement of his mother. Recognising his ability and his interest in the mechanics of nature she encouraged young George to carry around a notebook and to record his observations. Early examples of his notetaking include a detailed analysis of the wings of a hummingbird – an early sign of his interest in flight.


The story of George Cayley is a seemingly purist tale of personal interest and exploration leading to creation and change. Somewhat luxuriously, Cayley’s explorations of science were disconnected from the market forces driving commercial discoveries and his ideas were permitted to gestate at their natural pace.

The story of Alfred Loomis is quite the opposite. Born to relative but not independent wealth, Loomis attended Harvard and then picked up the mantle of his family’s fortunes, starting out as a lawyer and then shortly after by forming a fund on Wall Street with a cousin and, as you might say, ‘cleaning up.’ Over the period of nine years they bought and held significant if not controlling interests in almost every major utility in America. During the Great Depression, Loomis’ personal wealth increased by nearly fifty million dollars.  

Moving from a largely non-existent, middle class affluence to an extreme of money and influence in his forties, Loomis bought himself the freedom to explore his exuberant scientific interests – including entertaining and sponsoring the greatest scientists of his age, and procuring vast quantities of the most expensive equipment then available to mankind.

His extraordinary intellectual capabilities (which included the ability to play at least two chess games at once with his backed turned to both boards whilst maintaining a lively conversation with his dinner guests) allowed him to pick up a new field of science in a few short months. His incredible financial wealth and broad connections, facilitated the introductions he required to attract the finest scientific talent in each field to his personal laboratory at Tuxedo Park, just south of New York where his voracious appetite for advancement drove great leaps forward in each field in a short space, before his attention to turned to a new topic following which the money, equipment and scientists were parcelled off to a long term home such as Harvard or MIT.

Among his interests (and his most significant discoveries) number a venture into the short wave radio spectrum which led to advances in portable radar such that it could be mounted on ships and aeroplanes, early understandings of brain wave patterns during sleep, advancements in fusion technologies (in particular the cyclotrons capable of generating sufficient voltage to split an atom) that made the splitting of the atom a reality and ended the war.

Having worked with Thomas Edison during World War I, he took to heart Edison’s belief that the US should spend on the advancement of its weaponry in peacetime, in order to have it ready for the arrival of conflict. The pattern of news from Germany in the ‘30s redoubled this conviction in Loomis, in spite of the Roosevelt government’s passive stance towards Hitler. One of Loomis’s first acts of patriotism in this regard was to build a scaled down and improved tank which he used to drive to the train station to collect his guests. Henry Stimson (a long-time friend of Loomis and then Secretary fo State to Roosevelt) reportedly announced “This is how one protects the country” as they drove to the Loomis mansion in Tuxedo.


Tuxedo Park presents Loomis as a dispassionate and deeply scientific man. He seems without vanity and without extremes of emotion; cold yet luminary, his achievements have outlived his name in most areas of his life. This book, Tuxedo Park, is a reminder of Loomis’s incredible potency and yet it is the only mark of his face left on an earth otherwise deeply scarred by some of the most impressive and atrocious discoveries that he was part of, none more so than the atom bomb.

That he has largely fallen from record, a side note in the margins of a colourful and often re-written history of our early twentieth century wars, is a mark of his amateurism. He existed in the margins and that is where he has remained. Yet it is clear that he was not an amateur by any means, not in the romantic sense and certainly not in the derogatory sense. He was a brilliant inventor, a gifted financier and an arch power-broker: perhaps he could not have successfully been one without the others, but it seems doubtful that such advances could have been achieved without that rare and extraordinary blend of skills – advances that stopped the course of a war and changed the world we live in forever. If there was ever an argument for reading in the margins, Alfred Loomis was its embodiment.

The Editors

Building Things

Smart People Should Build ThingsSmart People Should Build Things – Andrew Yang

My not now so recent change in career sparked a new drive for information in me. Entering a new line of work reopened the pores of my professional curiosity, and working in an otherwise undefined, unregulated, undocumented and as yet largely unformed industry in a company that had not previously existed, even more so.

Information in the law is readily, though not freely, available. Reading into the profession is so important that young lawyers are sent to law school for two years before they start working but no such study is available for those starting out in young technology companies.

So where to look. A quick Google search for ‘starting a business’ produces 1,050,000,000 pages of information about leaving a job and starting out on your own (or joining in with someone who is doing the same). They will point you to Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup or the The Startup Owner’s Manual as being biblical texts in the world of high growth startups. Many others will try to convince you that for a monthly fee of only fifteen dollars, they will show you the keys to  unlock incomes in the thousands per week from only a few hours of effort (probably from setting up just such websites).

It may not take you long to find the works of Tim Ferris, his ouevre of ‘four hour’ books, textbooks defining the many ways in which you can do anything you want much faster than you think if you think about the effect of your actions rather than the effort of them (the ‘Pareto chop’). A treasure trove of short cuts, high tales and more than a dash of charlatanism, it made an enjoyable seed for the dream bed of my career change from the law, even if it is hard to trust a man who preaches the four hour work week and works sixteen hours a day.

Eric Ries’ works set out a methodology for developing an idea from scratch. Like most of the books in this category they preach common sense, but when common sense is the know-how of the industry, it is reassuring to see it printed up and labelled as a text book occasionally. Follow Eric Ries, don’t follow Eric Ries, it doesn’t really matter but you will probably last longer if you do as he says (and does). His core principle is a straightforward one: rapidly experiment with one eye on the rate at which you are spending money. You may ask why anyone would have to write that down but unfortunately it is.

My route into this particular genre of literature was more mundane than most being via the management pages of the FT in which Luke Johnson (a serial entrepreneur who began his career by building up the Pizza Express chain of restaurants) writes a weekly column.

His pieces are heart-felt and engaging, much like his book Start It Up which sets out no methodology but is an unabashed call to arms for anyone thinking about starting a company. Every other page of the book is a full page quotation affirming the decision of anyone thinking about starting up a business (or pretty much doing anything else).

After one column I emailed him to ask, ‘when is the right time to leave the law and set out on my own’, to which he replied ‘Seize the day, Luke’. One of the kindest, shortest and most memorable emails, I have ever received.

Another writer, who has recently published his very charming book, Smart People Should Build Things is Andrew Yang, a one time New York corporate lawyer. He lasted about as long as I did in the law before turning his attentions to startups, working in a number of different as he puts it ‘low paid’ jobs before founding his own tutoring agency and selling it in his mid-thirties at a healthy profit.

He now runs a not for profit organisation called Venture for America which specialises in placing young, budding, would-be-entrepreneurs in startup companies in deprived areas of America such as Detroit. A great idea and an excellent book – what appeals the most about Yang’s style is his honesty. Aside from the apparent immodesty of the title, he writes not as Tim Ferris superhuman who has ‘hacked life’, redefined wealth, reclaimed time and made himself into the examplar of ability in every jurisdiction of existence, but instead he writes with the wary encouragement of a person who didn’t like being a lawyer, turned down short term success and made a life for himself not dictated by others. Not a work of literature, but I will come back to, many times again.

The Editors

Books for prisoners

Books to prisoners

It is a special kind of ignorance that classes reading as a privilege that should be banned. Reading is not a privilege, nor is it a right. It is an act of consciousness. The symbols and the medium need not be letters and paper. Human beings read everything that they look at. Books, newspapers, pictures, faces, eyes, actions, landscapes, patterns of behaviour, groups of individuals, subliminal messages, reading is the act of sensing and interpreting.

Man is by nature a social animal”, says Aristotle, and reading is how we converse with the world, even in silence. Reading is not a drawbridge to be retracted nor can its object be erased. A text, once read, lives on in the mind far longer than the act of reading it. Books are the captured voices of others and they can lead us anywhere we need or wish to go. Why then deprive prisoners of guidance? That is not an act of punishment, nor even of vengeance. To guide the misguided must be one purpose of a justice system.

To those prisoners who are allowed to read, or who seek a book to accompany them in prison as they pass time: two of the best companions you could ask for are a collected works of Shakespeare and a copy of the King James Bible. Both are untempting and intimidating books to many readers on the outside but they are the richest and most rewarding books when read with time. Read them slowly, read them for pleasure. If it is all that is available to you, then you are rich: “Why, nature needs not what thou, gorgeous, wear’st, / Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need – / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.” (here).

I can’t imagine how I would react to imprisonment. Not well. Bryan Keenan’s amazing An Evil Cradling dispelled my teenage idea that being kidnapped might be an interesting path to self-discovery. It is tempting, however, to think of the books that could be read, particularly by someone starting reading in earnest for the first time, in prison.

Perhaps one should start with stoic literature. BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy is a book I read at least once a year as a free person. It contains among my favourite lines of literature: “If you seek the help of the surgeon, you must first expose the wound” and I think I would revisit it as often as I could if I were in prison.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius might also offer solace and a model for survival: “If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy.” Or Fox’s Book of Martyrs, on surviving and internalising persecution: “Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.” He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, ‘Jesus, I believe’; and these were the last words he was heard to utter.”

Or perhaps there is more comfort to be had in the literature of imprisonment, exile or disaster providing a kind of commonality of experience. Kafka’s The Trial or Voltaire’s Candide might be my first ports of call (“I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men, and of these three, two were priests.”). I might attempt Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo, though I have never managed yet, or branch out into the literature of metaphorical imprisonment, Zóla’s L’Oeuvre, in which a young artist is imprisoned by his artistic ambition, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or more literally, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Perhaps instead, the literature of escapism would be more enticing, giving life to J M G Le Clézio’s contention that literature is the true travel and opening up worlds real and unreal for the reader to escape into.

Either way, once read, a book can never be taken from you. So a lesson for all of us from the deprivation of literature from prisons is to read as much and as widely as we can, while we can. And for those suffering a ban on reading, perhaps they can take solace in the words of Benjamin Disraeli: “When I want to read a good book, I write one.”

The Editors

Night Walks

Night Walks – Charles Dickens, Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’

Penguin do a couple of great lines in quirky short books called ‘Great Ideas’ [eds: we review another here]. About one hundred authors are showcased and, from what I can tell, the series is aimed at introducing the reader to an essay or a passage from an extremely famous writer/politician/philosopher/champion of the arts. Some books are a more natural fit than others. Engels’ and Marx’s Communist Manifesto fits the 100-200 page bill perfectly. There is, however, a danger that a reader might approach this literary fast-food and then believe themself to be familiar with the author. This is likely to end in disappointment bearing in mind the collection of contributors range from Kant to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky. Gaining familiarity, confidence and enjoyment from these gods takes a rather more sustained effort. That isn’t to say that fast food isn’t enjoyable.

 

nightwalks

 

It was seeing the photo above, a study of night time London in the 1920s which encouraged me to seek out Dickens’ Night Walks. I never really need much convincing where Dickens is concerned. He is the author of one of my favourite books – Great Expectations – and his writing has a conversational style which, to me, sounds like a quirky uncle time-travelling from the mid 19th Century to tell you a story. Furthermore, whilst his English is obviously not modern I never find it old-fashioned, which makes for a more relaxed read when compared with other literary greats.

Night Walks is a rather awkwardly cobbled together collection of commentaries by Dickens on the London of his day. The best parts are invariably the chapters which chart the walks which Dickens took during the nights where he lost his battle with insomnia, hence the name of the book I suppose. There is also a wonderful chapter where Dickens recounts a time when as an 8-year-old he spends a day lost in the City pondering what to do with his life and how to find his fame and fortune. Following in the footsteps of Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington is entertained at length. It might be complete fabrication, but it makes for a good tale nonetheless. There are also passages on the prevalence of betting shops, regular state funerals, and other peculiarities of the time which I found less interesting. Nonetheless, there is some genius about this book and it has little to do with the excellence of the writing or the writer.

One of the marvellous things about London is that the streets and the boroughs are unchanging. The British capital has never enjoyed/suffered a major reworking at the hands of a revolutionary band, an occupying power or any other force for radical change. You and I can walk the streets as Dickens once did, you and I can reconstruct the Limehouse, Whitechapel, Covent Garden or The Borough of the time based on the information provided by Dickens. Whilst the docklands that Dickens talks of are now in the shadow of Canary Wharf, the old streets and yards remain. The abject poverty of Tower Hamlets may have been somewhat relieved and the streets paved, but it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination to mentally recreate Dickens’ London.

Indeed, it seems as though some of the author’s reflections on certain areas of the city are not too far removed from modern sentiment: “When I go into the City, now, it makes me sorrowful to think that I am quite an artful wretch. Strolling about it as a lost child, I thought of the British Merchant and the Lord Mayor, and was full of reverence. Strolling about it now, I laugh at the sacred liveries of state, and get indignant at the corporation as one of the strongest practical jokes of the present day.”

In Night Walks you have both a guide and a companion.

Matt Bradley

The Reason I Jump

The Reason I Jump, Don't Read Too Fast

The Reason I Jump – Naoki Higashida

I bought a copy of The Reason I Jump after reading this outstanding article on autism on medium.com proposing the ‘intense world’ theory of autism.

Traditional understandings of autism have been predicated on the idea that autism stems from a cortical deficit, most commonly relating to language and emotion. As Oliver Sacks wrote in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: “Neurology’s favourite word is ‘deficit’.”

But the intense world theory takes the opposite view: autism is not a deficit of feeling, but a superabundance of it, so much so as to be overwhelming. Instead of feeling no emotion, autistic people feel so much emotion that they shut themselves down in order to protect themselves from it. They are so attuned to their surroundings and the emotions of others that they are intensely affected by them. This overwhelming of the senses affects every aspect of their lives, from the ability to speak their minds, to the ability to conduct conversations. They require constant attention to maintain a daily routine and severe autism prevents a person from living any kind of independent existence.

The Reason I Jump is a charming book. It is written with a ferocious honesty: “I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have – and that saps the spirit we need to soldier on. The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.”

Framed as a sequence of fifty seven questions, The Reason I Jump is one of the most refreshing autobiographical works I have read.  A window on a part of our own mental lives that is so often hidden away. Written by Higashida when only thirteen years old using a writing frame to point at each letter individually, the crisp clarity of the language is astounding.

“It’s not that we dislike holding hands, it’s just that, if we happen to spot something interesting, we can’t help but dash off and let go of the hand we were holding.” or my favourite in answer to the question, why do you ask the same questions over and over?: “I imagine that a normal person’s memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I’m always ‘picking up’ these dots – by asking my questions – so I can arrive back at the memory that the dots represent.”

The Reason I Jump is a charming view of our own behaviours from the perspective of someone living at their mercy. That autism represents the extreme condition is no barrier to it revealing the absurdity of many behaviours of the non-autistic (particularly stress induced lapses of lucidity: “when I see I’ve made a mistake, my mind shuts down. I cry, I scream, I make a huge fuss and I just can’t think straight any more”).

Reading The Reason I Jump is like reading about someone who wears the central tenets of the human psyche at the surface so that the social and linguistic elements of our beings which protect our soft psychological centres like a veneer are displaced, leaving the centre exposed, overwhelmed and seemingly vulnerable. It struck me, reading the voice of a person who could not speak, that there might be two challenges with autism. The first, to make us a little more like them: clear, honest and emotionally aware. And the second of course, to help them live their lives with clarity, honesty and an understanding that penetrates beyond the veneer.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part II

dontreadtoofast.comBarbarians at the Gate – Bryan Burrough and John Heylar

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

There is something fiendish about that element of finance directed purely at the acquisitive fabrication of money that did not previously exist.

One of the most enterprising of these solutions (progress of a kind: like the rack or the guillotine) is commonly referred to as ‘PIK’ debt or ‘payment in kind’ debt: I pay you for a company with a loan note (literally an ‘I owe you’); if needed, I can pay you back with more loan notes (more ‘I owe yous’). The price of my purchase shoots up and the amount of cash required remains the same. If things go well, you get paid when I refinance the PIK debt. If they go badly, Lehman Brothers collapses under the weight of its now ‘toxic’ I owe yous. Or as our protagonist, Ross Johnson puts it:

I mean,” Johnson went on, “we have found something that’s better than the U.S. printing press. And they’ve got it all down here on Wall Street. And nobody knows it’s going on. I wonder if the World Bank knows about it. You could solve the third world debt crisis with this stuff. It’s a brand new currency…”

The development of this practice is really the birthplace of Barbarians at the Gate, a steaming missive written by two Wall Street Journal journalists hot from the trail of one of the most decadent and extraordinary leveraged buy-out competitions (LBOs) of the already decadent 1980s. The confluence of an LBO market just coming to its adolescent maturity on the rise of PIK and other exotic debt types, the petrol burning machismo that fuelled it and the extravagant talent and whimsy of, Ross Johnson, CEO, “a man who devoted his life to shaking things up”.

The book centres around the bidding war leading up to the purchase by KKR of Johnson’s company RJR Nabisco. An LBO is essentially a purchase of a company by a private equity fund using debt and a friendly (well-remunerated) management team to secure a purchase. The existing shareholders are bought out at a premium. The managers take a large equity position in the company in exchange for performance incentives. The company is taken off the stock market. The private equity fund trims the company’s fat (in RJR Nabisco’s case, a thirty aircraft strong private fleet of jets compiled by Ross Johnson and colloquially known as the ‘RJR Air Force’) to make room in the cash flows to accommodate interest repayments on debt. Three or five or more years down the line the company is either broken up and sold in more valuable constituent parts or taken back to the stock market to be sold, hopefully at a profit.

The book is one of the few business thrillers I have ever read, and it gripped me more tightly than any novel I have read in the last year. It takes as its raw material such a rich subject, such intense characters (“Kravis went numb. He had been fighting for this for so long. He had lost eight pounds in the last six weeks…All he could think of was how much work was ahead”) that at times Burrough’s and Heylar must force on their writing a dead-pan description of “the biggest prize in history” without which the book would have become unreadable.

The authors gather around their plot a litany of Shakespearean characters, Henry Kravis, one of the three founders of KKR, plays a kind of Goneril to Ross Johnson’s Lear. Ted Forstmann, founder and CEO of Forstmann, Little & Co, a Cordelia, decries the debt funded buyout practices pioneered by KKR: “We are not comparable. When I started this business ten years ago, I said I wanted to be the best. I didn’t care about being the biggest. If you think the biggest is the best, go away. You belong with Kravis. Our returns are three and four times the returns they lie about getting.”

On the other side, the loose management style of Ross Johnson (“A few million dollars are lost in the sands of time”) and the extraordinary governance practices of RJR Nabisco make the problems of valuing this behemoth of a company intractable: “If missing figures weren’t bad enough, Stuart didn’t completely understand the ones he had. One number in particular puzzled them all. On the initial projections they had obtained from RJR Nabisco was a heading “Other uses of cash”. Beside it was a row of figures stretching out ten years, each ranging from $300 million to $500 million. Stuart had no idea what the numbers meant.” Never has so much fun been had reading about the accounting woes of others.

Barbarians at the Gate is a fast paced, American thriller. A book that doesn’t give up being read (“We’d like to think that Barbarians has aged well”, the authors coyly note) and has survived the twenty years since its publication, rather like the LBO market but unlike RJR Nabisco.

More notably for us, the PIK notes that fuelled the eventual $25 billion valuation of RJR Nabisco are still in use. Last year nearly $15.3 billion dollars of debt was raised by PIK notes in 39 different deals. Perhaps this is a cost of economic recovery. Perhaps it is the sign of the green shoots of economic progress that we would like to see. Regardless of interpretation, if ever there was a time to understand the unreasonable man it is now because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result isn’t progress, according to Albert Einstein, it’s insanity.

The Editors

House of Stone

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House of Stone – Anthony Shadid

My father was born in a house in a small village in the south of Lebanon. The sound of the wind in the grasses rushing down to the border with neighbouring Israel is deceptive and peaceful and it is a sound and a scene that I re-enact regularly when I am tired or ill or lonely.

In 1985, Israel militarised an area north of its border including the village to create what it described as a ‘Security Zone’. There are few places on earth less safe than a militarized security zone; the price of security is guns, landmines, soldiers and razor wire.

It was certainly not a safe place for my Grandfather’s house. As a young boy my family told me it had been used as a weapons dump. When I finally came to see it in 2002, it was a roofless shell of limestone blocks. My father could point to the places he had played as a young man, the room he was born in, the kitchen, the garden, not far away the well, in the distance the lake but it was clear that even if the spirit of that house was there, the body of it was nearly gone. We went down to his school where there was a class reunion. Everyone speaking, hugging, smoking after twenty, thirty and even forty years.

Over dinner with my cousin last week, I discovered that the house had also been used as a brothel. We met for dinner in a pub in Maida Vale, an area of London populated by large Arab and Jewish communities (ironies abounded). He had flown from Canada with work and was passing through London. We hadn’t seen each other for ten years before a bizarre chance meeting the week before in a pizza restaurant in central London. This is modern Lebanon to me – a globalised diaspora – rooted largely in memory and roaming, spread to far-flung places: Brasil, Oklahoma, Kansas, Canada, London to name a few.

House of Stone appears to take this fact as its cause. Shadid writes about his attempt to restore his family home. His family is from the same village that my father was born in, Jdeidet Marjayoun and he writes beautifully about the difficulties of life there.

“The availability of electricity dictated everything, regulating the day – when the small, satellite shaped electric heater that I called the Syrian radar functioned, when the three of five working bulbs dangling on a wire from the ceiling cast light, when the water heater scorched so aggressively that steam hissed through the shower head, when the mini-refrigerator kept what little was inside cool.”

There is no denying the deft depiction of the extraordinary characters recruited to his tale and the great rent torn open in him between loyalty to his mission in Lebanon and to his family – “so much of the house was what you might call memories of what I had imagined over many years.” The book belongs in the category of the good memoir – a genre seemingly created by books like The Hare with Amber Eyes, The Music Room, The Snow Geese. 

But one thing nagged at me. Shadid, who later died of an asthma attack escaping Syria, left a young family, a broken marriage, behind in Oklahoma to rebuild his house. Perhaps all of my generation of Marjeyounis are from a broken place, one that cannot be easily restored, one that has been scarred by war and violence that cannot be erased, even if it is plastered over. Shadid recalls how George Farha (my great uncle) would pray for his children each night during the civil war: “Hala in Dubai, Hikmat in Barbados, Rifaat in Switzerland.” Hikmat says: “I believe I am still living because of his prayers.” Perhaps if there is one lesson that I take from dinner with my cousin in London, abstract as it may seem; in 2014 home is not a place; perhaps it never was.

The Editors

The Wager

Human Happiness (excerpts from Pensées), Blaise Pascal

PascalThis is a short book of extracts from Pascal’s Pensées put together by Penguin Books as part of their ‘Great Ideas’ series, which they launched a few years ago.  I’m not sure why they chose to call it Human Happiness, but it may have something to do with Pascal’s observation that “[a]ll men seek happiness. This is without exception.”  It is, however, worth pointing out that happiness is not really the central theme of the excerpts in question here, and the desire for happiness serves more as an anchor for Pascal’s views on the ‘wretchedness’ of the human condition.  In other words, the fact that we endlessly pursue happiness makes our anguish and doubt all the more difficult to bear.  This is perhaps the ‘classic’ view of Pascal and his writing, and indeed the quote on the cover of the book gives us a flavour of how the 17th century French Jansenist viewed man’s natural state as caught between the cold cruelty of nature and the warm embrace of God:

“What then is to become of man? Will he be the equal of God or the beasts? What a terrifying distance! What then shall it be?”

The idea of distance between polarities ties in nicely with Pascal’s famous metaphysical wager, which is helpfully signposted to us in the book as [THE WAGER] in case we miss it.  Despite this warning I didn’t actually see it coming and it was only afterwards when I thought about what Pascal was proposing that it occurred to me that I’d encountered the wager before.  For those of you haven’t had the pleasure, or who need reminding, Pascal’s Wager basically posits that man must choose between God and No God – “God is, or He is not” – and that mathematically this should boil down to a rational assessment of the risk involved in either option.  In other words it comes down to the following: (i) if we bet on God and He exists then we win everything (and if we bet on God and he doesn’t exist then we lose nothing); and conversely (ii) if we don’t bet on God and He exists then we lose everything (and if we don’t bet on God and He doesn’t exist then we win nothing).

Pascal’s straightforward conclusion is that we should obviously bet on God.

My immediate reaction upon processing all this was that the simplistic logic of the Wager only carries weight because Pascal is renowned as one of the greatest mathematicians in human history (i.e. he must be right because he’s good with numbers).  I think this initial objection (Objection 1, if you will) stems from the fact that Pascal’s equation seems to rely on what Dawkins labelled “inauthentic belief”, otherwise known as the “you can’t just feign belief and ‘bet’ on God” objection.  However, further investigation has led me to conclude that this does a disservice to what Pascal is saying, mainly because the context of the Wager indicates that it’s not really supposed to be a cynic’s hedging of bets, but rather a way of placating man’s voracious appetite for reason.  In other words, the Wager is there as a sort of gateway to religious enlightenment, which presupposes that every man and woman will be able to find the truth of God so long as his or her rationality is temporarily assuaged (i.e. he/she is willing to give God a chance).  This gives rise to Objection 2.

Objection 2 is based on the fact that the Wager then becomes a placebo of sorts, to be taken in order to ignore our rational faculties, and more importantly it assumes that belief in a particular Christian God is a foregone conclusion once the placebo has been administered.  As Diderot pointed out, “an Imam could reason the same way.”  This is particularly worrying as Pascal himself recognises that imagination is “the dominant faculty in man, master of error and falsehood.”  Given this propensity for error, it seems unwise to further dampen our ability to consider things rationally and just drift towards spirituality.  This could lead us anywhere or nowhere (particularly if we accept that “man is vile enough to bow down to beasts and even worship them”).  As such, I prefer Pascal’s other argument, which is basically that man trying to understand God is like a two-dimensional animal trying to understand a three-dimensional universe (Dante said much the same thing).

For those of you who’ve made it this far, however, I wouldn’t base your decision on whether or not to approach this book on your feelings for the Wager, which only has a minor role to play, or even religion, which admittedly has a larger part.  Pascal’s writing is incredibly sharp, and his observations regarding human nature are both shrewd and hilarious:

We would all cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery.”

It is also challenging, and that’s not always a bad thing.

The Editors