Christopher Hitchens vs. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Read the Book & Watch the Documentary)

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In 1994, Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) made a documentary for BBC called Hell’s Angel. It was a bold and highly controversial investigation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, vaunted by many devotees as a saint. Prior to Hitchens’ critique, almost every book or film about Teresa portrayed her as a holy icon, worthy of reverence, a hero of charity on behalf of the wretched of the earth. But the great iconoclast Hitchens, in his book The Missionary Position – Mother Teresa in Theory and in Practise, dared to ask some inconvenient questions about Mother Teresa.

Seeing beyond the mist of idealization and deification, which had turned Teresa into a religious celebrity of worldwide prominence, Hitchens attempts to reveal the nitty-gritty of her actions and relationships. He especially focuses on her campaigns against contraception and abortion, and her questionable relationships with right-wing political leaders.

Hitchens discovers that Mother Teresa’s career was far from spotless and immaculately clean: by “keeping company with several frauds, crooks and exploiters” (HITCHENS, p. 8), she managed to amass millions of dollars in donations from some very wicked sources. In his book The Unbelievers – The Evolution of Modern Atheism, whose last chapter is dedicated to Hitchens, J. T. Joshi remembers some of the revelations about Teresa’s questionable funding process and suspiciously well-furnished bank accounts:

Unbelievers“Charles Keating, for instance, donated more than $1 million bucks to her – much or all of it gained from his avowedly criminal activities in the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s. (…)  Perhaps some of this can be excused by her need to drum up charitable contribuitons from all possible sources for her Missionaries of Charity. But there seems to be much more to it. Why was she so keen on hanging around such lowlives as the vicious dictator Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier of Haiti? (…) This behaviour might be forgiven if the charity work that Mother Teresa was doing in Calcutta for decades were actually worth doing – but of even this there are strong doubts. Her devotion to the poor, the diseased, and the friendless would seem to be exemplary of the best that religion can do. Why is it that, even though one of her many bank accounts (this one in Utah) contained the sum of $50 million, her hospitals around the world were so poorly equipped?” (JOSHI, p. 237)

 Teresa belief in her God-given mission to fight the two world’s most horrible evils – abortion and contraception – is also a theme which Hitchens explores with fierce criticism, especially considering that India has a population of more than 1 billion and 200 million people (and with a massive problem of undernourishment and widespread hunger). “It is difficult to spend any time in Calcutta and conclude that what it most needs is a campaign against population control” (HITCHENS, p. 24).

Teresa’s missionary endeavour had also as one of its main goals, of course, conversion. As Joshi points out, she believed it was her duty to convert “as many non-Catholics as possible so that hell is not filled even more than it already is with benighted heretics and unbelievers.” (JOSHI, 238) She tried to convince agonizing Hindus and Muslims to consent to baptism by asking them: do you want a “ticket to heaven”? Susan Shields, who worked with Mother Teresa, revealed also that those who didn’t consent to be baptized Christians were secretly baptised anyway: Teresa  used to pretend she was cooling the forehead of the diseased with a wet cloth, while she said quietly the necessary words of baptism. Perhaps she truly believed she was saving them from burning in the ever-lasting fires of hellish torture for the terrible sin of remaining faithful to Hinduism or Islam.

Mother-teresa-AIDSI would argue that to worship such a woman, as if she was sacrosanct and morally irreproachable, is a dangerous attitude we should avoid as highly pernicious idolatry. We only need to remember the preposterous claim she made about the AIDS (SIDA) epidemic – “it is just retribution for improper sexual conduct” – to be aware of how questionable is her purported saintliness. She and many other people of the cloth “have maintained that AIDS is a punishment meted out to homosexuals for their sinful behavior.” (JOSHI, p. 241). I ask you, fellow earthlings: do you believe that homophobia and sectarianism deserve to be celebrated as saintly virtues? Should we worship a nun who went on a Cruzade against condoms, even though we know of the millions of lives that could have been saved if safe-sex campaigns were not boycotted by religious leaders?

In the last decades, we have seem an upsurge of best-selling books from atheists and agnostics, from sceptics and freethinkers. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and André Comte-Sponville’s L’Esprit de L’Athéisme are among the more widely read and discussed of them. Christopher Hitchens has joined this wave of atheistic literature with his highly controversial God Is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he “draws keenly upon his world travels as a political journalist and sometime foreign correspondent, revealing at first hand how religion actually operates in the real world” (JOSHI, p. 239). This, in a nutshell, is Hitchens’s conclusion:

Hitchens

“My four irreducible objections to religion are: 1) it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; 2) because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism; 3) it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression; and 4) it is ultimately grounded on wishful-thinking.” – CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, God is Not Great

Trip on:

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The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Christopher Hitchens (1995, Verso, 96 pgs)

Synopsis: “Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, feted by politicians, the Church and the world’s media, Mother Teresa of Calcutta appears to be on the fast track to sainthood. But what, asks Christopher Hitchens, makes Mother Teresa so divine? In a frank expose of the Teresa cult, Hitchens details the nature and limits of one woman’s mission to the world’s poor. He probes the source of the heroic status bestowed upon an Albanian nun whose only declared wish is to serve God. He asks whether Mother Teresa’s good works answer any higher purpose than the need of the world’s privileged to see someone, somewhere, doing something for the Third World. He unmasks pseudo-miracles, questions Mother Teresa’s fitness to adjudicate on matters of sex and reproduction, and reports on a version of saintly ubiquity which affords genial relations with dictators, corrupt tycoons and convicted frauds.”

DOWNLOAD E-BOOK (VIA LIBGEN.ORG)

Read also:

Zen Master Alan Watts Discovers the Secrets of Aldous Huxley and His Art of Dying

Reblogged from Hip Monkey

Few figures were as influential as Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley in popularizing experiments with psychedelic drugs and Eastern religion in the 20th century. Watts did more to introduce Westerners to Zen Buddhism than almost anyone before or since; Huxley’s experiments with mescaline and LSD—as well as his literary critiques of Western technocratic rationalism—are well-known. But in a countercultural movement largely dominated by men—Watts and Huxley, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, etc—Huxley’s widow Laura came to play a significant role after her husband’s death.

In fact, as we’ve discussed before, she played a significant role during his death, injecting him with LSD and reading to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as he passed away. In the interview above, Laura speaks with Watts about that experience, one she learned from Aldous, who performed a similar service for his first wife as she died in 1955. The occasion of the interview—conducted at Watts’ Sausalito home in 1968—is the publication of Laura Huxley’s memoir of life with her husband, This Timeless Moment. But talk of the book soon prompts discussion of Huxley’s graceful exit, which Watts calls “a highly intelligent form of dying.”

Watts relates an anecdote about Goethe’s last hours, during which a visitor was told that he was “busy dying.” “Dying is an art,” says Watts, “and it’s also an adventure,” Laura adds. Their discussion then turns to Huxley’s final novel, Island (which you can read in PDF here).Island has rarely been favorably reviewed as a literary endeavor. And yet, as Watts points out, it wasn’t intended as literature, but as a “sociological blueprint in the form of a novel.” Laura Huxley, upset at the book’s chilly reception, wishes her husband had “written it straight.” Nonetheless, she points out that Island was much more than a Utopian fantasy or philosophical thought experiment. It was a document in which “every method, every recipe… is something he experimented with himself in his own life.” As Laura wrote in This Timeless Moment:

Every single thing that is written in Island has happened and it’s possible and actual … Island is really visionary common sense. Things that Aldous and many other people said, that were seen as so audacious – they are common sense, but they were visionary because they had not yet happened.

Those things included not only radical forms of living, but also, as Huxley himself demonstrated, radical ways of dying.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

86 years ago, Ernesto Che Guevara was born. Here are some books and documentaries to remember his revolutionary life…

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Ernesto “Che” Guevara (June 14, 1928 – October 9, 1967)

“Che was not only a heroic fighter, but a revolutionary thinker, with a political and moral project and a system of ideas and values for which he fought and gave his life. The philosophy which gave his political and ideological choices their coherence, colour, and taste was a deep revolutionary humanism. For Che, the true Communist, the true revolutionary was one who felt that the great problems of all humanity were his or her personal problems, one who was capable of ‘feeling anguish whenever someone was assassinated, no matter where it was in the world, and of feeling exultation whenever a new banner of liberty was raised somewhere else’. Che’s internationalism – a way of life, a secular faith, a categorical imperative, and a spiritual “nationality” – was the living and concrete expression of this revolutionary Marxist humanism.” — Michael Löwy, author of “The Marxism of Che Guevara: Philosophy, Economics, Revolutionary Warfare”

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SOME OF THE BEST BIOGRAPHIES WRITTEN ABOUT CHE:

che-guevara-a-revolutionary-life-by-jon-lee-andersonChe Guevara: A Revolutionary Life Jon Lee Anderson (2010, Grove Press, 672 pgs) Download e-book (7 mb, epub)

“Acclaimed around the world and a national best-seller, this is the definitive work on Che Guevara, the dashing rebel whose epic dream was to end poverty and injustice in Latin America and the developing world through armed revolution. Jon Lee Anderson’s biography traces Che’s extraordinary life, from his comfortable Argentine upbringing to the battlefields of the Cuban revolution, from the halls of power in Castro’s government to his failed campaign in the Congo and assassination in the Bolivian jungle.Anderson has had unprecedented access to the personal archives maintained by Guevara’s widow and carefully guarded Cuban government documents. He has conducted extensive interviews with Che’s comrades—some of whom speak here for the first time—and with the CIA men and Bolivian officers who hunted him down. Anderson broke the story of where Guevara’s body was buried, which led to the exhumation and state burial of the bones. Many of the details of Che’s life have long been cloaked in secrecy and intrigue. Meticulously researched and full of exclusive information, Che Guevara illuminates as never before this mythic figure who embodied the high-water mark of revolutionary communism as a force in history.”

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Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Jorge G. Castaneda (1998, Vintage, 496 pgs) Download e-book (5 mb, epub)

“By the time he was killed in the jungles of Bolivia, where his body was displayed like a deposed Christ, Ernesto “Che” Guevara had become a synonym for revolution everywhere from Cuba to the barricades of Paris. This extraordinary biography peels aside the veil of the Guevara legend to reveal the charismatic, restless man behind it. Drawing on archival materials from three continents and on interviews with Guevara’s family and associates, Castaneda follows Che from his childhood in the Argentine middle class through the years of pilgrimage that turned him into a committed revolutionary. He examines Guevara’s complex relationship with Fidel Castro, and analyzes the flaws of character that compelled him to leave Cuba and expend his energies, and ultimately his life, in quixotic adventures in the Congo and Bolivia. A masterpiece of scholarship, Compañero is the definitive portrait of a figure who continues to fascinate and inspire the world over.”

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CRITICAL STUDIES:

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Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution Peter McLaren (2000, Rowman & Littlefield, 264 pgs) Download e-book (31 mb, pdf)

“Che Guevara is usually perceived as a Romantic model whom we should admire, while pursuing our daily business as usual—the most perverse defense against what Che stood for. What McLaren’s fascinating book demonstrates is that, on the contrary, Che is a model for our times, a figure we should imitate in our struggle against neoliberal global capitalism.” (Slavoj Zizek)

“McLaren’s writing is a brilliant blend of passion, commitment, and critical analysis and insight. It is poetry and prose in an intimate dance that touches, at once, readers’ hearts and minds. This new book, which appeared at the very dawn of the new millennium, is no exception. Indeed, it is probably McLaren’s most important and exciting text to date. It is also one of the most important books on critical education, and thus also education and social justice, to have been written in the twentieth century. Only a ‘Comrade of the heart’ could have written with such ardour, precision, and depth.” (Paula Allman, Education and Social Justice)

“Peter McLaren’s Che Guevara, Paulo Freire is a vigorous intervention in the complexity of the contemporary political situation—from rearticulating the project of radical pedagogy to his argument to reorient the left itself. Through his groundbreaking regrasping of Che’s revolutionary practices,McLaren critiques the left—especially progressive left pedagogy—for its marginalization of class and complacent reformism. In an effective intervention, he puts the international class struggle at the forefront of a revolutionary pedagogy. As part of his argument for the reorganization of social institutions in Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, McLaren offers a sustained radical critique of transnational neoliberalism and its corporatization of education—in doing so, he places revolutionary pedagogy in solidarity with the oppressed of global capitalism.” (Teresa L. Ebert, Author of Ludic Feminism and After)

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DOCUMENTARIES:

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Ernesto “Che” Guevara (June 14, 1928 – October 9, 1967)

When the British Empire left India: the historical tragedy of the India / Pakistan Partition of 1947 (watch 2 full documentaries)

BBC2

The Day India Burned – Partition, produced by BBC, is a devastating documentary about the 200 years of British rule in India, which ended in 1947 with a hasty and shambolic carve-up of the land between India and Pakistan. Sadly for those there at the time, harmony gave way to mob hatred and many lives were lost.This documentary looks to piece together the reminiscences of eyewitness. The accounts of the huge massacres are particularly chilling. Of course, with such a heavy subject, the mood of the show is grim, powerful, but nevertheless fascinating. The events that unfolded in the last throes of the Empire are still resonating today, making this show a must-see.” – Banglatorrents
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“The two self-governing countries of India and Pakistan legally came into existence at the stroke of midnight on 14-15 August 1947. The partition of India was set forth in the Indian Independence Act, in 1947, and resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire and the end of the British Raj. It resulted in a struggle between the newly constituted states of India and Pakistan and displaced up to 12.5 million people, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to this day…” – Synopsis of BBC’s The Day India Burned (watch full doc above)

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“Documentary about the effects of Britain’s withdrawal from India in 1947 which triggered one of the biggest migrations in history. 15 million were displaced and more than a million lost their lives. The story is told through the testimony of people who lived together for centuries, but were forced out of their homes as one of the largest and most ethnically diverse nations in the world was divided. Dramatized reconstructions evoke some of the mistrust, violence and upheaval that ensued.

Partition of India and provides a good overview of the fateful events leading to that cataclysmic decision by the British and the catastrophic suffering of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of communal hatred.

It describes in detail: British motivation for leaving India after World War 2 in a quick and face-saving manner; the underlying distrust of Hindus and Muslims of each other despite centuries of living together; Muslim educational and economic backwardness relative to Hindus and their fear of Hindu domination in a united India; the failure of the March 1946 Cabinet Mission in Simla on account of Nehru’s refusal to a agree to a decentralized Subcontinent.

The beginning of the Hindu-Muslim communal riots with Jinnah’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in August 1946; the desperate attempts made by Gandhi to effect Hindu-Muslim unity via appeal to their humanity; and the pressure exerted on most Princely States to agree to ascension to India.

It also describes: the manipulation of people by political leaders in the name of religion; the slaughter, looting, raping, and mayhem among different communities at the village level; the deep reluctance of people to abandon their generational homes; the brave attempts of certain individuals to save their neighbors of other communities from forcible ethnic and religious cleansing; the horrific price paid by women for defendingtheir honor;

The utter lack of governmental preparation for a mass migration of people; the needlesshuman carnage caused by Mountbatten’s decision to expedite the planned Partition; and the decline of hitherto culturally rich and cosmopolitan cities like Lahore by loss of othercommunities.” – Top Documentary Films

“We cannot have freedom without wilderness…” – Edward Abbey (1927-1989) described by Douglas Brinkley [includes downloads of free E-BOOKs]

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Edward Abbey  (1927-1989)

Edward Abbey pic[2]

By Douglas Brinkley

For more than 30 years Edward Abbey  presented himself as the literary watchdog of the arid American West, writing 8 novels, dozens of travelogues, and hundreds of essays, all aimed at the heart of the industrial complex President Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned about in his surprisingly frank farewell adress of January 17, 1961. Abbey’s motto came from Walt Whitman – “resist much, obey little” – and he was delighted that everything from the FBI to the Sierra Club derided him as a “desert anarchist”. Blessed with a wicked sense of humor and penchant for pranksterism, Abbey carefully cultivated his ever-changing  role as a stubborn provocateur, (…) but he also was always a disciplined writer, even while playing the robust outdoorsman obsessed with stopping the pillage of the American West. “We can have wilderness without freedom’, Abbey often said, ‘but we cannot have freedom without wilderness.”

And he believed it. Throughout the Cold War era, no writer went further to defend the West’s natural places from strip-mining, speed-logging, power plants, oil companies, concrete dams, bombing ranges, and strip malls than the sardonic Edward Abbey.  His entire adult life was devoted to stopping the ‘”Californicating” of the Four Corners states he considered home – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Abbey was labeled the “Thoreau of the West”, (…) but he rejected out of hand the notion that he was a ‘nature writer’, even if the untamed wilderness did serve as his lifelong muse; instead, he fancied himself an old-fashioned American moralist, a Mencken-esque maverick who kowtowed to no one in his quest to expose others’ treachery, hypocrisy and greed. It was the “moral duty” of a writer, Abbey insisted, to act as social critic of one’s country and culture, and as such to speak for the voiceless.

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And so he did, especially in the memorable jeremiad with which he launched America’s “ecodefense” movement and rattle the cages of both Big Industry and Big Government: his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey, born in Pennsylvannia, as an adolescent became disgusted with the big lumber companies’ wanton destruction of the pristine Appalachian woodlands where he grew up hunting squirrels, collecting rocks, and studying plants with fervor, in what he called these ‘glens of mystery and shamanism’. (…) In the summer of 1944, the 17-year-old left Home to seek the America he had heard about in Woody Guthrie songs and Carl Sandburg poems. He hitchhiked to Seattle, tramped down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, then boxcarred down through the San Joaquin Valley, making his meager keep picking fruit or working in canneries along the way. His hobo holiday of storybook adventure and intoxicating freedom lost its allure only once, when he was arrested for vagrancy in Flagstaff, Arizona, and tossed into jail like the common drunkards already there. It only added to a coming-of-age experience Jack London would have approved of.

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“The Monkey Wrench Gang” (Perennial Classics), Abbey’s most famous novel, illustrated by Robert Crumb

Shortly thereafter, the wanderer of the canyons was drafted into the U.S.. Army and spent the last year of World War II serving in Italy. Upon returning home he headed straight for the Land of Enchantment in the form of the University of New Mexico, where he earned a B.A. in philosophy in 1951 and an M.A. in 1956, the latter on a thesis titled “ANARCHISM AND THE MORALITY OF VIOLENCE” in which Abbey concluded that anarchism wasn’t really about military might, as the Bolshevik Revolution had been, but about opposition to, as Leo Tolstoy had put it, “the organized violence of the state”.

A self-styled flute-playing bum wandering his way through coffeehouses and university circles, Abbey was winked at as Albuquerque’s take on the ancient Greek cynic Diogenes, who allegedly abandoned all his possessions to live in a barrel and beg for his keep. Along the same lines, Abbey took to passionately denouncing the spoilers of the West: greedy developers, cattle ranchers, strip-mining outfits, and the Federal Bureau of Land Management. In response, the FBI began monitoring Abbey for possible communist activities – and continued its surveillance of him for the next 37 years

As a professional nose-tweaker, the bane of Abbey’s existence, the purpose of his antigrowth prose and outlaw posture, was to rage against the machine, to become the most ferocious defender of the American West since John Muir. What Abbey wanted to tear down the most was the Glen Canyon Dam, constructed in 1962 just 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon, a 792.000-ton hydraulic monstrosity that had cost U.S. tax-payers $750 million to build. This concrete colossus had stemmed the natural flow of the Colorado River, desecrating the steep walls of the magnificent Glen Canyon that Abbey imagined grander than all the cathedrals in Europe.

It was with a bellyful of bile over Glen Canyon Dam that Abbey began writing The Monkey Wrench Gang in the early 1970s, putting black humor, theater gimmicks, and clever characterizations together to form what would become a lasting cult classic. (…) In what Newsweek approvingly reviewed as an ‘ecological caper’, a gaggle of good-time anarchists mobilize themselves SWAT-like to harass power companies and logging conglomerates. Like their hero Ned Ludd – an early 19th century British weaver who provoked his countrymen to save their jobs by sabotaging machinery in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and to whom Abbey dedicated the novel – the Monkey Wrenchers develop into a charismatic clique of econuisances who pour Karo syrup into bulldozers’ fuel tanks, snip barbed-wire fences, and try to blow up a coal train all in preparation for their real objective: dynamiting Glen Canyon Dam to bits. Their battle cry is ‘Keep It Like It Was!

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The Monkey Wrench Gang 
is far more than just a controversial book – it is revolutionary, anarchic, seditious, and, in the wrong hands, dangerous. Although Abbey claimed it was just a work of fiction written to ‘entertain and amuse’, the novel was swiftly embraced by ecoactivists. (…) When asked if he was really advocating blowing up a dam Abbey said, “No”, but added that “if someone else wanted to do it, I’d be there holding a flashlight.” Failing to see his humor, Abbey’s detractors ignored an important point: lovable pranksters in his novel kill only machines, not people, unlike the truly violent protagonists of such fictional works as Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit To Brooklyn.

Abbey’s fictional Monkey Wrenchers considered themselves justified in resorting to whatever means they found necessary to defend the region from ‘deskbound executives’ with their ‘hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by calculators’. It was civil disobedience in the grand tradition of Thoreau.

– Douglas Brinkley

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EDWARD ABBEY – E-BOOKS FOR FREE DOWNLOAD  >>>>

Title: The Monkey Wrench Gang
Author(s): Edward Abbey
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year: 1992
Language: English Pages: 241
Size: 1 MB (1416590 bytes) Extension: pdf
Download E-book: FREE E-BOOK

Title: Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching [DOWNLOAD]
Author(s): Bill Haywood, Dave Foreman, Edward Abbey
Publisher: Abbzug Press Extension:  pdf
Size: 5 MB (4939841 bytes)
Year: 1993 Edition: 3rd
Language: English Pages: 360
Download e-book:  [DOWNLOAD]

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“ANARCHISM AND THE MORALITY OF VIOLENCE”
By Edward Abbey (Thesis in Philosophy, University of New Mexico, 1959).
DOWNLOAD PDF

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION
A statement of the problem, with definitions of terms to be used and procedures to be followed.

II. ANARCHIST VIOLENCE: THE THEORISTS
The justification of repudiation of violence, as found in the thought of five major European anarchist writers: Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Sorel.

III. ANARCHIST VIOLENCE: THE THEORISTS
The justification of violence as presented by active revolutionaries and sympathizers, with particular reference to the arguments of the Haymarket anarchists, Emma Goldman, and Albert Camus.

IV. CONCLUSION
A summary of the findings, with further evaluation and final considerations.

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You might also like:

BBC Scotland Doc about John Muir

WRENCHED, Bio-doc about Abbey (trailer)

INTERVIEW WITH ABBEY (Full)

“Buddhism” – Course in 24 lectures by Professor Malcolm David Eckel (watch full videos in HD at the end of the post)

buddha-thousands-of-candles“This course is a survey of the history of Buddhism from its origin in India in the sixth century B.C.E. to contemporary times. The course is meant to introduce students to the astonishing vitality and adaptability of a tradition that has transformed the civilizations of India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, and has now become a lively component in the cultures of Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

To understand the Buddha’s contribution to the religious history of the world, it is important to know the problems he inherited and the options that were available to him to solve them. In ancient India, before the time of the Buddha, these problems were expressed in the Vedas, the body of classical Hindu scriptures. The Vedas introduce us to scholars and ritual specialists who searched for the knowledge that would free them from the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha inherited this quest for knowledge and directed it to his own distinctive ends.

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“Born as Siddharta Gautama into a princely family in northern India about 566 B.C.E., the Buddha left his father’s palace and took up the life of an Indian ascetic. The key moment in his career came after years of difficult struggle, when he sat down under a tree and “woke up” to the cause of suffering and to its final cessation. He then wandered the roads of India, gathering a group of disciples and establishing a pattern of discipline that became the foundation of the Buddhist community. The Buddha helped his disciples analyze the causes of suffering and chart their own path to nirvana. Finally, after a long teaching career, he died and passed quietly from the cycle of death and rebirth.

After the Buddha’s death, attention shifted from the Buddha himself to the teachings and moral principles embodied in his Dharma. Monks gathered to recite his teachings and produced a canon of Buddhist scripture, while disputes in the early community paved the way for the diversity and complexity of later Buddhist schools. Monks also developed pattern of worship and artistic expression that helped convey the experience of the Buddha in ritual and art.

The Buddhist King Asoka, who reigned from about 268 to 239 B.C.E., sent the first Buddhist missionairies to Sri Lanka. Asoka left behind the Buddhist concept of a “righteous king” who gives political expression to Buddhist values. This ideal has been embodied in recent times by King Mongkut (18 October 1804 – 1 October 1868) in Thailand and Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent resistance to military repression in Burma.

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Aung San Suu Kyi (born 19 June 1945), Nobel Peace Prize Winner – Wikipedia Bio: “Influenced by both Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and more specifically by Buddhist concepts, Aung San Suu Kyi entered politics to work for democratization…”

Buddhism entered China in the second century of the common era, at a time when the Chinese people had become disillusioned with traditional Confucian values. To bridge the gap between the cultures of India and China, Buddhist translators borrowed Taoist vocabulary to express Buddhist ideas. Buddhism took on a distinctively Chinese character, becoming more respectful of duties to the family and ancestors, more pragmatic and this-worldly, and more consistent with traditional Chinese respect for harmony with nature. During the T’ang Dynasty (618-907), Buddhism was expressed in a series of brilliant Chinese schools, including the Ch’an School of meditation that came to be known in Japan as Zen.

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Since the end of the 19th century, Buddhism has become a respected part of life in countries far beyond the traditional home of Buddhism in Asia. The teaching that began on the plains of India 2.500 years ago has now been transformed in ways that would once have been unimaginable, but it still carries the feeling of serenity and freedom that we sense in the image of the Buddha himself. In its 2.500-year history, from the time of the Buddha to the present day, Buddhism has grown from a tiny religious community in  northern India into a movement that now spans the globe. It has shaped the development of civilizations in India and Southeast Asia; has had a major influence on the civilizations of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan; and today has become a major part of the multi-religious world of Europe and North America.

In the following lectures (watch the videos below) we’ll explore the Buddhist tradition as the unfolding of a story. It is the story of the Buddha himself and the story of generations of people who have used the model of the Buddha’s life to shape not only their own lives but the societies in which they live…”

Professor Malcolm David Eckel, Course Guidebook. 

INFO ON THE AUTHOR:  Professor Malcolm David Eckel holds two bachelor’s degrees, one in English from Harvard University and a second in Theology from Oxford University. Professor Eckel earned his master’s degree in theology at Oxford University and his Ph.D. in the Study of Comparative Religion at Harvard University. He held teaching positions at Ohio Wesleyan University, Middlebury College in Vermont, and the Harvard Divinity School, where he served as acting director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. At Boston University, Professor Eckel teaches courses on Buddhism, comparative religion, and the religions of Asia. In 1998, Professor Eckel received the Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, the university’s highest award for teaching. In addition to writing many articles, Professor Eckel has published two books on Buddhist philosophy: “To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness” and “Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places”. – www.thegreatcourses.com

to be continued…

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The Unhappy Endings Of The Sixties – Or The Doors according to Greil Marcus

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“In 1968 dread was the currency. It was what kept you up all night, and not just the night Bobby Kennedy was shot… Dread was why every day could feel like a trap. (…) The feeling that the country was coming apart – that, for what looked and felt like a casually genocidal war in Vietnam, the country had commited crimes so great they could not be paid, that the country deserved to live out its time in its own ruins – was so visceral that the presidential election felt like a sideshow. In this setting, the Doors were a presence. They were a band people felt they had to see – not to learn, to find out, to hear the message, to get the truth, but to be in the presence of a group of people who appeared to accept the present moment at face value. In their whole demeanor – unsmiling, no rock’n’roll sneer but a performance of mistrust and doubt – they didn’t promise happy endings. Their best songs said happy endings weren’t interesting, and they weren’t deserved.” (GREIL MARCUS, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to 5 Mean Years, pgs. 95-96)

greil marcusThe least I can say in praise of the writings of Mr Greil Marcus is this: they expanded my horizons on music, they made me understand music’s presence inside culture, its historical significance, or, to sum things up, the context in which music arises and acts. I wouldn’t call Greil Marcus only a music critic, the one who judges aesthetically upon the merits or vices of certain musical productions. Greil Marcus is also some sort of bold trans-disciplinary intellectual maverick, who knows no fixed boundaries or forbidden signs keeping him from moving all around between different “fields” – like History, Sociology, Psychology, Literature. I’d call him an historian of culture, someone who writes about our present as a culture from an historical perspective, and also a gifted “painter of cultural landscapes”. He’s certainly among the most well-informed and intelligent music critics I’ve read, and he’s certainly – together with guys such as Lester Bangs, Simon Reynolds and Nick Kent – one of the greatest thinkers of pop music and its underground currents. With his prose, Greil Marcus seems to paint portraits of our Western civilization much more than merely commenting on artists – such as Bob Dylan or Van Morrisson – we has written so much about. To paint the big picture, he doesn’t shy away from discussing movies – like Wild in The Streets or Pump Up The Volume – or to quote Thomas Pynchon’s novels in order to set the mood for his musings on  Jim Morrison.

My appreciation of The Doors has been greatly improved, and my horizons about them have been radically expanded, after I’ve read Greil Marcus impressive book about them. It’s incredibly tought-provoking. Suddenly The Doors were not only a rock and roll band (and a damn good one!), but also a symptom of an historical epoch. A symbol of the dark side of the Sixties. A “dystopic” band, outstranged in an era of Utopia was also an important part of the cultural landscape.  The Doors were like a psycho who stabs in the heart the flowery dreams of the peace-and-lovin’, tree-hugging, pot-smoking acid-heads known as “Hippies”. The Doors were more like dark flowers bursting out of a swampy, bleak age: that of the napalm bombing and other techniques of genocide used against Vietnam (and later Cambodia); of Charles Manson’s cult killing frenzy that sent the whole Los Angeles drowning in dread; and, as “The Other Side Of Woodstock”, the deaths of Altamont

After reading this book by Marcus, I began wondering: perhaps the task of the music critic isn’t merely passing judgement – either cherishing or condemning the artists he’s writing about – but instead attempting to share with his readers the big picture, the cultural context in which some musical phenomenon emerges. That’s what Marcus accomplishes when he paints the whole Zeitgeist that surrounded The Doors: we are reminded of some of the tragedies of those times in Los Angeles (like the bloodshed caused by Charles Mansonites), which appear as the dark side of the Flower Power utopia. The Door are “riders on the storm”, like “dogs without a bone”, and there are killers on the roads (and also inside the White House and the Pentagon…).

In Marcus’ pages, we journey through some of Jim Morrison’s most extreme behavioural excesses. Like that fateful night in Miami when he was arrested for his use of obscene language and offensive nudity (some say he only pretended to jerk off… not a big deal, and certainly not a thing that should get anyone in jail!). He’s certainly not the first rock’n’roller, nor will the last, to be caged like a wild beast by authorities who felt their sacred institutions had been mocked and debunked by these subversive artists that needed to be spanked into silence.

Marcus also makes the reader imagine Jim Morrison in the process of drinking himself to death, while he struggles to write the soundtrack for the agony of a drunken swan who has consumed too much booze and too much Rimbaud. We are taken in a roller-coaster ride on the wings of The Doors’ poetry and music, where one can sense a celebration of Dyonisian eroticism mixed with an obssession with Death and Psychosis. We are invited to understand the band as an occurrence in the history of culture that continues on a path treaded not only in rock’n’roll, but within a broader cultural landscape that includes poets, playwriters and mystics:

“The Doors saw themselves as much in the tradition of fine art – a tradition within the tradition, the stream of art maudit that carried Blake, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Jarry, Buñuel, Artaud, and Céline to their doorsteps – as in the tradition of rock’n’roll. For them rock’n’roll itself was already a tradition, full of heroes and martyrs…” – GREIL MARCUS, A lifetime of listening to five mean years – The Doors (New York: Public Affairs, 2011, Pg. 132)

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The Doors were surely innovators in the sixties, both musically and lyrically, and Greil Marcus points out some of the elements that made Jim Morrison, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzakek and John Densmore an outstanding cultural phenomenon. When “Light My Fire” exploded, skyrocketing to the top of the charts, and the band’s debut album was released to wide-spread impact on the U.S. rock scene, most people knew that this guys weren’t deemed to become a one hit wonder to be forgotten in the next summer. They sounded more subversive (“Break on Through” antecipates The Sex Pistols) and less optimistic than most “hippie bands” that celebrated Peace & Love. Even tough The Doors also celebrated consciouness expansion psychedelics (starting with the name of the band, a tribute  to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception), there was also a quite bleak and scary mood in some of the groups’ songs, like the nightmarish explorations of the darkest corners of the human mind in “The End” (a song about, among other things, a psycho who acts out Freud’s Oedipus Complex, kills his father, and… you know what!). In the following words, Marcus describes a moment in the The Doors’ path where darkness was closing in and the band was falling apart:

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 “When The Doors recorded ‘Roadhouse Blues’ in November 1969, Morrison’s arrest in Miami the previous March, the three months of concerts cancelled everywhere in the country that followed, the felony trial looming in the next year, the likelihood of prison, and after that the end of the band, were only the most obvious demons. The specter of the Manson slaughter hung over every Hollywood icon, hanger-on, or rock’n’roll musician as if it were L.A.’s Vietnam. Everyone – people who had been in Manson’s orbit, like Neil Young, or anyone who knew someone who knew someone who had, which was everyone – believed there was a hit list, held by those Mansonites waiting patiently, on the outside, for the word of the messiah. There were reasons to believe that the Manson bands were just a first brigade – a lumpen avant-garde, you could say – for a web of cults biding their time for years, since the late 1940s, some said, when the British sex-magick maven Aleister Crowley, John Parsons, the founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and L. Ron Hubbard practiced Satanist rituals in Pasadena, determined to summon the whore of Babylon and conceive a living Antichrist.” (MARCUS, 2011, pg. 156-57)

We all know that The Doors’ career has no happy ending: the music is over when Jim Morrison, 27 years old, is found dead in a bathtub in Paris. To understand what went wrong, Greil Marcus explores the lyrics and poems of The Doors’ lead-singer, revealing there what may be called an epic battle, within a human heart, between Eros and Thanatos. It’s always hard, when dealing with Jim Morrison’s poetry, to separate the life-affirming from the self-destructive tendencies. When he invites the listener to a shared experience of “setting the night on fire”, he might be simply talking about of heated and sweaty sex encounter, some rock and rolling in the carnal sense of the expression, but the same song, as you may remember, evokes the images of a “funeral pyre” and of “wallowing in the mire”. The desire for the flame of life to burn with more intensity, with a brighter fire, seems to always have an anguish, arising from consciousness of mortality, underlying it, setting a “mood” for it. As tough the Doors music wanted to hint at the fact that, similarly to the stars that we witness burning in the dark of space, life’s light shines in a backdrop of mortality and finiteness.

 “Before you slip into unconsciousness I’d like to have a another kiss. Another flashing chance at bliss Another kiss, another kiss…”

As Greil Marcus points out, these verses from “The Crystal Ship” can be interpreted simply as a celebration of love’s blisses and thrills, but it also can mean something way darker – like a suicide pact. “To slip into unconsciousness” can mean simply falling asleep, but it also can be read as death approaching, the desire for a farewell-kiss. Even tough the lyrical content can be felt by the listener as a beautiful statement about the delights of lovers, it also can be read as a sympton of painful and  insatiable desire, of Eros’ unquenchable thirst. Greil Marcus’ interpretations got me thinking about this paradox that can be perceived in many of The Doors’ songs: the celebration of Eros as a life-force side-by-side with the painful striving that seems never to lead to full satisfaction (a theme also explicitly adressed by well-known songs by The Rolling Stones and The Replacements, among many others). The “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” motto, the feeling of being always singing the “Unsatisfied Man Blues”, may well be one of most powerful and reocurring themes of popular music, an enduring element that unites the musical productions of several different epochs.

Greil Marcus book provides an interesting journey for everyone willing to explore the mysteries of Jim Morrison and The Doors, but its merits transcends this: he wrote almost a treatise about the Sixties whole cultural landscape. In his attempt to understand Youth Culture in the 60s, he refrains from a simple-minded and naive praise-singing for the so-called “Woodstock Era”. He invites us to recognize gratefully its merits, but also to question those years with critical eyes. In Greil Marcus’ understanding, rock’n’roll is obviously a powerful cultural force because its greatest artists are considered by the masses as heroes and role-models, whose behaviour thousands (or even millions) of people cherish, admire and attempt to reproduce. Figures like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or Janis Joplin act as well-known cultural icons whose lifestyle and creativity inspire large portions of mortals to transcend their own limitations. They act like magnets summoning us to be more like them: creative, autonomous, rebellious, innovative, awe-inspiring, beautifully expressive and emotionally engaging. But – as Greil Marcus argues – one of the dangers we face in this process is this: the apathy and inaction of the masses, who are satisfied with a role of passive spectators and consumers. Marcus points out, for example:

“The Sixties are most generously described as a time when people took part – when they stepped out of themselves and acted in public, as people who didn’t know what would happen next, but were sure that acts of true risk and fear would produce something different from what they had been raised to take for granted. You can find that spirit in the early years of the Civil Rights movement, where some people paid for their wish to act with their lives, and you can find it in certain songs. But the Sixties were also a time when people who could have acted, and even those who did, or believed they did, formed themselves into an audience that most of all wanted to watch. ‘The Whole World Is Watching’ was a stupid irony: people went into the streets, they shouted, gave speeches, surrounded buildings, blocked the police, and then rushed home to watch themselves on the evening news, to be an audience for their own actions…” (p. 56)

For some decades we have been conditioned by the Entertainment Industry, the whole Show Business pervasive environment, that we, “the masses”, shouldn’t think of ourselves as nothing but passive consumers, buying products that enrich stars that are already millionaires. Unfortunately, that’s the way things usually happen: when an artist of outstanding talent and powerful skills of expression arises – like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison – they tend to get destroyed by the “economical-commercial” environment where they see themselves thrown into. They tend to die at 27 (or at little bit earlier or later), tragically quiting from their pop-star positions. It happened to Janis, Jimi, Jim – and then to Cobain, an then to Amy, and so on and so on… I’m tempted to say, especulating mentally about it, that to die at 27 is not only a re-ocurring event for pop stars, but it says something important about pop-stardom itself. The cultural sickness that, it seems to me, Greil Marcus’s book is aiming to denounce, is the process of idolatry that goes on between we, “the masses”, and those we very sintomatically call “our idols”. 

Once again, The Doors is an excellent example: Jim Morrison died young, but then became a myth, an idol, a sex symbol. His physical body began decomposing in a Paris bathtub when the young musician and poet was 27, but even today – much more than 27 years have gone by after his death… – he’s still an object of some collective adoration (it might be shrinking, but it survives). He left life to enter History, one might say, but I’d rather say he’s voice still echoes among us – and his demise scares us, still, because we can’t fully understand it. Nor can we fully understand the process that lead another 27-year-old international popstar to blow his brains out with a shotgun in 1994. Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, it appears to me, got crushed by the machinery of popstardom. When you become a popstar (I suppose, never having been one!), you might get the spotlights, the paparazzis, the magazine covers, the fancy cars to drive to the sold-out concerts, but what comes along, as its downside, is often underestimated. You get sick and tired of hearing stupid and futile gossip about you in the newspapers “social columns”. You get sick and tired of being asked to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Light My Fire” for the thousandth time… And most people of the aptly titled “Audience” don’t care to be nothing but audience – nothing but passive receivers of a message, a flock of sheep beneath the idolized figure of the musical messiah, who rains down his dictates from the pulpit of the stage.

Instead of autonomy, idolatry breeds passivity. Instead of the independence and willingfulness stated in the Punk ethics of “do it yourself!”, idolatry and popstardom tend to condition us to passively consume messages provided by people we pay so they can express themselves, while we remain without expression – and thus without real significance. Or, to sum things up, as Greil Marcus puts its: many people payed for tickets and went to see The Doors live because they wanted to watch someone being freer and more expressive than themselves. But after the concert ended, and they returned to their day-to-day life, they continued in a passive position, that of consumers of art made by others, they didn’t become artists themselves,  lighting up their own fires inspired by that fire the artist had tried to spread around him like an incendiary!…

This whole business of idolatry and popstardom is obviously breeding disasters – and of the re-ocurring kind. When we transform a flesh-and-blood human being into an idol, and expect him or her to act for us, to express ourselves in our place, and most of all to tell us what to do and how to live, we’re rennouncing autonomy and responsability, making ourselves puppets that place their fates in the hands of the idol. He become an audience that can only receive, or mimic, but that doesn’t get truly transformed in agents.

Thrown into this bizarre hall of deforming mirrors called the Commercial Media, artists hailed to popstardom have this strange reocurring tendency to freak out and die young. I wouldn’t claim to understand all the complex reasons why this happens, but an episode of Jim Morrison’s life appears to me to contain one of the answers to our riddle: in one of those moments on stage when he gets possessed by rage, Jim Morrison begins to attack his audience verbally, with a viperish and misanthropic discourse, showing how he despises those beneath him. He drunkely shouts to his audience (to us all, really): “Why do you let people push you around? How long do you think it’s gonna last? How long will you let it go on? How long will you let ’em push you around? Well, maybe you like it, maybe you like it been pushed around! And love getting your face getting stuck in the shit! You love it, don’t ya? YOU’RE ALL A BUNCH OF SLAVES!”

Maybe he meant that people were doing less than they could, that they weren’t acting out as much as they should, for example to stop the Vietnam War or the Latin American military dictartorships (like the one who started out in Brazil, 1964, sponsored by the U.S.). Maybe he meant that people were too shy and well-behaved to really revolt against authoritarian elements in society – like the whole Police and Prison complex, or the Army, or presidents and politicians who were also war criminals and mass murderes. Maybe he meant that we, a “bunch of slaves”, hadn’t yet proclaimed our own independence: there we were, the masses of idolatry, powerless and disconnected, watching someone acting out and struggling to create freedom and beauty – and yet we ourselves weren’t acting collectively so powerfully and widely as we could towards the collective building of freedom and beauty. Most of the people who constituted the masses were watchers and not agents, consumers and not creators, followers and not leaders. And lots of people were certainly apolitical, individualistic, disengaged, and mostly indifferent to the destinies of the dispossed, the murdered, the peryphery of the so-called First World. Many of us have bought the obscene slogan and ideologies summed up by “better dead than red” or “kill a gook for god”.

At the unhappy ending of the Sixties – when nobody knew yet how many thousands of dead bodies had resulted from Vietnam, nor anyone knew how many Charlies Mansons the future held in store, nor how many Black Panther Party activists would be murdered… – a band opened a door through which the decade could see itself as an utopia unfulfilled, a failed attempt at freedom and justice, a nightmare stinking of napalm and Agent Orange. Sometime before dying at 27 in a Paris bathtub, Jim Morrison’s screamed on the speakers for his audience (for all of us, really): “You’re all a bunch of slaves!” The provocation still echoes and lingers on.

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THE DOORS – FULL DISCOGRAPHY:

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WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE [FULL DOCUMENTARY]

Narrated by Johnny Depp

For high-quality stream of the film, please join
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BBC’s series “Ways of Seeing” (by John Berger, 1972, 4 episodes)

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WAYS OF SEEING

By John Berger (1972)

A BAFTA award-winning series with John Berger, which rapidly became regarded as one of the most influential art programmes ever made. With the invention of oil paint around 1400, painters were able to portray people and objects with an unprecedented degree of realism, and painting became the ideal way to celebrate private possessions. In this programme, John Berger questions the value we place on that tradition.

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb. Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name. The series and book criticize traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.

Watch the full series:

 

DANCING NEAR THE ABYSS: Nietzsche’s dangerous life as portrayed by Stefan Zweig…

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Some remarks upon...

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STEFAN ZWEIG (1881-1942),
Part of the trilogy “The Struggle With The Demon – Kleist, Hölderlin and Nietzsche”
Introduction and Translation by Will Stone.
Hesperus Press, London, 2013.


stefan-zweig-nietzsche-le-combat-avec-le-demon_2254061-MArticle by Eduardo Carli de Moraes:

PART I. A DANGEROUS LIFE

Maybe the thrill in our veins when we read Nietzsche derives from the sense of danger that his words exhale: he’s inviting us to dance near the abyss, and without safety nets. Nietzsche desires life to be risky and full of surprises, and is furious against all tendencies of sheepish conformity. A true lover of art and poetry, Nietzsche was both a great thinker and a great artist – one who claimed that “we have art so that we might not die of the truth.” For him, an authentic “free spirit” doesn’t shy away from confrontation with the riddles of existence, even the most scary and painful ones: if you want knowledge, you’ll have to face the monsters of the abyss, and let the abyss stare into you!

As Karl Jaspers wrote on his awesome book about Nietzsche, the philosopher worthy of his task is a figure similar to Theseus: he enters boldily into the labyrinth, willing to face the danger of being eaten by the Minotaur. In Stefan Zweig’s writings on Nietzsche we feel the emphasis falling upon the dangerousness of Nietzsche life and fate. In his introduction, Will Stone recalls how much Zweig’s book focuses on “the decisive abandonment of security by Nietzsche and his propensity to take an ever more self-destructive tightrope walk, where all safety nets are strictly forbidden.” (Will Stone, Introduction, XIX)

“Voluntarily, in all lucidity, renouncing a secure existence, Nietzsche constructs his unconventional life with the most profound tragic instinct, defying the gods with unrivalled courage, to experience himself the highest degree of danger in which man can live.” (Zweig, p. 6)

Few philosophy books can be said to be as exciting as a roller-coaster ride or a bungee-jump. I believe Nietzsche’s impact on posterity has to do, partly, with those adrenaline shots we receive from his writings. We can re-read his words many times because they provoke us, entice us, marvel us, enfuriate us – but hardly ever leave us indiferent. The flame of life, in each to us, seems to burn more brightly and intensely when we come to spend so time in company with Nietzsche’s flaming words. My experience as a reader of Nietzsche’s books leads me to cherish him as a powerful voice who affects people deeply – some may disagree with him, but this disagreement itself is usually so vehement and intense that it serves as a sign of the echoes, either consonant or dissonant, that Nietzsche’s words arouses. Philosophy in the 20th century was profoundly shaken and inspired by Nietzsche’s books, but in his life, as Zweig points out, he was eaten alive, bit by bit, by the demon of solitude.

Despite his attempts to make his voice be heard, many commentators point out that Nietzsche lived an utterly lonely, isolated existence – “a solitude deprived even of God”, writes Zweig. Nietzsche ended up “crushed by the world’s silence.” (pgs. 5-7) In the following lines, Zweig is less a biographer than a painter: he’s trying to get us in synch with the philosopher’s emotional mood: “One feels here is a man residing in the shadows, apart from all social conviviality, (…) a man who over the years has lost the habit of social interaction and dreads the prospect of being asked too many questions.” (pg. 10)

Nietzsche’s health can be seen as one reason for his choice of an isolated life-style, but it doesn’t explain why the philosopher chose to cut himself even from the most basic of relationships needed, for survival reasons, for someone in his condition: the relationship with a doctor! Nietzsche rarely sought aid of professionals in the medicine field: he mostly self-medicated. He kept away from alcoholic beverages, never drank cofee nor smoked cigarettes. His pension-room had always among its furnishing elements, according to Zweig’s lively description, “an horrifying arsenal of poisons and narcotics”:

 “On a shelf, innumerable bottles, flasks and tinctures: for headaches, which regularly occupy so many wasted hours, for stomach cramps, spasmodic vomiting, instestinal weakness, and above all, those terrible medicaments to control insomnia – chloral and veronal.” (11)

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A portrait of the philosopher by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch


Imagine Zweig as a painter, and his words as drawings in our imagination, and let’s hear how he further paints Nietzsche portrait: the philosopher’s eye-sight is poor, without his glasses he would be blind as a bat. But that seems to be no impediment to his will to devote so much energy into the activities of reading and writing (which demand so much eye-labor). Most nights, Nietzsche’s brain just won’t turn off, and he can only restore his energies by sleep if he ingests some kind of soporific medicine.

“Sometimes he spends the whole day confined to bed. And no one comes to his aid, not even a helping hand, no one to lay a cool compress on his burning brow. No one to read to him, to chat with him, to laugh with him… never a warm naked female body beside his own.” (p. 11-12)

A grim picture of disease and loneliness is painted before our eyes by these Zweigian words, but they serve merely as background for the main figure in the painting: a tragic hero in the realm of knowledge, Nietzsche himself, and the process by which he falls down into the abyss. Would we dare, right here and right now, rebelling against the silence that springs from his grave, delve into the mystery of Nietzsche’s life and death?

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Zweig seems to want his reader to pity the fragile and lonesome state of poor Nietzsche – friendless, abandoned, unloved. I couldn’t help imagining how Nietzsche himself would judge Zweig’s portrait. Nietzsche himself was never attracted by self-pity, and it may be argued that he chose voluntarily to lead a life in which we wouldn’t bother others with his health issues – as if he was trying to put to practise a radical attempt at self-reliance, even in the worst conditions. As Jacob Burckhardt points out, Nietzsche lived as if his task were “to increase independence in the world” (quoted by Zweig, pg. 89), and it’s hard to imagine a philosopher who took so seriously the task of being independent. The fluctuations of his health had profound impact upon his emotional state and the “mood” of his tought: by his own life-experience Nietzsche extracted awesome insights into the inner workings of the human mind. He’s arguably one of the greatest psychologists of the 19st century (he claimed to have learnt psychology mainly with Stendhal and Dostoivésvki), an certainly a pioneer in pre-Freudian times.

 Zweig’s book focuses a lot on Nietzsche’s life, especially the connection between his existential loneliness and his outstanding artistic and philosophical productions. It leads the reader to ask himself: why did this philosopher, who had demolished the moral ideals of asceticism (mainly in his Genealogy of Morals), chose to live in a condition of isolation similar to those hermits he criticised so much? What caused Nietzsche’s attitude of removal from sociability: was it arrogance or pride ? What could have acted as an impediment in the route to Alterity, in Nietzsche’s life? What was the obstacle he couldn’t trespass, keeping him from crying out for help and accepting the aid of human love? Were the people around him to blame for being indiferent and uncomprohensive?

According to Zweig, aways, everywhere he lived, Nietzsche was a foreigner. And that usually doesn’t make easier the task of building friendship. It can’t be said that friendship is highly valued in his books. And it doesn’t seem to me that Nietzsche pursued in his life, with much interest or passion, a quest for human warmth and love. Lou Salomé is maybe the sole female figure in Nietzsche’s life to have aroused in him some kind of dream about redemption by love, some passionate widening of his emotional chest to the realm of the Other, but we know well things didn’t turn out that rosely. Nietzsche couldn’t see la vie en rose and his passion for Lou Salomé turned out to be a devasting heart-break. After the rupture with Lou Salomé, facing what he calls “the greatest crisis of his life”, he writes Zarathustra, a work-of-art and an philosophical poem that carry the mark of something unique. His bond with Lou had collapsed, in ruins were all the bridges of dreams, and in utter solitude he set out to write a book about a character who spent ten years far from all human contact, and tries to re-descend among the humans, to reveal what he learned whilst dwelling in the wilderness, only to discover that everyone miscomprehends him. A book born out of Nietzsche’s abyss, filled with dancing stars, chaotic and colourful as life itself. 

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PART II. THE WOUND OF NO REPLY

“The year-in year-out lack of a really refreshing and healing human love, the absurd loneliness that it brings with it, to the degree that almost every remaining connection with people becomes only a cause of injury; all that is the worst possible business and has only one justification in itself, the justification of being necessary.” – Letter sent by Nietzsche to his friend Overbeck, 3.2.88

Much speculation about Nietzsche breakdown in Turin is to be found in dozens of books. To this pile of speculation, Zweig adds his own contribution:

“For 15 years this cave life of Nietzsche continues from rented room to rented room, while he remains unknown…. only the flight of Dostoyevsky, almost at the same moment in time, with equitable poverty and neglect, is illuminated by the same cold grey spectral light. Here, as there, the work of a titan conceals the gaunt figure of the poor Lazarus who daily expires from his despair and infirmity in solitude, as day by day, the miracle savior of creative will awakens him from the depths. For 15 years, Nietzsche emerges thus from the coffin of his room, moving upwards and downwards, with suffering upon suffering, death upon death, resurrection upon resurrection, until, over-heated by such a flood of energy, his brain breaks apart. (…) Un-accompanied and unkown, the most lucid genius of the spirit rushes headlong into his own night.” (13)

Tough Nietzsche suffered a lot, he didn’t turn angrily against life, nor did he sought final relief in suicide. His philosophy is born out of the dwellings of his mind with his pains: “pain always searches to know the causes, whilst pleasure remains in a fixed position and does not look backwards”, he wrote. “Mighty pain is the last liberator of the spirit; she alone forces us to descend into out ultimate dephts.” And elsewhere: “I know life better, because I have so often been at the point of losing it.” (p. 23)

“Nietzsche never sets up house, with a view to economizing and conserving, he builds no spiritual home; he wants (or perhaps he is forced by the nomadic instinct in his nature) to remain eternally without possessions, the solitary Nimrod who wanders with his weapons through all the forests of the spirit, who has no roof, no wife, no child, no servant, but who, on the other hand, has the thrill and pleasure of the hunt; like Don Juan, he adores not the enduring feeling but the fleeting moments of greatness and ecstasy. He is solely attracted by an adventure of the spirit, by that ‘dangerous perhaps’ that stimulates and excites as long as the chase is on but as soon as attainmet is reached loses its grip.” (29)

In Zweig’s perspective, Nietzsche sounds the alarms and alerts us – prophetically – against the ills of nationalism and praises cosmopolitism:

“Nietzsche is content to be without country, without home or possessions, cut off forever from that ‘parochialism of the fatherland’, from all ‘patriotic subjugation’. His perspective will be the lofty one of the bird in flight, of the ‘good European’, of that ‘essentially nomadic race of men who exist outside of nations’. (…) Once Nietzsche has established himself in the south, he steps definitively beyond his past; he is peremptorily de-Germanized, de-Christianized… the navigator to the realm of the future is too happy to be embarking on ‘the fastest ship to Cosmopolis’ to experience any nostalgia for his unilateral, uniform and univocal fatherland. That is why all attempts to re-Germanize him should be strongly condemned.

At the same time as de-Germanizing him, the south also serves to de-Christianize him completely. Whilst like a lizard he enjoys the sun on his back and his soul is lit right through to his innermost nerves, he ponders what exactly had left the world in shadow for so long, made it so anguished, so troubled, so demoralized, so cowardly conscious of sin, what had robbed the most natural, the most serene, the most vital things of their true value, and had prematurely aged what was most precious in the universe, life itself. Christianity is identified as the culprit, for its belief in the hereafter, the key principle that casts its dark cloud over the modern world.This ‘malodorous Judaism, concocted of Rabbinic doctrines and superstition’ has crushed and stifled sensuality, the exhilaration of the world and for fifty generationshas been the most lethal narcotic, causing moral paralysis in what was once a genuine life force. But now (and here he sees his life as a mission), the crusade of the future agains the cross has finally begun, the reconquest of the most sacred country of humanity: the life of the world.” (pg. 61-63)

Zweig also suggests that, with Nietzsche, it appears for the first time upon the high seas of German philosophy the black flag of a pirate ship. With Nietzsche, it dawns

“a new brand of heroism, a philosophy no longer clad in professorial and scholarly robes, but armed and armored for the struggle. Others before him, comparably bold and heroic navigators of the spirit, had discovered continents and empires; but with only a civilizing and utilitarian interest, in order to conquer them for humanity, in order to fill in the philosophical map, penetrating deeper into the terra incognita of thought. They plant the flag of God or of the spirit on the newly conquered lands, they construct cities, temples and new roads in the novelty of the unkown and on their heels come the governors and administrators, to work the acquired terrain and harvest from it the commentators and teachers, men of culture. But the final objective of their labours is rest, peace and stability: they want to increase the possessions of the world, propagate norms and laws, establish a superior order.

Nietzsche, in contrast, storms into German philosophy like the filibusters making their entrance into the Spanish empire at the end of the 16th century, a wild unruly swashbuckling swarm of desperados, without nation, ruler, king, flag, home or residence. Like them he conquers nothing for himself, or anyone following him, not for a god, or a king, or a faith, but uniquely for the pleasure of conquest, for he wants to acquire, conquer and possess nothig. He concludes no treaty nor build a house, he scorns the rules of war put in place by philosophers and he seeks no disciple… Nothing was more foreign to Nietzsche than to merely proceed towards the habitual objective of philosophers, to an equilibrium of feeling, to repose in a tranquilitas, a sated brown wisdom at the rigid point of a unique conviction. He spends and consumes successive convictions, rejecting what he has acquired, and for this reason we would do better to call him Philaleth, a fervent lover of Aletheia, truth, that chaste and cruelly seducing godess, who unceasingly, like Artemis, lures her lovers into an eternal hunt only to remain ever inaccesible behind her tattered veils.” (pg. 43)

In Nietzsche’s fate we can read the tragedy of someone who, tortured by disease and anguish, embarks head-on in Knowledge’s dangerous adventure. Alone and frail, but bold and curious, he’s a man who, like a serpent, exchanged skins thoughout his life. But, as Zweig points out, his only homeland was solitude. Wherever he lays his hat, there he’s alone. He journeys through the land, but doesn’t seem ever to leave loneliness behind. There’s a song by Portishead in which Beth Gibbons wails: “This loneliness just won’t leave me alone”. It’s quite possible Nietzsche knew a lot about this emotional mood. The philosopher has been acquainted with the blues. Sometimes, it seems, he tries to believe isolation is a merit and that the geniuses of humanity shouldn’t mix with the riff-raff – that’s why many nostrils can smell arrogance in Nietzsche attitude, some aristocratical eliticism, as if the man believes he shouldn’t wallow in the mud of common vulgarities.

This loner consoles himself, to lessen the pains of his solitude,  with the idea that posterity will understand and honour him. Free spirits yet to be born keep him company through his darkest hours. He warms himself by the fireside of his imagination of future glories. Zarathustra is filled with images, bursting from a mind intoxicated by poetry, of better days to come, of men who have outgrown mankind as we know it. The question I pose is: how maddening is it to seek human warmth on the imaginary realm? Can you cure yourself from loneliness with the dreamt shadow of future friends?

In Nietzsche’s final years, he gets increasing bombastic. Now he brags he’s dynamite. His previous books were almost completely ignored by the general population of the planet, and he can’t deal with this easily, emotionally speaking: he felt “only immutable solitude multiplied” and this is what, according to Zweig, “turns his soul gangrenous”: the wound of no reply.” (75)

 His descent into the abyss is portrayed by Zweig as a tragedy of utter solitude. Nietzsche sinks, his brain shatters, because the burden of the world’s indifference and deafness is too much to bear. Nietzsche’s own judgement of his past achievements, in Ecce Homo, may sound deeply narcisistic and self-glorifying: he believes, for example, that Zarathustra is the biggest gift ever given to humanity, the greatest book ever written, and that whole universities should be created and devoted to its study. Some chapters of Nietzsche’s intriguing auto-biography are filled with self-celebration and megalomania, as if he’s trampling modesty underfoot: Nietzsche explains to his readers why he  is so wise, how does he manage to write such great books, and considers himself to be an event in History that will divide it in two epochs. Zweig’s interpretation invites us to understand this as a symptom of his social isolation, of his frustration about the silence that surrounded his ideas, and which was so rarely broken in Europe during his life (only George Brandes, professor in Copenhagen, made an effort to spread Nietzsche’s ideas in academic circles during the philosopher’s life).

When he reached the period when he wrote his last books – among them are The Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo… –  Nietzsche seems to be increasingly furious, bombastic. He writes with outbursts of rage and indignation, striving to get some answer from the world around him. Even hostility from readers seems to him to be better than silent indifference. This is how Zweig describes this late Nietzschean works:

“There are contained the most unbridled scornful cries of rage and heavy groans of suffering, flayed from his body by the whip of impatience, a savage growling through foaming mouth and bared teeth… provoking his epoch so that they react and let go a howl of rage. To defy them still, he recounts his life in Ecce Homo with a level of cynicism which will enter into universal history. Never has a book exhibited such a craving, such a diseased and feverish convulsion of impatience for response, than the last monumental pamphlets of Nietzsche: like Xerxes insubordinately battling the ocean with a scourge, with insane bravado he wants the indifferent to be stung by the scorpions of his books, to defy the weight of immunity which enshrouds him. (…) In the glacial silence and lost in his own entrancement, he lifts his hands, dithyrambic his foot twitches: and suddenly the dance begins, the dance around the abyss, the abyss of his own downfall.” (p. 77)

Stefan Zweig’s book is filled with this kind of highly dramatical images, as if he’s trying to honour Nietzsche with a painting worthy of a tragic hero. It’s certainly a very impressive and sensitive portrayal of Nietzsche, tough in its less than 100 pages it doesn’t share many details of the philosopher’s life (this has been done by Curt Paul Janz, Rudiger Safranski and other biographers). Zweig’s perspective is filled with melancholia and he decribes the “struggles with the demon” experienced by Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche as something he also has experienced in his own flesh. Zweig’s life, similarly to that of Nietzsche, can’t be said to have ended happily: he was living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when he commited suicide in 1942. He had sought refuge from the horrors of the World War in Europe, a jew fleeing from the claws of the Holocaust. For a while, he believed Brazil to be “the country of the future”, a safe harbour where no racism or anti-semitism existed. In his book, Brazil – Country of The Future, he idealizes his new home with the eyes of the refugee who was leaving behind a world of intolerance, hatred and persecution. Then, frustration takes over, and he shoots himself in Petropolis. But that’s another story.

I believe Zweig’s Nietzsche is a book whose great merit lies in the description of Nietzsche’s existential position, one of social isolation of almost complete lack of community bonds. He’s downfall, according to an interpretation by Brazillian philosopher Oswaldo Giacoia, one of the leading figures in Nietzsche studies in Latin America, is deeply related the fact that he couldn’t belong to what Hannah Arendt used to call “a common world”. One of the most interesting psychological problems posed by Nietzsche’s fate, it seems to me, is this: how important for psychic health are the lived experienced of community bonds? What are the consequences of radical rupture with the whole dimension of alterity? Or, put more simply, what’s the price that pays the person who lives without any of the warmth provided by friendship and love? 

stefan_zweig

Stefan Zweig, author of “The Struggle With The Demon – Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche”. Click here to read an excerpt of the last chapter of Zweig’s book.

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