Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This Is Not Yet the End

On a day when the front page of the Financial Times reports the the worst stock plunge for the S&P 500 since 1987 and the worst ever for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, it is not surprising that many people are saying this is the end of the Anglo-American system. Not least among them are Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Peer Steinbrück, the German finance minister. "Once again, Anglo-American capitalism is a bad word," Charles Wyplosz writes. "And globalisation is next in line. Speeches at this year’s United Nation General Assembly by leaders from every continent reveal the depth of contempt that has been lying low, buried underneath the apparent success of the globalisation process."

However, what do we find on the Comment page? Two articles saying just the opposite.

In the midst of all this woe, Michael Skapinker has decided to take a look back into history. "It is fascinating to look back at the Financial Times of 30 years ago, just before the US and the UK embarked on their years of liberalisation and deregulation. The similarities between 1978 and 2008 are striking, as if the two years are bookends to the fantastic stories in between." These were awful times for the Anglophonic cousins on either side of the Pond. "Britain was plunged into its icy winter of discontent, with half-empty supermarket shelves and rubbish piled in the streets, as road hauliers, hospital workers, school caretakers and many others went on strike." Jimmy Carter declared that the United States was undergoing a crisis "threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America".

It did not, of course, last. In a story that has taken on mythic proportions in certain circles, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan changed all that, ushering in a period of prosperity (and ending the Cold War while they were at it). So too, Mr. Skapinker writes, this crisis will pass. "One day, with new regulations in place, companies will return to raising funds, banks to lending and financiers to making money. New York and London will remain the best places to do this because they retain the advantages they had before." And what exactly are these advantages?

The first is language. Lehman Brothers may have gone overnight, but it takes centuries for a language to disappear. A global generation has invested years learning English, which has no ready challenger.

The two cities' second advantage is law. The US may be excessively litigious and lawyers may charge outrageous fees in both cities, but where else would you look to the law to defend your corporate rights? Shanghai? Moscow?

The third advantage is collective brain power. This may seem laughable, given where bankers' supposed intelligence has landed us now, but the solutions to this crisis will come in cities most open to raucous debate from whoever has anything to contribute. The next 30 years will be different, but New York and London will rise again.

Mr. Wyplosz concludes that Messrs. Sarkozy and Steinbrück are simply out of touch. "They have denounced excesses, such as bonuses, but that does not even begin to address the root cause of the crisis. They have described financial markets as unregulated. This is simply wrong. Financial markets are tightly regulated. The problem is not just that the regulation is inappropriate, but also that supervisors have not enforced it."

"So will Anglo-American capitalism fade away? Maybe, but that will be decided in Washington, not Paris and Berlin. One thing is sure, neither France nor Germany can mount a serious challenge, at least as long as their people and leaders mistrust and misunderstand finance."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Somehow, It All Works

Thankfully, the presidential election is almost here. I, for one, have gotten rather tired of this campaign season, which started so long ago that no one can seem to remember a time before it was. Yet as much as I'm happy to see this campaign end, and as much as I dislike certain things about all the candidates, can I just say this is a wonderful process?

Every now and then I sit back and realize just want is going on: the citizens of this great republic of ours are considering the candidates and, come November, they will cast their ballots by the millions, electing a president. For most of human history, and indeed around much of the world today, this has been an impossibility, or at best a dream.

So however messy the campaign, and however imperfect the candidate we will elect, this whole thing makes me pretty darn proud to be part of the American experiment in self-government.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Joseph Roth, Part 3

Today I will discuss Joseph Roth’s last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. In this work, published only months before his own untimely death, Roth again devotes his attention, and sympathy, to the loser. This time, though, the story is even more personal, because it eerily foreshadows Roth’s own death. In fact, Roth himself called it his last testament.

The holy drinker in question is a homeless man in Paris named Andreas Kartak. At the beginning of the story the only thing Roth tells the reader is that he lives under the bridges over the Seine. Later on, Roth fills in Andreas’ background. Andreas originally left his native village of Olschowice in Polish Silesia to work in the French coal mines. But he soon ran into trouble. When one day he sees his landlord savagely beating his wife, Caroline, with whom he had become friends, Andreas steps in to protect her and kills his landlord. This is the act that lands him in jail. Since his release he has wandered around Paris during the day and slept under bridges at night. The only other shelter Andreas found was in cafés.

Andreas has been doing this for some while when Roth begins his narration. In the first chapter, a genteel-looking man approaches Andreas and offers him 200 francs. The stranger’s only condition is that Andreas pay the money back to the shrine of the “little St. Therese of Lisieux” in the chapel of St. Marie des Batignolles. It turns out that this gentleman has recently become a Christian and given up his well-furnished home for the bridges over the Seine. He then walks back into the shadows.

From this point onwards, the novella portrays Andreas’ attempts to do something worthwhile with this gift and his struggle to repay “little Therese,” as he calls her. He starts out well. He buys a new suit and briefcase and persuades a wealthy man to hire him for a temporary job. But once the job is over, he spends the money he earned on liquor. Andreas then starts running into a series of old acquaintances. Some want to help him out, others are only interested in his 200 francs, while others discard him as just an old memory. Andreas just searches for wine, women, and song, while remembering episodes from his life.

Every Sunday, however, Andreas is resolved to pay back his debt to “little Therese.” He hears church bells ringing and, stuck in sin as he is, he knows where his duty lies. But getting to the church is never as easy as deciding to go there. Sunday after Sunday he somehow fails to make it to “little Therese.” On the last Sunday, Andreas makes it all the way to the church square, but again he runs into an old acquaintance, a drunkard just like him, who coaxes him, despite his protests that he needs to go to Mass, into a nearby café. There they drink their Pernod, until a little girl enters and walks past them. When Andreas finds out that her name is Therese, he immediately offers her the money, but she won’t take it. She does tell him, however, that her parents are attending Mass; this reminds Andreas of his duty, and his own desire. Unfortunately, as he is thinking of leaving, he collapses in the café. Since there is no doctor there, the waiters carry him into the nearby sacristy to see if the priests can help. There Andreas breathes his last, reaching into his pocket for the 200 francs.

Andreas had not been able to find a roof to sleep under, to stay sober, to hold down a job for a long time. He had been a loser for a long time. Yet in the end he succeeds; he brings the money to “little Therese” and dies, hopefully, at peace with with God. Andreas was right to persevere in hope.

The novel then ends with this line, which Roth obviously meant to apply to himself: “God grant all us drinkers such an easy, beautiful death!”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Let's Be Honest: We All Have the Same Method

One of the reasons I came to Texas A&M is that when I was visiting the school one of the professors made a derisive comment about "the holy trinity of Race, Class, Gender." I took that as a very good sign. And for the most part, the faculty here are sensible. However, even at a place like A&M there is a lot of talk about hip new methodologies and "synthetic history" and vogue terms like that. So I found this passage rather refreshing:

But the essence of these [vogue] critics' procedure is the same as the most hidebound reactionary's: survey the evidence, come up with a generalization you believe to be true, support it with specific textual evidence, and locate your interpretation in the tradition of scholarship concerning the subject as document in footnotes. And do all this in language that is clear and coherent so that your idea can be communicated to your community of scholars.

(Bruce S. Thornton's "The Enemy Is Us: The 'Betrayal of the Postmodern Clerks,'" in Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age, 164.)

While it's true that different scholars have different ways of going about things, the pseudo-philosophic veneer of methodological mumbo-jumbo so many historians (and, from what I can tell, other scholars) employ is just that: a veneer that distracts from the real work they are, or ought to be, doing.

Joseph Roth, part 2

Yesterday I sketched some of the most important details of Joseph Roth’s life, as they affected his view of what I have not so charitably termed “losers.” Now I will examine one of his works, Job, to demonstrate how Roth wove those themes into his literary work.

In Job Roth chronicles the life of a typical Russian Jew named Mendel Singer, such as he grew up among in Brody. Mendel Singer’s world changed, and the world did not want to help him. Mendel begins as a Bible-teacher, an ordinary, God-fearing Jew. His wife Deborah, though, is a shrew. His oldest son, Schemarja, leaves Brody, sails to America and becomes Sam. His next son, Jonas, voluntarily joins the Russian army. His daughter, Mirjam, sleeps around with Cossacks. And his youngest son, Menuchim—his Benjamin—is born crippled and dumb, probably epileptic. The only hope to which Mendel and his wife can cling to is the prophecy made by a local rabbi that Menuchim would one day be healed. Years later, Menuchim is still not well, and Mendel, Deborah, and Mirjam leave him in Russia to join Sam in America. In America Mendel feels deprived of purpose and unsure of this new world. The rest of his family loves America, but Mendel does not. Why should he assimilate?

Then, Mendel’s already fragile world simply breaks apart. Upon the news of Sam’s death as an American soldier and Jonas’ disappearance as a Russian soldier in the First World War, Deborah herself dies of grief. Soon afterwards, Mirjam, who brought her old habits with her to America, goes insane after sleeping with Herr Glück—Mr. Happiness. At this point, Mendel cannot comprehend why God is punishing him, and tries to burn his prayer book until his neighbors stop him. He tells them he is trying to burn God. However, after months of living only in order to hate God, Mendel is brought something unexpected: his youngest son. At a Passover meal with his neighbors, at the point in the ceremony when the Jews await the coming of the Prophet, Menuchim knocks at the door. He has been healed of his epilepsy (at a Russian hospital),and is now a famous composer whose work Mendel already admires. This miracle—for that is what it is—ends the book. What was impossible has been accomplished; God loves Mendel.

Roth shows his affection for losers quite clearly at two other points in the novel. First, after coming to America, Mendel does not see the point of assimilating, and seems rather lazy compared to all his Jewish neighbors who go to night school to learn English. Mendel’s stubbornness in following strict moral laws makes his wife reproach him for “behaving like a Russian Jew.” Mendel’s only response: “I am a Russian Jew.” Mendel cannot change his identity, and does not see the desirability of even trying. He does not like America, and if that makes him a loser, so be it. Unfortunately, Mendel is rather inarticulate; he relies completely on his actions. Mendel simply cannot find words to express what he is thinking and feeling, even at key junctures in the story when the reader expects him to justify his actions. Mendel the loser cannot communicate. He has come to a country he does not understand. Yet, even in his Jewish enclave in New York City, he is surrounded by fellow Jews who do not understand him either. They have settled in America, and have ceased practicing their ancestral religion with any true fervor. They neglect mandatory prayers, and they work on the Sabbath. Their devotions are quickly becoming mere taboos, and their beliefs nothing more than old wives’ tales. There is a wall of silence separating Mendel from the entire world, even his fellow Jews, even his own family. No amount of rhetoric will break it down. Mendel can only call upon God. And when God refuses His help, what good is success for Mendel? How can he continue?

The second point is Roth’s short discourse on hope and miracles. Shortly before emigrating from Russia, Mendel reflects on the promise the rabbi made concerning Menuchim. What he needs is a miracle, but Mendel acknowledges that he has no right to demand one from God. And yet, Mendel’s only hope is for a miracle. It is here that Roth inserts the most important line in the book: “He who has no unhappiness does not believe in miracles.” In context Roth seems to cast doubt on this maxim, by speculating on why God has not performed any miracles since the time when Israel dwelt in Palestine. In reality, though, the novel’s ending demonstrates that this is the lesson Roth wished to impart to his readers. If we were all successful in God’s eyes, why should we need His grace?

In Mendel Singer we see the loser who refuses to change with the world, but who ultimately keeps on hoping.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Joseph Roth & Sympathy for Losers

“He who has no unhappiness does not believe in miracles.”

“God grant all us drinkers such an easy, beautiful death!”

This summer I read two books by Joseph Roth, Job and The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Because I enjoyed these books so much, I wanted to bring them to your attention. Today I am only offering some information about Joseph Roth. Tomorrow and the next day I will take a look at these two books in more detail. I apologize beforehand that some parts of this essay are not quite as fully thought out as they should be; I thought it better to post it now or else risk never finishing it. (Spoiler warning: I will be giving away the endings of both stories.)

Joseph Roth is not very well known in America, though he is well-regarded in the German-speaking world. If an American has heard of him, it is probably on account of The Radetzky March, his fictionalized telling of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nevertheless, Americans should study Roth more closely because he makes us ask ourselves a certain fundamental question we usually try to evade: In a society driven by success, what do we do with “the loser”? Roth’s writing poses this question so poignantly for at least two reasons. First, Roth himself was a loser. Geopolitics are certainly one part of the reason why Roth was a loser: He grew up in a turbulent world and into an age-old way of life that disappeared when he was barely reaching maturity. But, he was also a loser on a more personal level: He lied about himself compulsively, and died a homeless alcoholic. Secondly, Roth had the rare gift to be able to narrate a novel about a person’s entire fate with great sympathy in a deceptively simple style.
Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, East Galicia. Until the end of World War I, East Galicia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but was then annexed by Russia; it is now located in western Ukraine. More importantly for Roth’s outlook on life, Brody was a sizeable Jewish shtetl. Roth was not raised speaking one of the local Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian), but rather German and Yiddish; he later attended the only German-language high school in the nearby city of Lemberg, as he would have called it, or Lviv, as it is now known in Ukrainian. As a result, he was something of an outsider in his own native region, and always felt attracted by the wider German-speaking world outside the shtetl. This attraction drew him to Vienna for university studies. Shortly after this move World War I broke out and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the principle of unity in Roth’s life, was dismembered, with Brody and Lviv falling to the Bolsheviks.

With no home to return to after the war, Roth started work as a journalist, first in Vienna and later in Berlin. At the beginning of his career Roth was most concerned with social and political questions, displaying a generally socialist attitude. Nevertheless, his roots in the Jewish shtetl always shone through. Perhaps his most famous collection of articles from that period is entitled “The Wandering Jews” (Juden auf Wanderschaft).

The second stage of Roth’s career is marked not by an abandonment of social and political themes—they continued to play a role in his novels and short stories—but by a new emphasis on the fates of individuals. It is this stage that saw Roth produce the works for which he is still remembered, most especially The Radetzky March. It is also this same period—probably not coincidentally—that saw Roth’s personal life fall apart. His wife went insane, and he sought love from various paramours, with predictably poor results. He often lied to others about his childhood to cover up unpleasant details, such as his father’s insanity. But, he also told conflicting stories about his own religious views; some days he told people he was a proud Jew, other days he was a Catholic or an agnostic. He wanted to make a grand tale out of his own life. If personal problems were not enough for him, Roth had to flee Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power. In the end, though, it was his drinking that caught up with him, and in 1939 he died, homeless and penniless, in a Parisian café.

This would be the life of just another unhappy artist—not at all worthy of the appellation “tragic”—if it were not for the fact that Roth was a man who had engaged with the world. Roth was a journalist who was deeply involved in the world around him. Yes, Roth was weak—he was an alcoholic, and he turned to other women when his wife became insane. He also had a narcissistic streak—thus, the many lies about his own life. But I cannot help but sense something greater than a plain old deluded alcoholic. He knew that life was a grand story, but as far as I can tell, he also knew that he could not deny his sins. And most importantly, he always kept his hope alive.

Joseph Roth loved a certain type of loser. It was not the loser who tried to blame all his own personal faults on other people. Even if Roth himself could legitimately blame circumstances beyond his control (World War I, the October Revolution, the Nazi rise to power) for his misfortunes, he always admitted that his drinking was a problem that he had to control. Roth loved the loser who could not understand the world and whom the world could not understand. He had nothing but sympathy for the man who truly struggled to discern his purpose in the world, but simply could not find it.

But for Roth, even a loser’s life was worth telling. Even a loser had to keep hoping.