Wednesday, 27 February 2013

War and Peace - the end at last!

I found the philosophy at the end confusing. Tolstoy spends the whole book showing what war really is, how it is just the sum of thousands of decisions, psychology and the flaws of men. He lets you see all the moving parts, how they interconnect and how the fuel themselves like some gruesome perpetual motion machine. But then the last fifty pages try and prove this very same point with logic. It says ‘this is what war is, what history really is, and all the historians, they just don’t understand it like I do’. My confusion is this. Why, when you have spent over twelve hundred pages profoundly illustrating the complexity of war, would you feel the need to prove, using logic, anything more on this topic in the last forty?

Just a few final thoughts a propos this epic behemoth. I think W&P might be a great book to read twice. The war - the main character in this book - has a fate that we all know is predetermined. I think it would be interesting reading the book again to level the playing field - that way you would know where the characters are going to end up too. It strikes me that this book would seem especially profound with the knowledge of destiny. The significant moments in the development of the many characters would become significant and prophetic. I want to see the characters' lives march round and round in some Nietzschen circle of recurrence - like the war they fight in - unfailingly drawn towards the same end.

The book’s lack of narrative structure is really quite outlandish. ‘Like real life’, I’m sure a lot of critics say. But it lacks even a gentle character-driven soap-opera style plotting. The characters stories are non-existent and certainly not resolved. Andrei dies before he and Natasha have spoken about their love, before he had become a complete human. We don’t find out what happens to his son. Pierre marries Natasha, but has ideas about how to change the world. We don’t see them fulfilled, and we don’t see him reach his potential either. It is vital to understanding W&P that the two wars  - but in particular the second - are the narrative structure. To tell Tolstoy's truth of them - explaining Russia’s ‘victory’ in the final campaign - is the overwhelming purpose and intent of the book. And the two real characters in this novel are the many-headed hydra of the French and Russian armies.

War and Peace is too much of a book to even attempt to sum up, and it does not easily yield to being broken into bight-size chunks. In fact, I don't know what it is. I don't know what it is at all - only that is is. And for that, it must be read. 


PS - I read the version translated by Volokhonsky and Pevear as I think it is most faithful to the original text. It retains the French  and provides a translation in the footnotes. I found this slightly hard work during the opening part of the book which is French heavy (I had to keep looking down and then up) but overall I think it was a good trade off.

See also: Part 1, Part 2

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

War and Peace - Part 1

 War and Peace (Tolstoy) - 100 pages from the end

I am about a hundred and fifty pages from the end of this epic book with only one day left to meet my target of finishing the thing in January. I’m slightly nervous about the impossibly long reading session I will have to do tomorrow, but before completing it, I have some thoughts.

Having read Anna Karenina, I thought that W&P would be a similar tale of aristocratic lives amidst the backdrop of changing political fortunes. This is partly true in the peace time portions of the novel, but not of the war parts, which are the majority of the book. War becomes not only the central theme, but almost itself a key character in the book. For large swathes, all traditional characterisation is abandoned and Tolstoy just gives sweeping description of the French or Russian army’s movements. As evidence of this, Bagration, whose name is mentioned quite a lot as a commander in the Russian army, is killed off almost in a parenthesis - ‘Bagration had died’. This book is not about its characters or their lives. I think that was my fundamental misapprehension. The changing political context is not a device for demonstrating and developing the book's characters. No. The characters are used only to teach the reader about the key concepts of this work: War and Peace.

Tolstoy also spends a lot of time discussing his theories of war. At some points it feels like he has forgotten he is writing a novel and starts quibbling with, I presume, actual historians. At one point a map appears with technical description of battle tactics. At another, equations appear as Tolstoy solves for x, x being the fighting spirit of the army. I didn’t enjoy much of this, and it seems to take up a disproportionate amount of the book. I would say though, that some of the battle-talk, although boring for me to read-through, gave me something quite fundamental - a better understanding of the situation. And I do appreciate some of the points he raises; his fatalistic philosophy of military science is interesting and probably true.

The most shocking moment for me (so far) is when Price Andrei dies. It is very sudden. Tragically, at his death, he still seems like an incomplete man. Throughout the novel, we have witnessed his personal growth, the slow evolution of his psyche, and the reader senses greatness in him. We also yearn for him to live happily with Natasha, his love. But he dies with a lot of this potential unfulfilled, and without reaching contentment. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. Tolstoy saw his primary purpose as telling the truth, and death is what war does - it wastes potential. Also, the highest evolution of the self, for Tolstoy, seems to be harmony with God. It is indicated strongly the Andrei reaches this stage before he dies. Perhaps then the point is that fulfillment of potential can’t happen in this life. Presumably, if so, Tolstoy changes his mind because Levin, from Anna K manages to have both.


PS - I read the version translated by Volokhonsky and Pevear as I think it is most faithful to the original text. It retains the French  and provides a translation in the footnotes. I found this slightly hard work during the opening part of the book which is French heavy (I had to keep looking down and then up) but overall I think it was a good trade off.

See also: Part 2Part 3

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Poor Economics

Poor Economics (Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo)
East Cipinang, Jakarta Indonesia Picture taken by Jonathan McIntosh, 2004.
I enjoyed this book on development economics. Any book that has a glowing reference from Amartya Sen is worth a read, and this didn’t disappoint; the authors themselves are two highly respected economists. This book was full of surprising insight into how the poor live their lives. Its two main themes were the (relatively) recent trend of randomised controlled trials in development economics and also the importance of micro-scale reactions - talking to the people affected by poverty reduction policies and finding out what really motivates their behaviour. 

I accepted quite a lot of their arguments, which often could be summed up as ‘actually, things are a bit more complicated than that’. Memorable for me in the book was the disavowal of nutrition based poverty traps, and other traditional and simplistic traps, but the introduction of more complicated, behaviour based traps. Also the idea that the poor people live in a world that makes it very hard to make the right choices. Often people could be unambiguously better off by saving more, but they don’t have access to the right kind of finance and suffer much the same self-discipline problems that everyone in the west does. These problems are more acute though - for someone living on a dollar a day, a cup of tea might be something they could forgo to save, but a life of no tea would make life pretty dreary indeed.

The idea that poor people are ‘entrepreneurs’ out of necessity not some special pluck rang true as well. The idea behind a lot of micro finance initiatives is that poor people just need the right finance to unleash a wave of business potential across the developing world. Lending support to this theory is that  MF does get good returns on their loans. However, actually, that’s because whilst the marginal return on a small capital increase in the business can be quite high, the overall returns are still often very low or negative. Poor people often dream of stable income, and the business they run are small, non-scalable, badly run and ‘utterly undifferentiated’ from those around them. In one of these businesses, a ten pound investment which is used to buy more stock might yield twenty pounds of extra income. But the business may still make a loss overall - and a hundred pounds investment would be unabsorbable, ineffective or completely useless.

Poor economics is full of interesting micro explanations leading to RCT-tested ways to make things better for the world's poor. This is it’s biggest strength, but also a weakness. We should tinker at the edges to make things better. And yes, we so far know almost nothing about how to fire up the ‘spark’ of growth for the poorest countries. But this books lacks any sense of urgency - it says in the conclusion something like ‘poverty has been around for a thousand years, we can take a hundred to get rid of it’. That’s true - but it shouldn’t take us a hundred years to make life livable for the very poor. I think - but it’s true I don’t know for sure - that a lot of the world still lacks the most basic of infrastructure. Perhaps poor economics takes it as a given that NGOs should continue to deliver water pumps to remote villages. It doesn’t say - but for me that kind of action is the most urgent, and the most critical. Yes, let’s design good policy, and certainly lets enfranchise the poorest people with the same kind of framework and positive nudges that we in the West enjoy, but most urgently - lets relieve the suffering of those in the most need. Now.

I’m not sure there’s a policy prescription in this sentiment: NGO’s and Governments are already enacting this kind of change, but it would have been nice if Poor Economics had touched on how important this is. 


Poor Economics is available on Amazon.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Word of the day


Floop [floop]
Noun, plural unchanged - floop

1. Floop: [Formal] Denoting a phenomena that is recursive in and of itself

2. Floop [Informal] Something that just doesn’t make sense, especially pretentious logical arguments and discussions that are going round in circles. err... floop?


The brilliant thinker and cat stroker, Earnst Flowers, in his seminal book FLOOP, defined floop as a meshing of the words ‘floop’ and ‘loop’. Thus becoming the first of a class of quasi-anachronisms to contain itself. There were fears that this infinite regress of meaning could have catastrophic effects in peoples minds, until he was reportedly captured by the Soviets, and under duress he admitted that he chose floop only because it sounded ‘pleasingly like fruit loop’. This is a claim he has since denied.

There are still fierce arguments over what the original or nth floop means anyway, even spawning a branch of maths with the same name. Other have pointed out that the vagueness inherent in the word floop mirrors the very concept of floops itself, creating yet another floop loop. The academic consensus today is that this we shouldn’t think about it too much because the whole thing is ‘literally mental’.

For many years the word floop was the bulwark of chubby college professors eager to point out any hint of meaninglessness in colleagues work in order to hide the vacuousness of their own research. However, the word re-entered the popular lexicon after the ‘um.... floop?!’ campaign conducted by a popular brand of Swiss cheese. This soon became an internet meme and then a worldwide phenomena involving an exclamation of ‘um... floop?!’ after somebody had said something thereby implying that it is meaningless – it is judged to be particularly funny if they have spent a long time preparing the speech. Prince Philip neatly summed up this global penchant when he remarked ‘what can you say, that I can’t ‘um.... floop?!’?’

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) 

I had never heard of Joseph Conrad, but I picked this book from the Classics section of Dublin’s ‘finest independent bookseller’, if I’m honest, in part because of it’s short Novella length which I found most appealing. I read it in one day, and wow - it really smacked me round the face; whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this. A hundred pages is so short, so it seems odd, but accurate, to describe it as flawed masterpiece. But it is!

Heart tells the tale of a shipsman who ventured into deepest Africa, skippering a steamboat up a mysterious river full of natives to meet a famous ivory merchant, who has positioned himself as a man-god of the savages. They bow and worship him, and he, in turn, has regressed back to a primitive, tribal life-style. The book is full of highly exaggerated rhetorical flourish, but the language is fantastic. I have never read something quite like it, and although the style is extraordinarily over-the-top, for this book, largely, it works; you suspend your disbelief and get utterly swept up along Conrad’s river.

And of course, Conrad is writing about a descent into the darkness in our own minds as well. Humanities capacity for evil is both vividly described in the book through the white colonial brutishness, but also the hellish blackness of the undiscovered African continent is symbolic of the darkness inside the hearts of men. The congruence and meaning behind everything is astonishing, and the language is stunning, hallucinogenic and, like the character in the book, you feel like you are being pulled into Conrad’s primeval dream-world of darkness.

But this book is clearly flawed; perhaps this is because of the ambition in of trying to describe ‘human darkness’ in a hundred pages. Of course, Conrad doesn’t. What he does do is slip, at times, into near meaninglessness. Towards the end, there are pages and pages of attempts to describe ‘the darkness’, using vague words like ‘indescribable’, and ‘unknowable’. And the narrative suffers too. The emotional scene with Kurtz’s fiance at the end makes no sense - the narrator barely knew Kurtz, and what the hell are they are talking about? It’s as if Conrad believes his words are imbued with a meaning above and beyond that on the page. Sadly, they aren’t, and those passages are not merely undecipherable but almost completely contentless.

Still, I loved reading this book. It's breadth of scope is quite astonishing for just a hundred short pages.


Heart of Darkness is available on Amazon