My wife purchased this book, since we had both read and enjoyed Krimstein’s previous book, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt. This book, like his previous one, is a graphic nonfiction book. Essentially, the author/artist employs the graphic novel format to tell the stories of six Yiddish teenagers living in Lithuania prior to the onset of WWII. The stories are based upon essays that were submitted as a part of a contest. When the Nazis invaded Lithuania, the documents were hidden to prevent their destruction. They were eventually lost, and then rediscovered not long ago.
In the introduction, Krimstein describes how YIVO (the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) came up with the idea to gather anonymous essays from Yiddish youth to get a better understanding of the Jewish experience.
The plan? An ethnographic study in the guise of a meagerly funded autobiography contest. The grand prize: 150 zlotys (roughly a thousand U.S. dollars in 2021 money) for the best entry. Meaning the most TRUTHFUL entry. (Because what good would the autobiographies be if in the stories the “youth” submitted, they didn’t spill the beans on what was going on—not just the truth, but even more to the point, their unvarnished version of the truth as they lived it?)
Because the submissions needed to be anonymous, the youth were able to express themselves honestly, without fear. The result is a collection of compelling, insightful tales which resonate with truth.
In the Afterward section of the book (which I strongly urge you to read but will leave out the spoiler), Krimstein describes his impression upon first examining the memoirs.
In some sense, these were ordinary student notebooks. But each had details that made it seem to come alive. One, with delicate pages and tiny, precise letters in green between black, faux-leather covers. Another, with sloppy pencil scrawling outside the lines of a baby blue notebook, a map of Poland circa 1936 on its cover. Another, tight black lettering and intricate drawings, almost a graphic memoir.
And then I got it. What I was seeing and feeling weren’t notebooks at all. They were voices, garments, smiles, tears, laughter—each one a distinct individual, a survivor rescued (in a sense) by his or her own words from the lost nation of Yiddishuania, a person.
This is a really fascinating and quick read. I highly recommend it to all readers. I personally enjoyed it immensely.
The strategists have a saying: I dare not be a host, but rather a guest; I dare not advance an inch, but rather retreat a foot.
This is called marching without moving, Rolling up one’s sleeves without baring one’s arms, Capturing the enemy without confronting him, Holding a weapon that is invisible.
There is no greater calamity than to under-estimate the strength of your enemy. For to under-estimate the strength of your enemy is to lose your treasure.
Therefore, when opposing troops meet in battle, victory belongs to the grieving side.
I must confess, when I first read this, I was not sure I would have much to say about it. Military strategy is not really my thing. But I thought a little about the principles expressed through the passage, and I realized it is applicable to our broader society.
There is a socio-political trend right now which is to oppose anything that is contrary to one’s beliefs, and to staunchly refuse to compromise or give in on anything, regardless of how trivial it is or whether the opposing viewpoint has merit. This is a problem, and it is contributing to the stark divide in our society. No matter what the issue is, both sides seem poised to dig in and not give an inch. A society cannot function in this way, nor can a government. There has to be compromise, and compromise needs to be on both sides, not the version of “compromise” where we demand the other party change their views to align with ours.
Eventually, things will have to change. We will either learn to work together with respect and consideration, or our social structure will collapse. I personally am hopeful for the first option.
In “Chapter XIII: The Life and Philosophy of Pythagoras,” Manly P. Hall states:
Pythagoras taught that friendship was the truest and nearest perfect of all relationships. He declared that in Nature there was a friendship of all for all; of gods for men; of doctrines one for another; of the soul for the body; of the rational part for the irrational part; of philosophy for its theory; of men for one another; of countrymen for one another; that friendship also existed between strangers, between a man and his wife, his children, and his servants. All bonds without friendship were shackles, and there was no virtue in their maintenance. Pythagoras believed that relationships were essentially mental rather than physical, and that a stranger of sympathetic intellect was closer to him than a blood relation whose viewpoint was at variance with his own.
(pp. 196 – 197)
This passage struck multiple nerves when I read it. I completely agree that friendship is based upon sympathetic interests, and I have long accepted that “bonds without friendship were shackles, and there was no virtue in their maintenance.” Throughout my life, friends have come and gone, usually the result of changes of interests and ideas, resulting in the sympathetic connection dissolving over the course of time. Generally, I have been OK with this, although, at this stage in my life, it seems easier to lose friends in this divisive society than it is to make new friends. Which leads me to the next point.
Pythagoras asserted that “a stranger of sympathetic intellect was closer to him than a blood relation whose viewpoint was at variance with his own.” As much as I want to dig my heels in and rail against this statement, I must concede the veracity of it. One need only look around and note the family members who are alienated because of different views, be they political, social, religious, or whatever. I know people who refuse to speak with their parents, and parents who refuse to speak to their children, all because of what I would consider trivial differences of opinion. And while I personally would never alienate myself from my family because of a difference of ideology, there are clearly many who would. So, it appears that Pythagoras recognized that this is a tendency of human behavior. Anyway, it gave me reason to pause and think.
I think that is all I have to say about this passage. I will conclude by saying that reading the several chapters on Pythagoras in this book gave me a whole new perspective on him as a thinker and philosopher. Previously, all I could tell you about Pythagoras was that there was a mathematical theorem named after him, but could not tell you anything else. He was fascinating.
Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day.
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Since my first post on this book, I read four chapters in this text (Chapters V through VIII), and these were dense chapters overflowing with information. So rather than attempting to summarize everything, I thought it would be best to pick a single passage and talk about it.
In “Chapter VIII: Isis, The Virgin of the World,” Hall discusses the symbolism of the Egyptian deity Typhon.
Typhon, the Egyptian Demon or Spirit of the Adversary, was born upon the third day. Typhon is often symbolized by a crocodile; sometimes his body is a combination of crocodile and hog. Isis stands for knowledge and wisdom, and according to Plutarch the word Typhon means insolence and pride. Egotism, self-centeredness, and pride are the deadly enemies of understanding and truth. This part of the allegory is revealed.
So my initial reaction upon reading this was to relate the image of Typhon with certain political figures whom, to me, seem to embody egotism, self-centeredness, and pride while attacking truth and wisdom. But I had to stop myself, because it dawned upon me that I too am guilty of allowing the energy of Typhon to influence my thoughts. The fact that I can quickly pass judgement and point out the defects in others is really nothing more than my own personal pride and egotism. And then I examined myself more closely, seeking out the ways in which I act from a place of self-centeredness and hubris. If I am honest with myself, I still have work to do, and this is the key. If you are blinded by pride and ego, it is impossible to be truthful with yourself, and when you are not truthful with yourself, it becomes impossible to progress along the spiritual path. Our inner Typhon is indeed the most deadly enemy of ourselves and our journey toward spiritual growth and enlightenment. I am reminded of the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”
Self-honesty is really hard. It is easy to either ignore the aspects of ourselves that cause us discomfort, or to exaggerate our flaws and become our own harshest critic. Neither of these approaches are healthy. The difficult path of honest self-appraisal is crucial for all of us, but must be tempered with self-compassion.
Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Wishing you joy and light on your path, and a blessed 2022.
I discovered that posting quotes regularly did not really take that much less time; in fact, I think I spent even more time, since I felt compelled to post more often.
My daughter was all excited because she Googled something by Umberto Eco and one of my blog posts was the top Google search result.
Anyway, I figure I will write when I can, and not sweat it if I get too busy to write. That said, my thoughts on this book.
I came across this at a community center where there was a table of free books (a dangerous thing for a bibliophile). Most of the books were of no interest to me, but this one immediately caught my attention. While in college, I had read Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece of political theory, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The book was one of those that left a strong and lasting impact on me. I cannot tell you how many times I have observed the behaviors of political leaders and listened to their words, then thought back to Arendt’s book. Essentially, she wrote the book on totalitarianism. The term did not exist until she coined it.
The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt is a biographical graphic novel. It provides a witty overview of Arendt’s life, how she fled Europe during World War II, established herself as a political theorist and philosopher, and eventually went on to become the first woman to be appointed full professor at Princeton University.
While most of the book tells the story of Ms. Arendt’s life, it does briefly summarize some of her political ideas.
As fire lives on oxygen, the oxygen of totalitarianism is untruth. Before totalitarian leaders can fit reality to their lies, their message is an unreeling contempt for facts. They live by the belief that fact depends entirely on the power of the man who makes it up.
The graphic novel quotes Arendt as saying, “Whatever I do, I am simply unable to avert my eyes from the reality of the world around me.” (p. 126) I feel the same way. It is impossible to ignore what I see going on in the world. And if you ever read The Origins of Totalitarianism, you will also not be able to look at the behaviors of political leaders the same way again.
Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share in my musings. I hope you find these posts interesting. If so, please let me know. As long as there is interest, I will do my best to keep writing.
I have learned to distinguish between the policies of a government (or even the constitution of a state) and the cultural ferment at work in that country. This is why I later attended cultural meetings in countries whose politics I didn’t agree with. Recently I was invited to Iran by some young, open-minded scholars who are fighting for the development of a modern culture there, and I agreed, asking only for the visit to be postponed until the situation in the Middle East became clearer, because it didn’t strike me as sensible to find myself on a plane that might get caught in missile crossfire.
If I were American, I certainly wouldn’t have voted for Bush, but this doesn’t stop me from having continuous and cordial relations with various American universities.
Umberto Eco. Turning Back the Clock
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After the list of Academy Award nominees came out, I made it a point to watch as many of the Best Picture nominees as possible, which included “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Since I really liked this film, I decided I ought to read Abbie Hoffman’s most famous book, which I purchased instead of stole.
The book is essentially a handbook for the hippie revolutionary. Although much of the material is dated (I completely skipped the last section which was just a list of resources in various cities which are all likely defunct), there were still some entertaining tidbits, and it does give insight into the thinking of one of the 60’s most prominent activists.
Steal This Book is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika. It preaches jailbreak. It shows you where and exactly how to place the dynamite that will destroy the walls.
As I said, most of what is in this book is dated and is only of interest from a socio-historical perspective. For example, Hoffman’s information regarding Guerrilla TV, which is made moot by social media, where anyone can create a YouTube channel and broadcast their political views to the masses.
Guerrilla TV is the vanguard of the communications revolution, rather than the avant-garde cellophane light shows and the weekend conferences. One pirate picture on the sets in Amerika’s living rooms is worth a thousand wasted words.
In light of all the demonstrations we have witnessed over the last couple years, Abbie does offer some sound advice to those who choose non-violent demonstrations as a means of social change.
Numbers of people are only one of the many factors in an effective demonstration. The timing, choice of target and tactics to be employed are equally important. There have been demonstrations of 400,000 that are hardly remembered and demonstrations of a few dozen that were remarkably effective. Often the critical element involved is the theater. Those who say a demonstration should be concerned with education rather than theater don’t understand either and will never organize a successful demonstration, or for that matter, a successful revolution.
I will conclude by saying this book is definitely not for most people. Not only is it an anachronism, but Hoffman appears to advocate for violent behavior in parts of this book, going so far as to provide instructions for activities that I personally find abhorrent and have no place in a civilized society. But I will grant that Hoffman was writing at a time when individuals fighting for social change were subject to severe reprisal, as is evident in the film “Trial of the Chicago 7.” My recommendation, watch the movie and skip the book. Feels weird saying that.
In our current society, poets and poetry rarely get the broad recognition they deserve. An exception to this is The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman. When she read this poem to the nation as the Youth Poet Laureate at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2021, I for one was floored. That a 22-year-old poet could compose such powerful and timely words, and present them with poise, dignity, and inspired optimism, renewed my belief in the power of words to foment change in our world. Regardless of which side of the political divide we may find ourselves, it is impossible to deny that Ms. Gorman’s words were able to bridge that divide and offer hope in what was a difficult time.
In her introduction to the printed version of the poem, Oprah Winfrey wrote:
Everyone who watched came away enhanced with hope and marveling at seeing the best of who we are and can be through the eyes and essence of a twenty-two-year-old, our country’s youngest presidential inaugural poet.
I am in complete agreement.
There are two short excerpts from this incredible poem that I would like to share.
And so we lift our gazes not To what stands between us, But to what stands before us. We close the divide, Because we know to put Our future first, we must first Put our differences aside.
The truth of this statement is self-evident. We cannot advance as a nation, or as a species, unless we learn to stop vilifying those who have differing opinions and beliefs. Focus needs to shift from differences to commonalities.
So while we once asked: How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? We now assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
This past year has been hard for all of us, and our world continues to pose challenges. But challenges, while painful to work through, often provide the spark of heroic inspiration needed to “climb the hill.” Every journey has a point where the odds seem insurmountable. We stand at this threshold. But as Amanda Gorman shows us, we can take that next step and move toward ushering in a better world for all people.
I strongly encourage you to go out and buy a copy of Ms. Gorman’s poem. It is important that we support those creative individuals who inspire us to become the best that we can be.
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