Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Elegant Universe

by Brian Greene

This book is one of those that has been lying unread in my bookshelves for a considerable amount of years. I remember I purchased it not too long after I read Tor Nørretranders The User Illusion, which I did on the Greyhound bus trip from Montréal to British Columbia back in 2001. The User Illusion gave me that intellectual brain itch one comes across every now and then, and as the junkie I am I obviously wanted the effect imitated somehow. My constant search for euphoria lead to eager consumption of titles on popularized science such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. At that period in my life, actually on that very North America trip, I was at a crossroad of crucial decisions. If I really wanted to make an attempt of getting into medical school I first needed to achieve much more comprehensive core studies of natural science, which meant heaps of supplementary evening studies at the municipal adult education concurrent with my beloved studies in philosophy at Lund University. These books I somehow decided to use as my own cognitive behavioural therapy to build up motivation for getting seriously into science. But for some reason, of which I am glad now, Brian Greene's book was saved for later.

In The Elegant Universe - Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for The Ultimate Theory the Columbia University mathematics and physics professor elaborates string theory and contemporary theoretical physics in a non-technical and pretty laid-back way. I often wish my skills in maths were much more thorough as I then could venture into these studies, which in many way touches some of those fields of philosophy that keeps me awake. However, accepting my limitations can also be a healthy insight I suppose, and thanks to the civilization of human collaboration I have the opportunity to enjoy it popularized, but nonetheless as thoroughgoing in its explanations as I could ask for. Again I am left immensely grateful for the shoulders of the giants upon which I am, and indeed we all are, standing on.

The grand Theory of Everything is an attempt of uniting the essentially different physics of macro cosmos, as in Einstein's theory of general relativity, and the quantum physics of micro cosmos. Both those theories are fundamentally coherent in themselves, but have seemed equally fundamentally inconsistent with one another. Greene's book tells us it seems string theory, or rather the six string theories comprised in an M-theory and its many dimensions beyond the three spatial and one time dimension we all are used to, is well on the way to bridge this unexplained chasm. It may be that a lot has happened since it came in 1999, even so the text is interesting as it gives a good introduction to the background of the problem and as it is filled with simple explanatory illustrations and analogies on events that suddenly becomes within a layman's grasp to ponder on. Beautiful! However, despite his high hopes of deducing the laws of physics, Brian Greene is still humble on the fact that such an attempt may not be the end to it. He writes about an idea of several universes, with their own intrinsic set of physics, the multiverse hypothesis.

The Elegant Universe again and again plays with epistemology and the fabric of reality, time and space and other branches of philosophy. Like when Greene is discussing what mysteries remains in our understanding of black holes, and its consequences for the debate concerning determinism. It may be that Laplace's demon with knowledge of position and velocity of all particles in the universe, which because of this knowledge would also be able to determine their historical and future positions and velocities, is undermined by the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, one of the pillars of quantum mechanics. Probability and exactly is not the same. The then suggested case for quantum determinism within a framework of exact mathematical rule for all events/wave functions, which would enable an intelligence to determine future and history is, according to Hawking, derailed by the existence of black holes. When something falls into a black hole the calculations for all future wave functions will be incorrect, as such information is lost. It is no longer possible to disregard this conclusion as Hawking (again) has shown that black holes are not completely black, and that they are emitting energy, slowly evaporating. Black holes are thus not possible to isolate from the rest of cosmos as the distance between the centre of the black hole and event horizon shrinks, and no longer is keeping the rest of us cut off. But what if the black hole then again emits the information it has devoured, is not that what is necessary for quantum determinism? Well, Hawking and Thorne have bet against, claiming that the information is forever lost, and Preskill has bet on that the information returns as the black hole evaporates. Apparently the winner of the gamble will receive an encyclopaedia.

I have obviously enjoyed reading the book quite a lot, which explains why I opened this review with how I am glad it was left unread on my bookshelf. In fact his second book on theoretical physics, The Fabric of the Cosmos, is on order for me. I have also understood that Nova made a documentary with Brian Greene on The Elegant Universe which, despite the medium's shortcomings on these matters, I must get my hands on. Until then I am left waiting and contemplating, hoping they will get the Large Hadron Collider fired up again next year, finding the Higgs boson.

Friday, November 28, 2008


by Michel Houellebecq

The story begins with the death of the protagonist's father. This event leads the public servant of Paris to take some weeks of holiday as a sexual tourist in Thailand. He has no moral scruples about the matter as he only engages in adult women under consent, and he pays well. It appears he does not problematize the issue a bit. He has made attempts of relationships before and it does not seem to give him what he wants, and as he is starting to become middle-aged he might as well accept that prostitution and pornography are his only true partners in life. However, on this trip to Thailand the champion of the story connects with a fellow traveller, a woman in her later 20s whom things just fit with. There is no need to make any attempts of anything or try and enter a role, with her things just seem to work out.

Houellebecq portrays the hunger for meaningless happiness and the fear of committing oneself to another person. If one always has to be open for a better alternative that may or may not come up and at the same time one wants maximum joy, what option is left: Sex becomes a pleasure allowed as long as it is without desire. Houellebecq seems to ask if our careers and western life lies in the way of sexual lust and the real emotion of love. Is he a moralist or does he finger a very important part of an ongoing psychological collapse?

The protagonist's new love is working hard in the travel industry. She often spends all her time in the office and is well aware of that she constantly has to improve herself in order to survive in the business. Part of her work lies in figuring out how to lure tourists to her company's destinations. On a job trip to Cuba he gives her the idea of making sex tourism the next big thing. It would give her bureau the edge over the competitors on the market. He believes this is what westerners crave and even sees it as a solution. It is a way of opening up new markets and creating wealth, or with French lingo perhaps more accurately; a way of transferring riches. The plans are put into effect, investments made and travel packages created. But not only does the moral conscience at home oppose it, so does the Islamist terrorists. On a relaxed vacation in one of the company's resorts, where she has just told him she wants them to move away from her stressful life and start something new, Muslim radicals open fire. Killing her and many others.

The story ends with his own death. He visualizes it will come at night and he hopes it will come soon. When he is gone he wants and knows he soon will be forgotten. The reader understands that Platform is the suicide note of our protagonist, written not many months after his only love was murdered.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


-the Rise and Fall of the American Empire
by Niall Ferguson

The Scottish-born history professor Niall Ferguson, behind the international bestseller on the British Empire, opens this argumentative book by telling us that it may be true that a power vacuum could emerge if the United States would be to lose its top position as a hegemon in world politics. Such situations are not unknown in history, he tells us, but experiences of absence of power is in no way encouraging. Apolarity is hardly something of a pacifist utopia but much more probably something leading to political fragmentation and an anarchic new Dark Age. And given the likely scenario that another power would soon seize the opportunity and bid for the role as world hegemon it is by no means of any likelihood that such a power replacing America would be more sensitive to critique, if we scrutinise the supposed options. A question important to ask is if critique would even be allowed.

What about an alternative spelled international community, where established autonomies of powers were to debate and conclude in supranational institutions such as the UN and WTO. Would it not rather be a new Light Age instead of an American superpower? Such is not the trend of today, as Mr Ferguson sees it, since the universal claims such supranational bodies rely on demands authority, and the defining characteristic of our age is not a shift of power upward, but downward. Means of producing general devastation and free flow of destructive technology, lack of control of channels of communication and the collapse of states' monopoly of violence empower criminal organizations and terrorist cells. That is the current trend.

With this background Niall Ferguson argues the case for America to stop living in denial and pronounce what it functions as. International agreements and multipolarity demands, just as a working national state, enforcement of rule of law. Multipolarity between open societies depends on the Liberal Empire. "The best case for empire is always the case for order. Liberty is, of course, a loftier goal. But only those who have never known disorder fail to grasp that it is the necessary precondition for liberty."

If the United States were to become self-conscious as a liberal empire and had the courage to articulate goals, what should be learned? What is the blueprint for spreading wealth, democracy and freedom? There are good reasons to believe that a minimum requirement for economic success lies in adopting a state governed by rule of law where property is protected, as it would be quite impossible to attract investments otherwise. Furthermore, what is needed for development is a legal system of publicly known rules securing rights of personal liberty, not only against tyranny but also against crime and corruption. Under such stability the finances of the state would be in such a condition that the government also could start having some welfare responsibilities. This does not only seem well-grounded in theory, professor Ferguson reasons, but is demonstrated in former parts of the British empire, and has been crucial in why global poverty levels have decreased the past decades.

The British endeavoured to build institutions they regarded as essential to prosperity: free trade and migration, infrastructural investment, balanced budgets, incorrupt administration and rule of law. This form of liberal Empire, Niall Ferguson argues, was on balance a good thing, but he questions if the United States of today actually is up to it. America, just like Europe, faces huge demographic problems with seventy-five million baby boomers starting to collect social security and medicare benefits. Ferguson uses the term generational accounting, and implies that people born today faces extremely high taxes in order to finance the ever-growing retired population. Under such circumstances it may be hard winning an election on arguing the case for a costly liberal empire. Mr Ferguson's other big doubt on whether America is up to such an achievement is due to the lack of character in the modern man. He describes this partly by pointing to one of the bigger differences between the American occupier and the British empire. That is to say that the former one wants to get out as quick as possible. Successful nation building however takes endurance, which is dependent on self-sacrifice and a belief in the goal. Where the Britons sent their best educated away, fostered with an overtly imperial ethos, hardly anyone at all of the graduates of the top American universities aspire to spend their life in far away disease-ridden, malicious and uncomfortable areas: "the letters ambitious young Americans would like to see after their names are CEO, not CBE."

What if Niall Ferguson had painted another opening in Colossus. Would a different conclusion be possible? Most certainly, that is the very honest basis of his way of interpreting history. I must say however, that I find his preconditions seeming pretty sound. Perhaps sad at times, but nonetheless truthful. Colossus is a very healthy response to those people certain of only one thing, and that is how bad America is. When so many wanting to pull the United States from grace, what exactly are they opposing? One must force these people to be more explicit in their critique, as in some circles all bad things in the world falls under the category of Americanism. If it is junk food and too high a BMI score one criticizes, then Ferguson would most certainly join in. In fact he does it wittily in this book, writing about the White Man's Burden around his waist. But if it would be America as the world power and defender of reliable supranational institutions these people are against, what is it they realistically opt for instead?

The mere fact that we have the opportunity to discuss these matters is proof of that we live in a free world. It is even more underlined by the fact that we can, and in some aspects should, criticize American power. But one must not let go of a sober view on matters. The free world is not free as in something we get for nothing. In that way the free world is far from free, it is quite the exact opposite. To bear the burden of defending it, for several reasons, is never a popular task. An ignorant scope may too often fail to understand its necessity and yearn for its downfall. In this respect the importance of this lucid defence of United States as guardian of, and in cooperation with, the free world should not be diminished.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Travels in the Scriptorium

by Paul Auster

In this thin book Paul Auster does not offer quite the same excitement that we have gotten used to in his other volumes. There is no force making you have to turn the page just now, but rather you are left with a tepid feeling of I could do it later.

At first one could think the story is that one of a man, suffering from dementia of some sort, in a kind of nursing home. Mr Blank struggles to make pieces match one another, with incoherent recollections, photographs and stories which reminds him, but does not connect him with an actual past. Names of characters from other Auster tales come intruding into a patchwork of short stories, in resemblance I guess, to the mind of a man whose sentience and consciousness is deteriorating due to structural neurological failure. This is Paul Auster however, and not Oliver Sacks. Auster is into mental and emotional reflexes triggered by imaginative reasoning, just like Samuel Farr who is Mr Blank's doctor in this story, on a visit from In the Country of Last Things. For such a therapy to function, it needs a working narrative to hang upon. Because the lack of this Travels in the Scriptorium becomes almost a little dull, until the very end where it all turns revolutionary and one really wonders what this plot is all about.

Perhaps I should hold on to my tepid feeling and give this book another chance when I have the time, later. It could be that the detective work needed to decipher the puzzle of this trip needs a revitalisation of my memories of City of Glass, In the Country of Last Things and the most fantastic Oracle Night. If not I shall be left without a full appreciation of this clip show or rap album of a novel, as Bookslut puts it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Linda - som i Lindamordet

av Leif GW Persson

På en grek-ö gör man två saker; man hyr antingen moped och upptäcker glädjen i trafik utan regler eller så ligger man i en badring med ölhållare ute i Medelhavet och läser. Har man dessutom fått tag på en billig restresa till något ställe där andra skandinaver ofta huserar kan man ha möjligheten att hitta annan litteratur än den man själv har tagit med sig, vilket kan vara otroligt praktiskt eftersom seriös avslappning ofta leder till att man läser sju gånger fortare än man räknade med när man packade böcker. Detta är bakgrunden till att jag kom att läsa min första Leif GW Persson på norska. Denna svenska macho-ikon (av helt annan kaliber än Paolo) har jag faktiskt tänkt att läsa flera år, faktiskt ända sedan jag träffade någon som hävdade att hon var GWs dotter på musikfestivalen i Hultsfred. Vi hade samtalat moral och politik över ett par pilsner innan hon försvann i myllret på The Streets-konserten.

Leif GW beskriver i boken den utrotningshotade svenska mannen. Han som över huvud taget inte teoretiserar kring könsroller, är smått konspiratoriskt lagd, otroligt självgod och bitter över omgivningarna. Helt klart är denna man en pelare varpå samhället vilar, och i detta specifika fall, i mordkommissionens utredning av det sadistiska Lindamordet. I veckorna som följer de tragiska händelserna på Pär Lagerkvists väg i Växjö behåller denna huvudefterforskare fanan högt trots den konstanta dryckturen. Under tiden avrättas hans guldfisk hemma i huvudstaden, feminister bestämmer den samhälleliga dagordningen, samt annat samhälleligt förfall. Efter en rad fadäser bestämmer högre ort i Stockholm att de antagligen borde göra en annan ansvarig för det som sker nere i provinsen, och in skickas räddningen för mordutredningen i form av professionalism - två kvinnor. Den ena av dessa kvinnor skriver dessutom en avhandling i praktisk filosofi om semiotiska förbindelser mellan sexualmord och hur dessa mord kom att tituleras i media. Nåja, GW är nog ingen akademiker, men han skriver roligt i alla fall. I slutet av boken sitter den före detta mordutredaren hemma med en maltwhisky och myser. På tv går ett program där en psykläkare uttalar sig om den mentala undersökningen av den nu funna Lindamördaren. Vår hjälte som trots sina fel och brister har en stark förnimmelse av folklig rättskänsla, tycker det vore betydligt bättre om de bara hade kokat lim på den jäveln.

Linda - som i Lindadrapet var en ypperlig träning i att läsa norska. Eftersom jag för stunden residerar i den Skandinaviska metropolen Odense är min omedelbara bekantskapskrets bestående av danskar, svenskar, norrmän och islänningar. Pubkvällar företas i pan-skandinavisk anda på något slags mellanspråk, och den svensk som hävdar att vederbörande har svårt att förstå danska eller norska göre sig ej besvär. Dylika utsagor är hur som helst tämligen pinsamma, och då det egentligen är i stort sett samma språk handlar det naturligtvis enbart om träning för att få bort sådana stockholmska fasoner. Engelska är ett språk som är otroligt mångfacetterat och vackert, det är därför jag har valt att studera det och försöker upprätthålla en hög nivå genom mångsidigt användande. Men engelska ska vi skandinaver använda till de utomnordiska, inte sinsemellan. Viktigt är att vi försöker odla fram en renässans för Skandinavismen, och att vi så småningom i vänskaplig anda försöker lösa tvisten om huruvida civilisationens vagga låg utanför Uppsala eller någonstans på Jylland.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

5-årsjubileum av "best of" (ungefär)

Skrotbilar, stadsbor, enskiften, fysikens lagar, byggnadsmetoder, spänning, lärdom, Sebastian, Frodo, politik, svampar, historia, norrlänningar, skånska anarkistiska bönder, äventyr, antropologi, kultur, osanningar och verklighet. Dogmamentary från 2004.

..och på grund av att den nya stämningen ändå inte längre tillåter studie- eller arbetsro tipsas om Katastrofala omslag.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gäst hos verkligheten

av Pär Lagerkvist

När man läser Pär Lagerkvists barndomsskildring i det förra sekelskiftets Växjö slås man av den lägre materiella standarden i dåtidens Sverige. Den tacksamhet och livsförståelse denna uppväxt ger får jag känslan av att många idag, födda med välfärd och helt okunniga inför ett annat samhälle, verkar antingen sakna eller förneka. Jag är medveten om att det är en otroligt viktig balansgång att inte hamna i ett slags exotiserande av den ädle fattige, men att också kunna se faran i att se trygghetssystemen som självklara. För att hålla levande den ansvarskänsla som krävs för en välfärd måste man förmå att uppskatta denna, och då måste man vara medveten om ett annat liv än det bortskämda. I boken Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared tror jag att detta är en av Andrew Browns huvudpoänger, den att ju längre bort minnena av fattigdom är, desto mindre är drivkraften för att skapa välstånd, och när hågkomsten helt är borta gror välfärdssamhällets förfall.

Lagerkvists bok är en vacker berättelse om barndomsupplevelser och varma relationer, om att uppskatta de små sakerna i livet. Den beskriver äventyret att ta trallan på järnvägen, med far som är stationsmästare, från småstaden ut till morföräldrarna på landet och den då samtida förändringen från bondesamhället till det industriella och urbaniserade Sverige. Men Gäst hos verkligheten har också de existentiella spörsmålen Pär Lagerkvist ofta tampades med, sammandrabbningen med den kyliga rädslan för döden och huruvida gudstron i uppväxten verkligen har en solid grund när man själv knackar på dörren för att bli vuxen.

Gällande Andrew Browns funderingar om Sveriges inte längre existerande framtid som utopi är en annan viktig poäng den om dess trånga begränsning. De skandinaviska ländernas jantelag är motsatsen till ett pluralistiskt sinnelag, och då är det lätt att hitta grogrund för politisk ovilja mot dem man inte tycker passar in. Min övertygelse blir mer och mer att den sociala konformitet som politisk korrekthet innebär ger mer näring till rasism än mycket annat. Det som politisk korrekthet uppnår är att för stunden tvinga de flesta att tycka en viss sak, samtidigt som den förfrämlingar och förhindrar ett nödvändigt förnuftigt mellanmänskligt samtal för att konstant uppfostras in i ett dynamiskt samhälle.

Guardian och Economist om Browns Fishing in Utopia.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Confederacy of Dunces

by John Kennedy Toole

New Orleans is still on my list of cities to visit, but as I read A Confederacy of Dunces on a recent stay on the Greek island of Samos I believe my environment should not have been altogether faulty. I partly build this thought on the introductory quote of A.J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana on how the waves of the Mexican Gulf, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean is one homogeneous sea, although interrupted here and there. On the banks of the Mississippi River, not too much upstream in the delta where the transformation to the Mexican Gulf has begun, lies the port of New Orleans. I understand the birthplace of Jazz has much in common with a port town in, say Greece or Italy, albeit in America. Hence, even more exciting I trust.

The anti-hero of Ignatius Jacques Reilly leads the most squalid and depraved good for nothing life with his mother, Irene Reilly, in 1960s New Orleans. He is thirty years old, exceedingly smug and has not seemed to do much use with his existence. The economy of this household striving to achieve full white trash standard forces him to get an income. Gainful employment is something Ignatius opposes for all his worth and he does his best not to have to. He succeeds in failing work as he uses it as a political platform, partly in obstinacy with his study mate from his time at the university, Myrna Minkoff, whom now spends her time in New York. Ms Minkoff loathes Louisiana and is into radical sexual politics and agitates erotic freedom as a weapon against reactionary forces.

In the book we get to follow the political thinking of Mr Reilly and his attempt of creating, for himself, some kind of coherence of it all. It is a transition from the party of divine right which culminated in the rather fantastic insurgence of the Crusade for Moorish redress, to the eternal dispute between pragmatism and morality and the question of the glorious goal of Peace is worthy the terrible mean of Degeneration. The latter leads him to the disheartening attempt of trying to recruit sodomites. His suffering mother contacts a charity psychiatric clinic, and just before the ambulance comes to take Ignatius away, the musk odorous Myra Minkoff is there to liberate.

Despite how unreasonable Ignatius Jacques Reilly is, he is it in an intellectually sorrowful way, and I cannot help but agreeing in some of his acrimony over modern life. It is a sad fact that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide in 1969, but perhaps not too unthinkable as at least part of the story seems to have been somewhat biographical. It would have been quite something to read of the future adventures of Ignatius and Myra on their road towards New York and beyond. In any way do I not disagree with the Pulitzer board that posthumously gave the author of this book the prize for fiction in the year I was born.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Down There on a Visit

by Christopher Isherwood

As I was unable to find this book in any of the English bookstores I visited this August, and was left with references to obscure tiny publishing houses on the other side of the Atlantic pond, I had the incentive to finally try out the "used & new"-option at Amazon. And was I glad by the success of my attempt. Some garage bookseller in the UK had a good paperback of the first Four Square edition, published two years after the book first came out in 1962.

Down There on a Visit was published some decades after The Berlin Stories but it takes place around the same period of time, starting a little bit earlier and continuing quite a few years after the timeline of the Berlin novels. The writing of Isherwood had become somewhat different during those years, perhaps more mature a language one would be inclined to call it. It consists of four short stories in chronology, but with a few years in between each of them. Though all four stories told autobiographically has their own protagonist, many of the people return and become enlaced in the other stories and thus the tales are entwined. Rather than actually calling it autobiographical, Christopher makes a point out of whether the self of today is in a one-to-one relation with the self of the past. In fact he seems to view the Isherwood of the stories almost as a stranger, not only in opinions, accent, mannerisms, prejudices and habits, but also by the looks: We have in common the label of our name, and a continuity of consciousness; there has been no break in the sequence of daily statements that I am I. But what I am has refashioned itself throughout the days and years, until now almost all that remains constant is the mere awareness of being conscious. As Christopher had left his worker idolisation for a spiritual worship of some sort, the quote ends: And that awareness belongs to everybody; it isn't a particular person. I am a glad person that it is obtainable to all of us.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Påtvingad offerroll, tvingande offerroller

För några dagar sedan presenterade Socialdemokraterna några av sina slutsatser för hur framtidens välfärd ska finansieras. De konstaterar bland annat att det är önskvärt att fler människor jobbar längre innan de går i pension. Så långt inget anmärkningsvärt. Det är antagligen en på flera sätt välgrundad analys för vad som krävs tillsammans med en del andra reformer för att kunna bibehålla någon slags svensk modell i det rådande demografiska läget. Vad jag förstår har exempelvis redan Island genomfört en dylik förändring av pensionsåldern.

Det kan hända att jag är alldeles för känslig eller drar på för stora växlar, men det sticker mig i ögonen att man känner sig nödgad att börja prata om diskriminering av äldre i samma andetag som man redogör för vad man har konkluderat. En officiell rapport från Sveriges största parti kan inte resonera med befolkningen som att den vore vuxen, utan måste i sin argumentation utgå ifrån att gamla är offer. Är det för att den strukturella analysen man har som sosse smittar av sig, och så måste allting ses i relation av förtryckta eller förtryckare? Är inte detta en dålig mylla för all politik som handlar om människor som inte vill se sig som offer, och framför allt, vad implicerar det för människo- och samhällssyn?

Och nej, jag hävdar inte på något sätt att det inte finns strukturer eller förtryck. Det jag vänder mig emot är den syn som ligger till grund för att man alltid ska försöka stoppa in människor i dylika förenklingar, och vidare vänder jag mig mot den otroligt dåliga pedagogik det innebär. Bland det värsta en människa kan göra är nämligen att identifiera sig som ett offer. Ju fler erfarenheter jag får av människor som de facto är offer, ju tydligare blir detta för mig. Det verkar ofta vara rollen av underdog eller martyr som håller människor nere mer än faktiska sakförhållanden, och att sedan bli kvitt känslan av att vara offer verkar också tillhöra bland det som är riktigt svårt.

Livet är ibland jobbigt och vi stöter ofta på motgångar, en del av dessa är av sådan natur att mellanmänskliga attityder och ibland även formella strukturer ligger till grund. Det kan ligga bra politik i att begränsa och motarbeta vissa av dessa, men att tvunget tolka in all politik i sådan tankeverkstad eller jargong är enbart av ondo.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Goodbye to Berlin

by Christopher Isherwood

While I was reading the second of The Berlin Novels it several times crossed my mind how contemporary to the present day Isherwood is in his writing. The depiction of human interaction, also with references to roles of for instance gender, seems to be universal. At least for an enlightened clique of people during the past hundred years. Either that, or perhaps more likely, Christopher Isherwood was quite an avant-gardist and also was staying in such circles in the Weimar Republic Berliner underground scene. It is very clear that what Isherwood in this book, and as William Bradshaw in Mr Norris Changes Trains, experiences and is part of has had a continuity to today's liberal and leftist progressive political thought. Rejecting his well off background, he is an anthropologist rather than a novelist, spending time at the very bottom and making "Brilliant sketches of a society in decay" as George Orwell described it.

When I visited David's in Tasmania last year we released a c64 production entitled Digi Demo in which he called me the traveling man. I remember his data garage in the Launceston suburb, an Iraqi cigar, some local beers and a conversation partly reflected in the scroll text of the demo. The talk was on the subject of inexpensive trips on trains, coaches or as a hitchhiker, seeing places, having the journey itself as a goal, surviving on a few dollars and only having responsibility for yourself. Obviously we came to discuss not being able to procrastinate as adults, with careers, family responsibilities and such. However, both having a history of bumming around quite a while it became a session of adventure nostalgia. When in the early parts of Goodbye to Berlin Isherwood describes how Frl Schroeder tells him stories of earlier tenants and "I have been listening to her for some time, I find myself relapsing into a curious trance-like state of depression. I begin to feel profoundly unhappy. Where are all those lodgers now? Where, in another ten years, shall I be, myself? Certainly not here. How many seas and frontiers shall I have to cross to reach that distant day; how far shall I have to travel", I could not help thinking of the escapism of our youth.

At the same time as Christopher Isherwood may have spent time with people of political will with relation and also some coherence to today's counterparts, his journeys took place in a world where the dogmas were different. The taboos on what issues to debate and which truths to follow are what socially creates much of a political movement striving for consensus, at least in some European traditions. In a sad way such unwillingness to differ rationale from mere taste often creates a hinder for the genuine topics that truly ought to be politically debated.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Knark på flaska

I Danmark, som bekant, fungerar alkohollagstiftningen aningen annorlunda än den gör i Sverige. Då jag var på jakt efter en något mer spännande brygd till en bror som fyller tjugo fann jag till min förvåning att de nu också säljer Knark. I helgen ska jag över till mina bröder i Skåne för att fira och hoppas att tullen inte kommer att ställa till med besvär.

Mer om stouten som är från ett mikrobryggeri på Jylland vid namn Duelund Bryglade kan inhämtas här.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Mr Norris Changes Trains

by Christopher Isherwood

I first encountered Christopher Isherwood's writings in the second half of the 1990s through a couple of female acquaintances. I remember how my interpretation of their way of discussing him and his writings was as if they were part of some sort of fan cult. It was however, with all certainty, my naivety rather than factual circumstances that caused such a deriving from my part. I recall a coach trip to Prague with those ladies around that time, and I believe, though I could be mistaken as my memory of it is vague, that I already on that trip had read a library copy of Down There on a Visit, the book they so much talked about. Later I bought a paperback of Goodbye to Berlin. Since then it has several timed crossed my mind that I wanted to read those two novels again, but it was not until I stumbled upon the first of The Berlin Novels, this one, in Winchester that things really seemed to happen.

Mr Norris Changes Trains is narrated by William Bradshaw, whom encounters Arthur Norris in the opening chapter, taking place on a train trip to Berlin. It is plausible that it starts out when the train travels through either Belgium or Holland. William, lacking something to read, foresees a seven or eight hour tedious journey, and rather than remaining in utter silence he demands attention from the stranger with the unusually light blue eyes. This happens to be the start of a friendship running through the two years that follows. The book was published in 1935 and the background storyline follows that one of the early 30s in Germany which means Nazi national socialism in confrontation with Leninist-Stalinist Communism, public antisemitism growing strong and similar forms of sinister political manoeuvres. Mr Norris, whom really is an exciting character growing increasingly odd as the chapters passes not only seems to be a masochist but also joins a Red Front sect, claiming to be part of the Third International.

The reader is given clues to the Berlin society around Mr Bradshaw: Proletarian Lokale where people go for beer are some being communist and others being governed by the Hitler-Jugend; prostitutes with elaborate sexual services; Baron von Pregnitz dreaming of a Pacific island for him and seven boys, ages ranging from sixteen to nineteen. In the midst of this is the polite gentleman adventurer telling us the story. The well meaning and naive William Bradshaw is lured into one of Norris' schemes for funds and is used as a decoy in order to get the Baron on a holiday to Switzerland. In the Alps Norris' plan is they will meet up with the apparent French spy Margot, disguised as a Dutch gentleman calling himself van Hoorn. Bradshaw returns to Berlin and finds out the plot through one of the Communist leaders. Subsequently Arthur Norris escapes in a hurry to south America and not long after the Reichstag is on fire. A lot of his Communist friends are being eliminated by the Nazis and William returns to England. The final pages of the book are excerpts from letters Mr Bradshaw receives from Mr Norris, whom does not seem to have the best of his times.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Under tiden på Gmail-chat: diskussionsdödaren

Johan: Vad göra vi med avfolkningsbygderna? Är vi tvugna att acceptera att ödemarkerna brer ut sig mellan stadsregionerna?
me: Nej, men svaret erhålls väl inte genom den frågan?
Självfallet kan man få igång verksamheter även på mindre orter i ett post-1960-tals Sverige, på vissa sätt är det säkerligen enklare där. Men det är ju aldrig lika enkelt som att klaga och tycka att ont i magen är en bättre lösning på problemet.
Det är väl lite märkligt att tro att en tänkande och dessutom välutbildad befolkning inte har något att bidra med till en global och lokal ekonomi.
"vi" som du ställer frågan förutsätter den största delen av lösningen sitter i Stockholm.
Vilket är fel, precis som frågan är felställd.
Du håller inte med?
Johan: Jo, diskussionen faller lite på det, tror jag.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Evils of Revolution

- What is Liberty without Wisdom and without Virtue?
It is the Greatest of all Possible Evils.
by Edmund Burke

In one of the world class bookstores in the area of Tottenham Court Road I recently discovered the third volume of the Penguin Books Great Ideas series. Not only was it a range of some rather interesting titles which should be proving a stimulating read, but the cover design of parts of the series itself was from out of this world. The one my eyes at once captured was a jacket designed by a gentleman named Alistair Hall, which is composed of the title in white capital letters with debossed print, making up the entire front on a grey background.

Penguin has published a 85 page selection of Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is Edmund Burke's both cerebral and emotional attack on the French Revolution. It was published in 1790, id est in the midst of the upheavals, where at least Burke himself would imagine having a bird's eye view upon the occurrences on the other side of the English Channel. It has been seen as a charge on the Enlightenment and analytical thought, and while that of course partly is true and deplorable, Burke's legacy is also one of a good reminder of reflection. A theory or ideology is not something that can be implemented without regard to the context, and any attempt of doing it in a hurry, Edmund Burke rightly predicted, risks leading to tyranny. As the father of conservatism he was not regressive, many would argue the opposite, but he argued the case of gradual change. A wisdom important to understand for all political animals.

Consider "you chose to act as if you had never been molded into civil society and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you": Learning appreciation for the giants upon whose shoulders we stand on is an essential part of growing up, even more so if one argues the case of political change. We owe this man quite some intellectual debt.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Behind me right now

There are strong reasons to believe that Alva actually is affected by listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Monday, August 25, 2008


av Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larssons tre böcker är av den typen som är svåra att lägga ifrån sig och därmed läses igenom i ett sträck, gärna långt in på småtimmarna. Spänningen i historierna kliar i kroppen på ett sätt som antagligen inte kan åstadkommas med annat medium än bokform, och trilogin är ett gott exempel på den slags litteratur där innehållet i skildringen är alenabärande och inte kräver de former av nyans som skulle ha inneburit att språket måste spela en mer framträdande roll. Det är kiosk-krimi, inte problematisk att översätta under förutsättning att man lyckas förmedla den tydliga svenska kulturkontexten. Jag vill med detta inte ge negativ kritik av Larssons berättelser, jag är rätt sorts snobb och jag uppskattade alla tre böckerna. Vidare hyser berättelserna en analys av den roll kön spelar och som kan innebära att kvinnor kan tvingas starta från helt andra utgångslägen än män. Han beskriver också den maktrelation detta kan ge upphov till och de mest förskräckliga handlingar vilka kan ligga i kölvattnet av denna relation. Larsson som med stor sannolikhet hade en strukturell analys av detta samhällstillstånd beskriver det allt annat än subtilt, men väldigt välartikulerat. Hans angrepp genom beskrivelse av den mellan könen stundom tydliga maktobalans är sund i det att de inte förutsätter ett konspiratoriskt sinnelag. De är naturligtvis i berättelsen skilda från själva huvudhistorien. Den första volymens titel Män som hatar kvinnor är passande och fyller en funktion, och jag är aningen besviken på den felaktiga engelska översättningen av den.

Såframt Larssons illustration av Paolo Roberto i den andra boken Flickan som lekte med elden överensstämmer med den faktiske Roberto är jag beredd att erkänna att jag starkt måste ompröva min bild av denne. Då min fördom tidigare, måste jag erkänna, har varit att Paolo är en tämligen korkad och alltför självgod machismo, som av outgrundlig anledning givits alldeles för mycket tid i etern. Att Roberto är macho är möjligen korrekt, men det är fullt förenligt med att samtidigt vara en god gentleman. Hade jag sett mer av den sida av Roberto som Larsson vill porträttera hade min bild av honom varit annorlunda. Problemet kan vara att jag dessvärre kikat alltför selektivt, eller också att denna sida av Paolo Roberto inte existerar. I fortsättningen ska jag göra mitt bästa för att ge honom the benefit of the doubt.

Det utdelas i trilogin också en tydlig känga till det mediesverige där det kan tillåtas tillfälliga kollektiva psykoser i form av så kallade mediedrev. Man behöver inte ha den mest fullkomliga förmåga till eget kritiskt tänkande för att förstå det osakliga som ibland skildras medialt, och som blåögt verkar presenteras på i stort sett samma sätt av alla de olika dagstidningarna. Jag har samtalat med tillräckligt många som har insikt i och erfarenhet av mediesverige för att förstå att Larssons beskrivelse av hur normala regler kan upphöra att gälla, och att vilket nonsens som helst kan placera sig på ett löp eller i en kultursida, är en ibland sorgligt sann verklighetsbeskrivelse. Med den åtminstone teoretiska mångfald Sverige har tycker man att åtminstone något av de spridda redaktionerna ute i landet borde ha förmåga att förmedla annorlunda och inte blint följa fårskocken.

Utan redaktioner och journalister som gräver behövs inte institutioner som står över parlamentarisk kontroll, vilka är de som beskrivs i Larssons roman, för att inbjuda till maktmissbruk. Därför är det viktigt att media inte behandlas som något slags underhållningsverktyg, utan att den tredje stadsmakten faktiskt granskar och belyser. Den uppsjö av gratistidningar, vilka verkar ha noll och ingen budgetering för dylikt arbete är därför ett hån inte bara mot journalistiken, utan också mot det öppna samhälle som kräver en saklig skärskådan av makthavare. Med sin bakgrund i stiftelsen Expo var säkerligen en tidskrift som Millennium en av Stieg Larssons allra mest våta drömmar, och egentligen är det väl det för alla som uppskattar den fina balans demokrati innebär.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Halvlekssnack med regeringen

Det är nu snart halvlek i regeringen Reinfeldts match för Sverige. Naturligtvis är det mycket man både kan och bör kritisera, många hållningar som tycks modifieras i det realpolitiska arbete det innebär att styra ett land. På gott och ont. Det är rimligt att anta att då man befinner sig i en svår och tung maktposition får man nya perspektiv. Har man friska idéer kan dessa perspektiv vara sunda, men om de blir formulerade utifrån en självsvuren rätt till makten är det mer än illa. Hamnar man i ett scenario där man vägrar rannsaka sin egen politik är det bästa möjliga att man hamnar i opposition, tvingas ner på jorden och omformulera det man står för. Det är farligt att sitta för länge på toppen, anarkisterna likasom Lord Acton har nämligen rätt i att makt korrumperar. Därför var det oerhört nyttigt för vänsterblocket att de förlorade valet 2006.

Jag ska här inte gå till angrepp mot den sittande regeringen, det finns redan alldeles för många som kör på autopilot med dylika sura kommentarer. Min förhoppning är att det stora förändringsarbete som krävs för att Sverige ska få ha kvar en välfärdsstat värd namnet ska fortsätta. Jag är nämligen bestämt övertygad om att ett fungerande socialt skyddsnät som kan hjälpa till att resa den som ligger ner är någonting väldigt viktigt att upprätthålla. Detta är en förståelse som vissa borgerliga debattörer ibland verkar bortse ifrån. Den insikt grundad av faktiska erfarenheter som gett övertygelser vilka byggde upp en allmän välfärd. Å andra sidan är vissa vänsterdebattörers hållning om att ta alla typer av välfärd för given, och en rättighet under alla omständigheter, rungande pinsam och naiv. Att tomt gnälla upprätthåller inte välfärd, det visar enbart på brinnande oinsatthet i frågorna vilket i politiska sammanhang är tecken på dålig stil.

Den aktuella demografiska kalkylen i Europa är radikalt annorlunda än den var då de skandinaviska modellerna byggdes upp. Människor lever betydligt längre idag, är därför i pension under en längre tid och blir rimligen också ju äldre de blir mer kostsamma för sjukvården. I de nordeuropeiska länderna där omhändertagandet av våra gamla i stort sett helt överflyttats från familjen till offentliga institutioner innebär detta förhållande naturligtvis en i sammanhanget ännu större utgift för den gemensamma plånboken. I Sverige ska till detta läggas en stor omställning av var människor arbetar och hur staten därmed får in pengar till just denna plånbok. Den svenska socialdemokratiska modellen, välfärdsstat och arbetsmarknadspolitik, med sin uppbyggnad kring de väldigt stora svenska företag som en gång stod för betalningen av en mycket större proportion lönekuvert än idag, står i motsättning till det som är nödvändigt nu. Färre är nämligen de gigantfirmor som har ekonomi att rycka på axlarna åt långa eller många sjukperioder. Något som skulle tvinga många fåmansföretag att faktiskt lägga ner, varpå den samhälleliga pengapungens inkomst helt försvinner. Det krävs färre regler om en absolut rättighet att få behålla arbetet under alla omständigheter, och fler sätt att skapa fler jobb vilket leder till mer skatteintäkter. Det behövs också en vilja och moral att arbeta och göra rätt för sig, och även tungt artilleri mot det utanförskap som gör att hela stadsdelar står i det närmaste helt utanför arbetsmarknaden. Utöver detta måste det skapas en välfärd som är generell i ordets riktiga bemärkelse för att medborgarens skattemoral ska dunka hårt innanför bröstet. Det ska inte krävas medlemskap i diverse klubbar och intresseföreningar för att du ska få ta del av trygghetssystem. Även egenföretagare vars ekonomi är oskiljbar från sin firmas ekonomi kan bli sjuk, med familj att försörja. Också papperslösa flyktingar som så småningom förhoppningsvis ska bidra till det gemensamma kan ha behov av vård. Politiker som tar hänsyn till ovan skrivna är politiker som jag lyhört kommer att lyssna till under nästa halvlek.

Det ironiska i sammanhanget är måhända att en hel del av det förändringsarbetet som regeringen Reinfeldt mödosamt genomför, och får ta skit för, är antagligen nödvändigt för framtida socialdemokratisk politik. Jag sätter femhundra kronor på att hökarna på den röda sidan är otroligt medvetna och tacksamma.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


by Patrick Süskind

I read this book on a recent visit to the metropolis of London where it was quite something to become alerted on how things smell. However, I would have preferred the fragrance of the summer meadows of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall where I was prior to my stay in the capital.

Parisian city dwellers of today would with all certainty receive an olfactory shock if returned to the city of the protagonist in Patrick Süskind's story, Jean-Babtiste Grenoille. 17th century Paris stank of manure, sulphur, coagulated blood, mouldering wood and rats and rotten teeth. Foul odours did not only emanate from the industries, but from each and everyone came a foetor. Into that world Jean-Babtiste was born, and as an orphan he was sold to a tanner. This young boy had an extraordinary sense of smell and on top of that he recognised, distinguished and could discriminate the different flavours of all aromas. In his early life he spent all his free time memorising the scent of everything and he did it so rigidly accurate that he favoured his mental map of smells rather than his sight. Because of this he often chose to walk blindly, with his eyes shut. Grenoille escaped the stench of humans and lived, or rather lied in lethargy, many years in a cave as far away from man-made settlements as possible, unaware and uninterested of the riots, revolutions and wars on the outside. In his cold sweaty nightmare he suddenly realises that he himself is without a human smell, and that he always has been. With this realisation he starts to understand the behaviour of others towards him, but also how he can use it together with his skills in composing the perfect scent and either being loved or at least have his retribution. He leaves his cave and the story of the murderer of virgins can begin.

While writing this, the black dog in my household sits with her big resonance box of a nose outside the window, peering over the market beneath. Amongst men, only Jean-Babtiste Grenoille would have understood.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Brooklyn Follies

by Paul Auster

Many would agree with that no matter how much excitement we throw ourselves into, with growing up we have to face more of mundanity as our responsibilities and tasks towards one another rises in importance. Due to this, we sometimes question the dull, and may in brief moments ask ourselves if this actually is it. The works of Paul Auster is a good remedy against such though. His writings tend to bring youthful enthusiasm to life, not necessarily cheerful but it forces nonetheless ones thoughts to follow new paths. They are a good formula for a promenade of reading exhilaration: "'It's about nonexistent worlds,' my newphew said. 'A study of the inner refuge, a map of the place a man goes to when life in the real world is no longer possible.'" Needless to emphasize further, I am a big fan of the guy.

Despite my affection for Austerian books I have had the beige and blue Henry Holt and Company first edition unread in my shelf the past two years at least. Perhaps it is because I needed a breather to be able appreciate the work, having consumed most of Paul Auster's novels in too little a time prior to that. In The Brooklyn Follies we get to follow Nathan Glass whom is returning to Brooklyn, where he hasn't lived or spent any of his time since he was three, and he does so because he has reason to believe his days are numbered. The 60-year-old is recently divorced and retired. Having worked all his life, and been quite successful in what he has done, he now has the economy to live of what he has saved. The stage is set for the classical character in Austers novels, the lonely man. This book is narrated through Nathan Glass, who perhaps had the honest intention of being solitary, but is by coincidence encountering parts of his family. As this happens on several occasions and he becomes wound up with new friends, this story is that of relations and interactions, and of the intimate emotions such is accompanied with.

Perchance my pause from Paul Auster has had a positive effect of my reading of the book. Some times the longer the intermission from the things we find better, the more we can appreciate the result. That is a delicate game to be played well though, as it can be of importance not to lose what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi interprets as flow. In any case, the follies in Brooklyn that occured in the inner refuge during the 18 months up until the cataclysmic events of September 11th was a fantastic vaccination. I am Auster thankful for it. He is good at what he does.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

The rugged hardback I have of this book was a gift from a good friend when he was over from San Francisco not long ago. It is a first edition brown and black Alfred A. Knopf publishing, with the Borzoi colophon, and it looks as well used as it is. The pages are unevenly cut and it had been in someone else’s possession before my friend decided to have it as a travel book when touring Europe. On the inside of the front cover my friend has written a message to me with a black pen, a note from one explorer to the other. All this has made my reading experience more thorough, as a clean and glossy multicolour soft cover would never have done the story justice. A man and a boy hiking through a desolate, uninhabited and dead landscape in a very dystopic post-apocalypse, searching for food in the form of tinned foods, hiding from the ones that want them dead. The dialogue is short, male. Towards the end of the book they reach the ocean, it is birdless give but the bones of seabirds and “At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as the eye could see like an isocline of death.” The man coughs blood and the boy almost passes away in fever, but it is despair that kills. The writing is as abrasive for something that could be regarded your soul, as the first drink of cask strength single malt from southeastern Isle of Islay is for your throat when it has been withheld from such for a while.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Story of San Michele

by Axel Munthe

No matter how much Axel Munthe has seasoned the actual happenings of his life in this book, one is assured of that he was a man who did his best to bravely jump into experiences. The story begins in 1880s Paris, where the young Swede finished his medical education in a hurry in order to set up a practice at Avenue de Villiers. The first half of the book is an exciting tale on Munthe's mingling with the aristocratic and creative jet set, amongst the latter many renowned Swedes who at the time took their refuge in the French capital. These were at least partly made his acquaintance through his medical skills, which Munthe claims being much the same as his luck. He travels all over, from his practice in Paris to England, from the very north of Scandinavian Thule to southern Italy and through the Alps and cities of Western Europe. For anyone who has been interrailing sufficiently Axel Munthe's chronicles is a fantastic read, and makes it possible to understand the ventures of going from Lund, via ferry from Korsör on Western Zealand to Kiel on the continent and all the way to Paris in 48 hours. Munthe considered his work as a doctor a calling and argues on how to make medical care available also for the destitute. When the cholera epidemic ravages Naples, he hurries south to be able to give a physician's helping hand. He writes about how he befriended one of the fathers of modern neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot, and how he attended his famous demonstrations at la Salpêtrière. The brusque ending of that friendship humiliates Munthe greatly and acts as a turn for the narrative.

The last part of this autobiography is, apart from Axel Munthe's endless and fierce fight against the suffering of the poor and human cruelty towards animals, less of political agitation and philosophical writing. The reminiscences are not in as much of detail as those from his youth and come between vaster periods of time. One understands that much of his later life is left out, perhaps partly because Munthe wants to finish his book. He writes about building up Villa San Michele and the beauty of the simple life at the island of Capri. After his account of the time he ran a clinic in Rome the story becomes less coherent and more of a reflection of growing old. In the final chapter, in which Munthe writes about his own death, he claims he is saved from purgatory at the gates of heaven by Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the animals.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The House of God

by Samuel Shem

The book takes place in the 70s: The narration includes Freudian psycho dynamics as something radical and intellectually negotiable; from a medical point of view it is obvious that some time has passed since it was written as there actually is a lot more that can be done these days, which of course leads to new issues I should be debating elsewhere; and as Shem writes about an ongoing public complaint against President Nixon the approximate dates are there to estimate. However, nothing of this shadows the current interest in what the author really wants to debate, on how the pressure put on medical students especially during their residency can force them into learning to cope with it in odd ways. Shem writes about harsh sarcasm and suicide, and on the importance of not being lonely but rather communicate the startling emotions that necessarily show up when suddenly having full responsibility in life and death situations. What he tells us is vital, that in order to be a good doctor specialist knowledge is not sufficient. He does not come with a solution though, and that may be because there is not one. It is a constant act of balance. To be able to gain all the experience and knowledge is tough, there is no way out of that, and at the same time it is important to stay human. To be able to listen emphatically and then give advice that can hurt. It was not only good for Samuel Shem's Relationship On Rocks that he opted for psychiatry I imagine, although the GOMERS would probably have needed the guy on the ward.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


- How Britain Made The Modern World
by Niall Ferguson

The British Empire has been subject to fierce castigation, and whilst much of it has been from a thorough and solid perspective, not all of it has. In this well written and accessible book Niall Ferguson puts the Empire into perspective and the sometimes very progressive moral fabric of the Empire discerns. Ferguson does not try to argue a black and white case, not at all, but he rather gives fresh wood to a debate which is far from over. The debate is vital not only for Anglophiles with a taste for history, but for anyone interested in contemporary international politics, and for the role of western politics and analytical morality today.