On The Legitimacy Of The Middleman

Nobody likes the person in the middle.  Throughout the course of human history, imperfect communication and the difficulties of trade and logistics gave certain peoples the role of intermediary in transmitting goods and knowledge from one area to another.  Such cultures sought to find some degree of legitimacy and permanence in inhabiting the spaces in between hostile but interacting realms, able to work between the two sides for one reason or another, whether because they had elements of sympathy or similarity with both sides or a reputation for neutrality or because they were somewhat expendable and marginal in their native environment.  Yet such peoples and roles have never been viewed by others with a great deal of enthusiasm, and I would like to discuss why this is the case, at least briefly today.

How are we to best understand the plight of the middleman?  Let us consider two examples in our contemporary world.  I work with a lot of insurance agents, and such brokers are classic examples of middlemen, or indeed middlemen for middlemen.  In the health industry, one has people who want medicare care as cheaply but as complete as possible, and in order to get that service from doctors and hospital staff and pharmacies, they need insurance.  Yet this insurance is hard to understand, and so brokers connect people to the insurance companies that provide the product that allows people to pay for their medical care and cover the risk of catastrophic accidents.  For their role in serving as intermediaries between customers and insurance companies, these brokers make a living based on the commissions received for the sale, and the level of commissions is commensurate with the value offered–fairly low for individual medical and dental plans, considerably higher for accident and critical illness and life insurance plans.

Are such middlemen legitimate?  Yes, they are, largely because of the complexities of insurance care itself.  The health care industry is bafflingly complicated on all levels, and this complexity breeds middlemen.  Let us not forget that the insurance companies are themselves middlemen seeking to profit off of the desire of people to avoid risk while also burdened with the costs of dealing with routine care, while brokers are middlemen who match individual customers to insurance companies based on what sort of care is wanted and what cost can be paid.  There are further middlemen who provide quoting engines to make this matching process more efficient, and so it goes.  Even government’s attempted role in shoring up the system as a whole does not simplify the process, but rather adds another layer of middlemen who seek to regulate the entire process.  Until and unless there is a commitment to simplification, we can expect there to be quite a few middlemen who are necessary to keep things going at all.  A great deal of the costs involved come about because of this complexity, and because insurance may not be the most efficient and effective mechanism at providing for the desire of people for routine health care necessary because of chronic health difficulties like diabetes at a reasonable cost.

But not all middlemen have such an ironclad case for legitimacy.  Let us look at another set of brokers, those who provide financial management for investors.  In this case, such brokers appear to earn their entire livings at the cost of the customers they purport to serve.  At its core, the stock market is not necessarily very complicated in its operations.  Corporations have divided ownership of their firms into large amounts of shares, and those shares are sold at markets, and for every seller there must be a buyer.  The long-term trends demonstrate that any gain in stock prices ultimately comes from the profitability of operations, as the short-term speculative bets end up a wash.  An investor can buy very low cost index funds and ensure an average rate of return commensurate with the market as a whole, and more expensive plans that feature greater amounts of activity do nothing more than earn fee money for the people in the middle.  Are such brokers legitimate?  The case would appear to be a negative, because the supposed expertise of the stockjobbers and ETF software does nothing more than increase tax payoffs because of gains realized prematurely and lower the return to customers through fees and expenses.  If there were a way for experts to demonstrate a superiority in returns to the average market, they would find a way to earn a legitimate place, for at present they are nothing but parasites on the profits of ordinary investors.

And that is the issue that middlemen face in general.  To the extent that trading and communication become easy and efficient, goods become commodities sold at low profit margins, and middlemen and brokers have less and less place.  Middlemen thrive in complex situations where a great deal of arcane knowledge is required to successfully manage a situation.  Dealing with bloated bureaucracies or systems where fawning courtiers can smooth the process are places where middlemen thrive.  Areas of study that require large amounts of specialized knowledge like law and engineering tend to allow middlemen to proliferate because this knowledge is not accessible to the ordinary person with ordinary time and interest in such matters.  Indeed, the existence of a large body of middlemen enjoying a good lifestyle is a sign that there are large degrees of inefficiencies of some kind in an aspect of life.  The legitimacy of the middleman depends on what they offer to their customers in exchange for the use of their arcane knowledge and personal connections.  A well-trained guide in a foreign nation provides a worthwhile service to customers.  So does a competent and fair-minded insurance agent when dealing with arcane insurance laws and products, or an engineer or architect who allows the vision of the customer to be built.  But when middlemen profit at the expense of customers and offer nothing worthwhile, then they attack their own legitimacy and endanger the position they and others like them hold, because sooner or later they will be found out and rooted out for the parasites that they are.

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Album Review: Golden Earring 50 Years Anniversary Album

Among all the bands I have written about for my series on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the fans of Golden Earring have been among the fiercest, upset that someone like myself would know of the band simply through their two biggest American hits, “Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone,” both fantastic songs.  But having listened to this album on the advice of a fan of the band, I get it.  This band is one that deserves to be thought of as among the best of the British invasion, even though they’re Dutch.  They have songs that remind one of such bands as the Beatles, the Hollies, the Rolling Stones, and even AC/DC and Duran Duran.  While maintaining their own amazing instrumentation they also demonstrated an ability to turn their beautiful and dark songs into a wide ranging exploration of genres.  This is a band that should be much better known, and it’s not as if they only have a couple of songs that are good.  This collection has 50 songs on CD and then another fifteen (with a lot of duplicates) in live and music video versions, and it’s not as if there are any bad songs here.  Most of the songs are classics, and the rest are at least good.

Since I listened to these cds in my car (alas, my computer doesn’t have a cd drive), I wasn’t able to do my usual track by track reviews, but there are more than 50 songs here so that would have been an interminably long review.  The first of the albums here shows the band starting out with Beatlesesque melodies.  But even at this stage of their career they were more than copycats.  “Daddy Buy Me A Girl,” the fourth song on this collection, mixes innocent sounding music and vocals with dark lyrics about the struggles to find a faithful and loyal woman with hints of slavery.  And the material only gets darker and more melancholy from here, intermixed with songs about nonsense like “Dong-Dong-Di-Ki-Di-Gi-Dong,” which should have been a hit.  The band explores death in material like “Another 45 Miles,” “Kill Me (Ce Soir),” and “My Killer, My Shadow.”  They have strange songs about girls like “She Flies On Strange Wings” and “Weekend Love,” along with “I Can’t Sleep Without You.”  They explore the exoticism of India in “Bombay” and picture heaven going to pieces in “Paradise In Distress,” one of the last songs here.

It is not as if the band was only a studio creation, as this collection demonstrates the band’s considerable live chops on the first eleven songs of the DVD as well as tracks like “Just Like Vince Taylor,” “Slow Down,” and “I Can’t Sleep Without You.”  So whether you like the dark music videos by Dick Maas, the live tracks, or the band’s studio songs, this compilation gives you all the information you need to know to realize that this band was one of the greatest British Invasion acts ever, only they were from the Netherlands.  And it is that fact which probably kept them from getting more hits.  “Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone” are neither the two blandest nor the two best of the songs here, and I don’t love them any less hearing the context of the band.  Instead, the fact that Golden Earring was able to make so many really great songs, with a commitment to songwriting craft, a high degree of variety, and some amazing instrumentation makes the fact that they only had two hits a bit sad.  This is a band that deserved far more success, and it is easy to understand why those who have taken the time to listen to the band’s material as a whole would be a bit upset that the band is known for only two songs that don’t even hint at all of the weird and wonderful approaches taken to rock music over the course of a long and productive and accomplished career for Golden Earring.

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Book Review: The Spartacus War

The Spartacus War, by Barry Strauss

It is unclear exactly what led the author to write this book as a classicist who bemoans the lack of good sources and firm knowledge and has to resort to all kinds of speculations and guesses about important elements of the war, but there are at least two possibilities.  For one, Spartacus is well-known as a mythical figure supporting freedom from tyranny and oppression, and it might have been impossible for the author to resist the chance to write at least some work that dealt with this mythos and its historical origin.  Likewise, the author may have sought out an opportunity to write a work on ancient history that allowed him the chance to exercise his speculative mind, as some other books of his, like his work on the death of Julius Caesar, showed that the author has an interest in historical mystery.  Both of these and other motivations are entirely possible, but while the resort is less firm than I would appreciate when it comes to works of this kind, the result is certainly worthwhile in that it places the Spartacus War and its waging in a complex context that includes Roman political and diplomatic history during the first half of the 1st century during the twilight years of the Roman republic.

The author organizes his tale in a generally chronological fashion, sometimes writing a bit more at length about various people involved in the Spartacus War in some fashion, demonstrating that although the Roman army didn’t bring their A-team to fight Spartacus and his fellow runaway slaves that it was the opportunity for at least some people to win some military glory, including such figures as Crassus, Cato the Younger, and Octavian (the father of Emperor Augustus).  After an introduction that laments the lack of good texts on this part of Roman history, the author divides his work into four parts.  The first part (I) deals with the breakout of Spartacus and others from slavery as gladiators (1) as well as some religious support from his doxy, who happened to be a priestess of Dionysus (2).  After that the author talks about the attempted vengeance of the Roman republic against the slaves (II), with initial attacks from unsuccessful scratch forces brought by some praetors (3), the successful efforts of the slave army to move through the hilly countryside of southern Italy thanks to pathfinders (4), and the efforts of Cato the younger and others to overcome the rebellion (5).  This leads into a discussion about the retreat of Spartacus’ army after its failure to escape Italy to the north (III), which includes a discussion of Crassus efforts at increasing Roman morale through the ancient practice of decimation (6), the betrayal of Spartacus’ army by pirates (7), and author’s hypothesis about a standoff on the Melia ridge (8).  The author then closes the book with a discussion of the fight to the death (IV) that ended the war, including chapters on the defeat of the Celtic section of the army that had split off from Spartacus’ main force (9), the last battle of Spartacus himself (10), and the portrait of the Roman victors (11), along with a conclusion that looked at various mopping up efforts and the consequences of Spartacus’ revolt.

I must admit that while I am familiar with the name of Spartacus and his role as a runaway slave that I have not seen any of the movies that take advantage of the mythic view of Spartacus as a liberator to present a more egalitarian view of the subject than was the case in history.  The author does a good job in this book at pointing out the little we know about him and his deeds, making generally good guesses about what he does not know, and pointing out of the ways in which he was either strategically or tactically sound and how he was not quite as much of a freedom lover as he was made out to be, given his lack of interest in gaining the support of urban slaves and his obvious favoritism for other gladiators or rural slaves.  The town & country divide among slaves is something that has always been of interest to me in my own studies on slavery and this book does help in that regard.  If you have an interest in the late Roman republic or in the history of slavery and slave insurrections this book is definitely a worthwhile book to read.

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Book Review: The Death Of Caesar

The Death Of Caesar, by Barry Strauss

I must admit that I like historical true crimes literature, and this book certainly falls under that category.  As the author is a noted classical scholar and a relatively prolific writer, it is unsurprising that he would attempt a somewhat revisionist history of one of the most celebrated matters of ancient history, namely the assassination of Julius Caesar and its aftermath.  And, to be sure, the author does a great job with it, using his knowledge of the ancient texts to construct the historical problem, doing a fair bit of textual analysis of the available information and giving some plausible cases for what happened and what could have been done differently to preserve the Roman Republic, and how the assassination of Caesar kept imperial Rome from being more despotic than it could have been otherwise.  The author finds some obscure figures whose importance has often been neglected, looks at Shakespeare’s play as an example of what is often understood about the assassination of Caesar, and presents his case for what happened in a masterful way.  All of this is done in a way that emphasizes the complexity of the situation and the way that historical events often depend on human personalities.

This particular book is about 250 pages and is divided into several parts with smaller chapters within those parts.  The author begins with Caesar’s return to Rome (I), the experience riding with Caesar after his victory in Anatolia (1), his awkward relationship with Rome’s “best men” (2), the decision made in a villa to make Octavian his heir (3), and Caesar’s last triumph (4) and the trouble it caused when he abused some of the people’s tribunes.  After that the author examines the assassination itself (II) with a look at the birth of the conspiracy plot (5), the search for assassins among the Roman senatorial elite (6), the way that Caesar was lured to his death by a disaffected ally (7), and the murder in one of the Senate’s champers (8), along with the tension that followed the murder (9) and the memorable nature of the public funeral (10).  The author then closes the book with a look at the aftermath of the murder (III) with a look at the struggle for Italy between various armies (11), the vengeance taken against the conspirators (12), and the final victory of Augustus that ended this period of crisis in Rome (13).  All of this is followed with a warm acknowledgements section and a note on the sources that is well worth reading, along with an extensive collection of endnotes and an index.

One of the things that makes this book such a delightful read, apart from the author’s obvious understanding of the relevant texts and his excellent style, is the nuanced view of the author with regards to the question of Caesar’s assassination.  The author demonstrates the way that Caesar politically bungled matters by attempting to delegitimize the Roman republic and its officials.  He also points out that those who wanted to save the Republic were not savvy enough about the need to appeal to the common people as well as to the soldiers whose decision was critical in providing victory to one side or another.  The author’s nuance and moral complexity, his discussion of the failures of nerve and strategy among Caesar and the conspirators, his respect for the cold and calculating Octavian, someone who is not the favorite figure of many in this period precisely because of his cold and calculating nature, and his intense study of the texts and desire to point out what they discuss and what biases they have make this a truly interesting read.  It is easy to recommend this author in general though, for those who appreciate wrestling with ancient texts and seeking to understand the past for all of its complexity and reality.

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Nabal: Lessons Learned From The Bible’s Dumbest Man

There are many people recorded in the Bible who are not particularly bright, but my choice for the dumbest person in the Bible is Nabal.  Today I would like to spend a bit of time discussing all the ways that Nabal was foolish, and how we can learn from his stupidity.  In order to set the stage for our discussion, let us look at the passages in which he plays at least an indirect role.  First, we have 1 Samuel 25:2-19:  “Now there was a man in Maon whose business was in Carmel, and the man was very rich. He had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. And he was shearing his sheep in Carmel.  The name of the man wasNabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. And she was a woman of good understanding and beautiful appearance; but the man was harsh and evil in his doings. He was of the house of Caleb.  When David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep, David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, go to Nabal, and greet him in my name.  And thus you shall say to him who lives in prosperity: ‘Peace be to you, peace to your house, and peace to all that you have!  Now I have heard that you have shearers. Your shepherds were with us, and we did not hurt them, nor was there anything missing from them all the while they were in Carmel.  Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever comes to your hand to your servants and to your son David.’ ” So when David’s young men came, they spoke to Nabal according to all these words in the name of David, and waited.  Then Nabal answered David’s servants, and said, “Who is David, and who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants nowadays who break away each one from his master.  Shall I then take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers, and give it to men when I do not know where they are from?”  So David’s young men turned on their heels and went back; and they came and told him all these words.  Then David said to his men, “Every man gird on his sword.” So every man girded on his sword, and David also girded on his sword. And about four hundred men went with David, and two hundred stayed with the supplies.  Now one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying, “Look, David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master; and he reviled them.  But the men were very good to us, and we were not hurt, nor did we miss anything as long as we accompanied them, when we were in the fields.  They were a wall to us both by night and day, all the time we were with them keeping the sheep.  Now therefore, know and consider what you will do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his household. For he is such a scoundrel that one cannot speak to him.”  Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep already dressed, five seahs of roasted grain,one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them on donkeys.  And she said to her servants, “Go on before me; see, I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal.”  After this we have a short coda in 1 Samuel 25:32-39:  “Then David said to Abigail: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me!  And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand.  For indeed, as the Lord God of Israel lives, who has kept me back from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, surely by morning light no males would have been left to Nabal!”  So David received from her hand what she had brought him, and said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have heeded your voice and respected your person.”  Now Abigail went to Nabal, and there he was, holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. And Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk; therefore she told him nothing, little or much, until morning light.  So it was, in the morning, when the wine had gone from Nabal, and his wife had told him these things, that his heart died within him, and he became like a stone.  Then it happened, after about ten days, that the Lord struck Nabal, and he died.  So when David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has pleaded the cause of my reproach from the hand of Nabal, and has kept His servant from evil! For the Lord has returned the wickedness of Nabal on his own head.”  And David sent and proposed to Abigail, to take her as his wife.”

How does Nabal end up taking the title of the dumbest man in the Bible?  Let us begin by looking at what he had going for him.  He had inherited his wealth and position as a descendant of the powerful and noble house of Caleb.  Obviously, given his idiocy, he would not have been able to earn his wealth based on his own merit.  He also had, probably as a result of an arranged marriage, a particularly shrewd and intelligent wife in Abigail.  Again, this was a man blessed in at least two ways that he most certainly did not deserve.  He was blessed in a third way that he neither deserved nor appreciated, and that is having able servants and help, who knew that to get anything done in the household, including saving their own lives (more on that shortly), they had to go to Abigail because one could not even speak to Nabal.  Even when their life was in danger, Nabal was too much of a fool to take the advice of wise servants, or even his wife, and so everyone had to go behind his back.

Having looked at how Nabal’s folly squandered the resources that he had available to him, including a certain amount of inherited wealth and power, a wise and beautiful and charismatic wife, and servants who were knowledgeable and wise, let us look at how he nearly destroyed all of it.  He appears to have thought that his wealth and power was enough to protect him from the violence of David and his hundreds of armed men.  While it is entirely understandable that he would be less than enthusiastic about the protection racket that David had set up to keep his men fed and content, the obvious decision in this case would have been to pay off the armed men who had at least provided protection in a dangerous area full of violent nomadic tribes to ensure that the armed people would stay on your side.  This is a truth so basic that keeping the armed services happy is pretty much enshrined in the practice of any nation that has a large military force that it depends on to provide internal and external security, including the United States.  Stiffing one’s armed forces, whether they are hired mercenaries or volunteers or generally friendly armed retinues of warlords like David, is an act of extreme stupidity.  One thinks of the short epigram by Hilaire Belloc:  “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.”  The importance of respecting the source of military superiority should have been obvious to someone whose entire place within society came about by descending from a popular military hero.

What would a smarter man than Nabal have done when it came to dealing with David and his men?  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Nabal had not been a mouth-breathing idiot of submoronic intelligence lacking completely in charisma or intellect but had been a person of reasonable strategic insight, at least to the point of being able to respect and appreciate the wisdom of the wife and servants who served him loyally despite his stupidity.  First off, Nabal would have been well-served in getting to know as much about a fellow Judahite as possible, especially David’s being anointed by Samuel as the next king over Israel.  A shrewd eye of David’s military talent probably would have sought to co-opt that military talent through having David conquer more wilderness to support more herds and increase the economic power and holdings of Nabal.  Likewise, the knowledge that David would be king would also lead a local aristocrat to desire for the military leader to remember who helped him out when to make him an important figure in his administration, like keeper of the South or something like that.  But Nabal wasn’t wise–he showed no curiosity in David’s destiny, did not appreciate the strategic value of staying on the good side of people with weapons, and was so foolish as to be unable to appreciate the sound advice of his wife or servants, who are all much wiser than he was.  As a result, he died a fool’s death after having nearly brought on the destruction of his entire elite household.  And for what?  Simply to gratify his own pride by insulting the honor of David, a man who took matters of loyalty and honor pretty seriously, but who was at least a wise enough man to appreciate the wisdom of Abigail, which was more than Nabal had going for him.

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Book Review: Primo Levi’s Resistance

Primo Levi’s Resistance:  Rebels And Collaborators In Occupied Italy, by Sergio Luzzatto

It is striking, and something I did not know until reading this book, that the place of Primo Levi’s short and spectacularly unsuccessful career as a partisan against the Germans and the Fascist Republic of Salo took place in the only part of Italy I know well from my own travels, the Val d’Aosta, not far away from the City of Aosta where in 2004 my girlfriend at the time and I (along with her parents) spent an enjoyable afternoon of driving around and looking for an early dinner while we were attending the Feast of Tabernacles in nearby Annecy, France.  I’m not sure if there is any significance in this striking coincidence, but all the same it certainly allowed me to visualize this book and its complex and impressive story about the Italian resistance and efforts to counter it in this particular region.  Although the story has seldom been told, and probably never with the detail told here, the author of this book manages to take an allusive set of lines in Levi’s memoir The Periodic Table and turn it into a research project of considerable subtlety in understanding the nature of the Italian resistance.

This book is just over 200 pages, but manages to preserve a sense of drama throughout as the author discusses his own efforts at researching the Italian resistance and its aftermath in the Aosta Valley region.  The author begins with a prefatory note to English readers about the historical context of the Italian resistance in the overthrow of Mussolini and the resulting German invasion of Italy when Italy sued for peace in 1943 after the invasion of Sicily and a prologue about the allusive lines in Levi’s memoir that led the author to research the subject.  After that there is a discussion about the invention of the resistance that Levi talked about and how it came about (1).  The author notes that the early resistance was part partisan and part bandit (2) and that this included some rough justice being delivered to those who were a bit too undisciplined.  After that the author discusses the snowy dawn when Levi and a few others were captured thanks to the efforts of a turncoat (3), and the way that the torch was passed from Levi and other early partisans to later ones who would carry on the resistance (4).  The author talks about the abortive efforts for justice and revenge against the Fascists of Salo after the liberation of Italy (5).  A couple of chapters look at the efforts to try Cagni, the turncoat and professional traitor for his crimes (6,7) before the effects of the winds of pardon that sought to turn Italy into a bulwark of anticommunism (8), which allows Cagni to betray his former fascist allies as an American agent provocateur.  Then the author moves on to discuss the explanation of the death of the two young people to their relatives (9) and the effect of the burden of Levi’s partisan experience on his later writing (10).

Obviously, this book is most of interest to readers who appreciate the writing of Primo Levi.  If you are not well-versed in Levi’s writings or do not wish to be, there is likely little reason to be interested in the goings on of a small band of partisan rebels and writing about them in a remote part of Italy during World War II.  The Italian resistance is not well known and unless one has a personal stake in the matter it is likely that few people will be familiar with it.  That said, this is a fascinating story about a complex set of problems that includes the difficulties of waging and fighting guerrilla warfare, the issue of partisan justice, and the way that settling scores and providing justice in the aftermath of civil war is often undercut by the desire to return to normalcy as soon as possible, which leads to many guilty people being pardoned and much just action being undone because it would preserve the civil discord that previously reigned.  Although it is a tale with a small set of main characters, the book is a compelling one that provides a fascinating entry into the study of the Italian resistance as a whole as well as a great deal of insight into the complexities of Italian politics in the postwar period.

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Book Review: Survival In Auschwitz: If This Is A Man

Survival In Aushwitz:  If This Is A Man, by Primo Levi

In this short but powerful book, the author describes his own survival in World War II and some stories of those who did not make it.  The first part of what is considered the author’s Auschwitz trilogy, the third volume of which I had previously read (review forthcoming), this book demonstrates the author’s own perspective of the concentration camps from the inside, and the way that the dehumanization process of the camps worked on people, the various ways that people could hope with this process, and how this process could be reversed by being treated in a humane fashion.  This book can be seen as part of the body of concentration camp memoirs (like Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and others) and a part of the larger body of memoirs about the 20th century’s prison camps, and this particular book names at least some names and provides a look at how the SS operated in Italy in the period after the German invasion of Italy in 1943 and give a somewhat scary look at how the politics of the camp itself operated and how people managed to acquire the privileges necessary to survive Nazi barbarity.

This particular book is a paperback with fairly large page sizes but a somewhat short length of around 120 pages.  The formatting for the book is a bit inconsistent, with line breaks in the middle of sentences and paragraph breaks that are somewhat random.  The author begins with his capture as a novice partisan in late 1943 and his experience in prison where his Jewish identity meant deportation to Auschwitz.  He talks about life “on the bottom” as the arrivals and separation of party into those who would be immediately put to death and those who would be preserved alive because they still had some use to the Nazi regime as well as the initiation into the life of the lager and his experiences in Ka-Be after having a foot injury.  He discusses sleeping arrangements and dreams and nightmares as well as the work that inmates did.  He discusses what a “good day” looks like in a concentrate camp and what happens within the camp concerning theft and the black market.  There is a discussion about what qualities were necessary to survive, the author’s experience in proving his chemical expertise, which allowed for survival, some of the events in camp and his comparison of Auschwitz to hell, the last days of Auschwitz before its liberation by Soviet soldiers, when starvation was a threat and those who had been abandoned by the retreating Germans struggled with disease and despair.

In this book the author demonstrates pretty clearly that he is and was a man, but he also demonstrates that people do not act like men or feel like men unless they are treated like men.  The book indicates that the inhuman treatment dished out by the Germans and their proxies managed to dehumanize both themselves and those they abused, which is a notable and worthwhile achievement to the study of trauma, even outside of the specific context of the work itself.  This is not a happy work, certainly not a carefree one, but it is a work of survival, and one can see Levi in these pages struggle to give honor to those who were decent who did not survive and to recount his memories and his experience in a way that conveys the truth of his story to those who were not there.  In this book one can see as well that the author challenges the German public to wrestle with its own complicity in Nazi horrors and to note the social cohesion that some groups were able to maintain even in the face of the horrors of the concentration camps, an achievement that is worth celebrating.  One can consider this book as part of the author’s payment of the debt the living owe to the dead in telling as much as possible about their stories.

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Book Review: The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal

As someone who reads my fair share of memoirs, I am always struck by those memoirs which present a puzzle to their reader that has to be put together from different pieces.  As I have written such a memoir of my own childhood, and as such a memoir was written by Vladimir Nabakov [1], I am perhaps a bit biased to that sort of memoir, but even so, it is highly inventive that Levi would use his background as a chemist to provide an inventive and complex memoir of a complicated life, and the structure of his memoir provides a way that one can avoid simple narrative arcs, which the author likely sees as inappropriate to his own life.  Reading the various parts of the memoir, there are certainly large aspects of the author’s life that are not covered, but at the same time one gets a coherent sense of a life and its complexity in these pages and therefore the book certainly succeeds at presenting a life that has some major fragmentary elements in a way that allows a wide variety of aspects of the author’s thinking to be seen by the attentive reader.

This book is organized in the fashion of the periodic table, with its chapters labeled by particular relevant elements.  In all of the cases, the element fits, and though the periodic table is not complete (there is no chapter, for example, on Tungsten or Neptunium, or any other number of elements), the elements chosen are strikingly chosen.  Giving a connection of the elements chosen and the contents of the chapter will help reveal just how complex this narrative is.  The author begins with Argon, a noble gas, and compares it to the politically inert Jewish ancestry that the author has, telling a variety of stories that reveal the small domestic tragedies of a people on the margins.  Hydrogen spurs the author to recollect his early clandestine experiments in chemistry, while Zinc allows the author to talk about a memorable experience in his education of making zinc sulfate.  Iron prompts a discussion of the relationship between fascism and science.  Potassium allows the author to discuss a painful experience of trying to find a substitute for unavailable pure sodium, and so on.  Nickel is the theme of a narrative of a sub rosa job that the author had trying to refine nickel from asbestos tailings, while lead and mercury allow the author to tell a couple of interesting fictional stories, one of them about an island that is a shared fascination between the author and I [2].  Phosphorus is the hero of a story about a job the author had during the 1940’s to engage in a foolish quest to isolate phosphorus to plants.  Gold provides the context of an intriguing story about the author’s imprisonment as an Italian partisan after the German invasion, while Cerium allows the author to interact with a German scientist from his days in Auschwitz.  Chromium provides a tale of the author’s work in the postwar varnish industry where he came up with a way to counteract the negative tendencies of the chromates being used at the time.  And so it goes throughout the whole memoir as the author provides fragmentary pictures of a richly diverse life.

It is worthwhile to examine the many elements of Levi’s life that are touched upon here.  The author discusses his family background, at least some of the effects that his Jewish identity had in the period during and after his graduation where he was officially forbidden from working in his industry because of racial laws but benefited from people willing to disobey the law.  We read a bit about his experiences in the lager of Auschwitz, which is discussed in more detail in other writings, see some of his fiction and read some modest discussions of the author’s professional achievements as a chemist in postwar Italy, including at least one tale where someone hires him to investigate poisoned sugar.  If one has read quite a bit from the author in terms of his writing, one can see that his life richly influenced his fiction, both in his experience as an outsider of a noble but often oppressed tribe, his experiences as a partisan and in prison, his work as a chemist, his fiction writing, and his experience as an occasional correspondent for a couple of newspapers, an aspect of his life that he strangely does not cover here, perhaps because he thinks it will not be of general interest.  Even so, this is a worthwhile memoir that gives a good flavor of the man and his writing.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/03/30/book-review-speak-memory/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/04/18/an-introduction-to-the-naming-our-abuse-project/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/07/26/the-lonely-island/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/01/17/book-review-the-sun-never-sets/

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If You Know You Know

It is often thought by those who are not in the know that there is no purpose in tautology.  The statement that adorns this particular personal essay is an example of a tautology.  If you know, you know.  In mathematical terms, a tautology is often defined as If A, then A, or A = A.  Most of the time tautologies are in fact very trivial, but their worth, when they have worth, exists outside of the world of the tautology itself.  At times, people do not realize that they are engaging in tautological reasoning.  A great many of the arguments for natural selection within creation themselves boil down to tautological reasoning, that something had survival value because it survived, and the people who make those arguments truly believe that they are saying something profound, and are unaware (or at least unashamed) that they are making a tautological argument.  In that lack of shame there is at least some insight to be gained, if not from the statement itself than from the fact that people feel comfortable viewing such statements of obviousness as insightful.  And there is similar insight in a statement like “if you know you know” even if the statement itself is not particularly insightful on its own.

Yesterday morning (as I write this) I arrived at church at 11AM for the Bible Study and was helpfully informed that I was the songleader today.  This surprised me, as I had known that I was going to be the songleader in a couple of weeks but no one had bothered to tell me that I was songleading.  There are normally e-mail alerts that go out to the songleader telling them to please put songs on the website for the pianist and ensemble musicians if one has not done so already.  I did not receive any of those messages.  I have a google docs file that shows the assignments for speaking and songleading going at least into July, and lo and behold I was not on the schedule for yesterday on that either.  I did, however, check the congregational website and found that I was scheduled there for songleading, and so I wrote a list of five songs (since we had special music for the choir already) for the pianist, and then wrote those same songs on my own list that I keep for organizing the Sabbath services, after which I proceeded to the Bible study, and then to a discussion with various people to determine the order of services, which was a slightly unusual format since our pastor wanted to share photos from a recent trip he took with one of his daughters to Israel.

During the course of that, I hunted down various people to give the opening and closing prayers, as is the least pleasant task for me as a songleader, and the person who gave the opening prayer turned out to be the person who had originally been scheduled to give a sermonette, and then to lead songs.  I found out from our pastor that the assignments for yesterday were changed at the Deacons and Elders meeting last Saturday night, which I am not a part of, not being ordained, but that no one had apparently thought it necessary either to inform the people who were given assignments or to change the document that we would all be reading as a way of keeping ourselves from being surprised.  But even with minimal preparations everything ended up working out alright.  The songs we sang included a few ones that people were not very familiar with, two of which were beautiful and old songs that no one else chooses anymore and another one being a relatively new song that I have chosen a few times to make it more familiar with our local congregation.  Few people, except those I told, would have guessed the level of surprise that was involved with the songleading.  It went off in a competent and professional manner and I did not even joke from the lectern about how surprised I was to show off my incompetence and lack of preparedness, as is the fashion among some songleaders.  If you knew, you knew.

Given this context, therefore, there are at least two senses in which the title of this essay has a profound relevance.  Unless it is your fashion to check who is speaking or songleading on a weekly basis, you would likely not have known that I was scheduled to lead songs yestserday.  I certainly didn’t know, and no one thought it necessary to tell me.  The various patterns of warning e-mails and shared google documents that are designed to keep people in the loop did not, for whatever reason, accomplish their task.  Yet at the same time, a lifetime of dealing with unpleasant surprises and minor crises that require thinking or acting on my feet has left me with an ability to deal with the sort of tasks that I might not be expected to relish.  Unless you knew that I had no prior knowledge before arriving at church about leading songs today, you would not have known from the way I handled the duty that this was the case.  In an example like this, the knowledge is a result if communication.  If you know refers to the fact that one would not know unless the fact had been communicated.  You would know because someone told you, and if no one told you, then you would not know.  So it is often in life, where knowledge requires communication, and communication does not go as it should.

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Book Review: Grace & Guts

Grace & Guts:  Strategies For Living A Knock-Out Life, by Shannon Perry

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Adams PR Group.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

There is little in this book that is particularly new.  That is not to say that what is present is bad–far from it.  It is just that this book more fits in the line of encouragement to people who might need to be reminded and urged to do what they are supposed to do.  It should also be noted that this book is aimed at a female audience.  As is often the case, I read this book as an unintended audience, and I was struck by the fact that this book does not talk about anything that a male audience cannot relate to.  This book can be read profitably by a wide audience, even if it is aimed, like a lot of other books of its kind, at a female audience in particular.  I am left to wonder here, as often, if it is that women authors do not realize that they are addressing universal concerns and not ones that just women have, or if they do not believe that men would consider as worthwhile the insight and counsel that a female author would provide, and so such writers assume that only women readers will take them seriously.

Be that as it may, this short book of just over 100 pages is divided into twelve chapters.  The author talks about the need for people to care for themselves as they care for others (1), how to handle betrayal (2), how to crush insecurity and inferiority (3), how to overcome faithlessness and fear (4), how to defeat people-pleasing (5), and how to demolish addiction (6).  After this, the author tackles how to overcome loneliness (7), master anger (8), manage difficult people (9), battle depression (10), beat worry and uncertainty (11), and champion our purpose with God as our coach (12).  The book then concludes with a discussion about the author as well as a list of other books by the author (who I had not read previously).  The author gives some mixed opinions about social media, having some negative things to say about how it can waste time but some positive things about how it inspired the book’s last chapter.  Likewise, the author draws a lot of insight from her own life and personal experiences in a way that is likely to encourage her audience.

There is at least one aspect of this book that I saw closely tied to the author’s experience as a woman.  For example, some of the issues in this book, including the juxtaposition of mastering anger and defeating people-pleasing, deal with both ends of the double bind that women often face in feeling it necessary to express discontent while doing so in a way that does not make the woman feel disagreeable.  It is by no means an easy thing for a woman to overcome the challenge of the acceptable domain in which one can maintain one’s reputation as a decent and worthwhile woman while expressing disapproval of something that someone else is doing as it relates to her.  Yet the sort of problems that women face as the author discusses here are not limited to women alone.  Do not men feel that they sometimes have to walk on eggshells or cater to the whims of others?  Do not men have to master their anger and overcome loneliness?  Do not men struggle with addiction or battle depression or face the challenge of worry and anxiety and uncertainty?  Indeed they do, but this book gives a subtle reminder that if men are to take heed to such advice as this book has, it will likely have to be provided by men.  As it is, at least the women who read it can expect to be encouraged here.

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