Anthony Burgess and spring sundry

June 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

1985 by Anthony Burgess.
A pastiche of essay and story telling and futuristic projection based on George Orwell’s 1984. Written in the late 1970s it is interesting to see what Burgess got right. He predicted accurately the rise of Islam in London, with active construction of mosques funded by oil-rich gulf princes (a telling line from the book: With the death of institutional Christianity will come the spread of Islam). More: the wide screen TV, tighter airport security, search for fuel substitutes, women in trousers men in kilts, more and more newspapers closing down, microbombs of immense destructiveness placed in public buildings, a German coup breaks down the Berlin Wall.

He got a few things wrong. Burgess thought labor unions would excercise an overwhelming power over daily life in the future, that porn would overtake violence in the movies and he missed the computer/telecommunications revolution in daily life (though he does portray the union enforcement officials capable of a Google-like effiency in capturing personal details on a computer system). A wonderful overlooked book.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui.
A 625 page nightmare. Mao’s private doctor lived in nervous terror of the various cabals surrounding China’s maximum leader. Fascinating but in the end repetitive; Dr. Zhisui is mainly concerned with keeping Mao alive. Mao unleashed insanity on a mass scale during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1975), but Dr. Zhisui, it appears, was not privy to the political machinations that constantly flowed from Mao’s brainpan. We read mostly of the difficulties of getting Mao to take his medicine. Mao was a megalo-maniac and often quite ill during the last 20 years of his life. What comes through is his heartlessness and cruelty. His policies led to the death of millions. You can’t help thinking that there is a bill come due in China – despite her current power and prosperity.

Before the Sabbath by Eric Hoffer.
This book is a half year’s worth of diary entries from the mid-1970s by this fine and original thinker. Hoffer extrapolates the future just looking around and commenting. For example let me quote a few entries at random:

If the present fuel debacle brings about a decline of Western Europe, France wants to make sure that it ends up sitting on top of the heap. To solve the fuel problem by force would result in a situation in which France could not play a paramount role. Hence France will urge submission to Arab dictates. It will also be for the abandonment of Israel and the cold-shouldering of the United States.

I have long assumed that the stagnation of the Arab world is due to the congeniality of the religion of Islam – its lack of the inner contradictions and tensions which stretch souls. But it seems that hashish is also a factor. The Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century which put an end to Arab supremacy also introduced hashish. Egyptian doctors have blamed this drug for the sluggishness of Egyptian workers. Will the use of marijuana have a similar effect on American workers?

Backward countries are crying about the maldistribution of the world’s wealth: one quarter of the world’s population has threee quarters of the wealth. Not a word is said about how wealth comes into being; the toil, sweat and self denial which make an accumulation of wealth possible. This is how a once poor and backward Japan became an affluent country. It is curious how in both domestic and international affairs there is at present a stubborn refusal to see a connection between effort and income. It is widely assumed that individuals or countries are poor because they are exploited or discriminated against.

The danger inherent in reform is that the cure may be worse than the disease. Reform is an operation on the social body; but unlike medical surgeons reformers are not on guard against unpredictable side effects which may divert the course of reform toward unwanted results. Moreover, quite often the social doctors become part of the disease.

It needs an effort to realize how offended Europe’s cultivated, aristocratic minds were by the spectacle of common people eloping with history to a vast, new continent and essaying to do there all the things – build cities, found states, lead armies – which from the beginning of time were reserved for the privileged orders.

Hoffer thought a special line of cultural demarcation occurred in the Sputnik launch by the Russians in 1957. As a result, back in America, Hoffer proposed that many traditional business types got washed into academia during the early 60s (and conversely, many creative or scholar-types washed into the business world). The new academics Hoffer wrote, “felt superior to the trivial businessmen and politicians who were running the country. They were going to create a new society in which every act was pregnant with meaning and destiny…”

Maybe. Hoffer puts forth interesting models-as-tools to help think about the various antagonistic-worlds that bump against each other in modern America: businessman vs artist, politician vs professor/theorist, ancients vs moderns. His thoughts often carry a counter-intuitive streak that give them a pugnacious or challenging effect. Even so, Hoffer presents his ideas in vivid, musclular prose worth reading for its own sake.

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