Saturday, April 11, 2009


Unusually, the proposer was absent attending a celebration in Belgium. However, he did manage to send an introduction to the book, praising it as an exploration of courage, the nature of manhood, self-realisation and personal values. Of relevance to subsequent discussion, he noted that Steven Crane was born after the American Civil War in 1871, and had no personal experience of armed conflict. The Red Badge of Courage (RBC) was written in 1895 between "Maggie, a Girl of the Streets" (1893) and "The Open Boat" (1897), about a shipwreck. The Red Badge of Courage was his most famous work, by some margin, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential American novels. Unfortunately Crane suffered from ill health throughout his life, and died from TB in 1900, when only 28 years old.

The discussion was lively. No one present had direct experience of armed conflict,with many born in the post-WWII baby boom, and therefore in a similar situation to Crane, born six years after the American Civil War. Similarly, it was difficult to understand fully the impact of the book on 1890’s America from a perspective more than a century into the future. One member tried to draw an analogy between RBC and the recent success of ‘The Black Watch’ by Gregory Burke, but most thought this was stretched.

The first point of discussion was the description of conflict, bearing in mind the inexperience of both author and reviewers. All but one (‘not authentic’) thought that the description had an air of realism, and was particularly strong in representing the ‘fog of war’, the inability of the participant to comprehend or act on the whole conflict, fighting their own personal battle with no knowledge of strategic imperatives, if they exist. There was praise for the description of ‘blood and gore', of a face shattered by a musket ball, of mental breakdown, and of the protracted act of dying of the tall solider.

For example, consider the passage, “Another had the gray seal of death already upon his face. His lips were curled in hard lines and his teeth were clinched. His hands were bloody from where he had pressed them upon his wound. He seemed to be awaiting the moment when he should pitch headlong. He stalked like the specter of a soldier, his eyes burning with the power of a stare into the unknown.”

Attention was drawn to the Homeric references at the start of the book, and the descriptions of suffering after the first battle. One could see parallels being drawn between the imagined and real conflict, presaging the experience of the 1914-18 conflict in Europe. Yet, the book was still ambiguous at the end as one was not sure whether war was rather being depicted as a necessary evil to ensure the testing of the mettle of the protagonists.

Was the description of the battle too erudite for the assumed narrator, and ordinary foot soldier? Certainly some thought this detracted from the authenticity. On the other hand, much of the book was written from diaries and other sources so the author had access to first-person descriptions. It was mentioned that the Civil War occurred soon after the development of photography, and probably the author had access to the many photographs (Brady, Cook et al.). Apparently this was the fourth war to be photographed after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the Crimean War (1854–1856) and Indian Rebellion of 1857. More generally, we discussed whether personal experience was necessary to write great novels; the general consensus was against this view and there were certainly many counter examples. Yet there was a sense that Crane was living vicariously an experience which he had been denied through birth and ill health. Certainly his wide travel as a reporter revealed a taste for adventure.

Next, the discussion centred on the intended audience. Was this a male viewpoint, intended for a male audience? In general, the consensus was that this was probably so in 1895, although it might now attract a wider audience. Was it intended to shock? Again the general consensus was affirmative, although the motivation was in dispute. Some thought it was written partly as an anti-war tome, but most thought not, thinking the emphasis on the baptism of fire or coming of age as the recruit eventually passes the test outweighed any description of the pointlessness of the conflict. A substantial minority thought that the book had been written with some cynicism, by a writer more anxious to establish his reputation than to say something important about the nature of personal experience or the nature of war. As evidence, they cited the rapidly shifting subjects of interest, and the fact that ‘Maggie’ had received poor criticism. Further, they suggested that the use of the American Civil War, rather than some other conflict, helped to boost the author’s reputation and sales as the audience had a thirst for books about the conflict.

This brings up the next issue, whether the book was really about the American Civil War. (Chancellorsville was mentioned as a possible battle). The group were fairly sure that this was about war, or indeed the passage to manhood, and the topic was generic rather than specific. To support that view, there are many characters specified as ‘the youth’, the ‘tall soldier’, the ‘loud soldier’, the ‘tattered soldier’ etc, so this emphasises the Everyman nature of the book. (Of course some characters like the youth are also named by third parties.) Throughout the book there is no mention of context or purpose. In the passages in which the tattered man asks Henry where he has been hit, his lack of a wound is possibly a metaphor both for his trial by ordeal that is still to come, but also of Crane’s lack of personal experience. Developing this view one thought that war was only a metaphor, and that the book was about any rite of passage through strife. Reference was made to conflicts in the playground at primary school!

In conclusion, the majority view was of a book on the experience of conflict, which defines a man; about war, not for or against war but a realistic depiction; a book with no historical context or political agenda, intended for as wide an audience as possible, but primarily a male audience. All agreed the book was very well written, entertaining, and thought-provoking. They congratulated the absent proposer on a good choice.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

26/2/2009 ‘A BEND IN THE RIVER’ by V.S. NAIPAUL.

V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932, and came to London in 1950. ‘A Bend in the River’ was published in 1979. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Naipaul’s writing includes fiction and extended essays on cultural, geographical and political themes. He has a particular interest in the legacy of colonialism, and in the experiences of displaced individuals and populations.

The proposer described how he was led to his choice via another book: ‘Blood River’ by Tim Butcher, a factual account of a journey through central Africa. He also cited the book and film ‘The African Queen’. Later in the discussion, Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ also came up as part of the European backdrop of writing about the Congo. A more recent book, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver set in the Congo during the post colonial period, was also referred to later.

The proposer’s introductory remarks on his experience of reading ‘A Bend in the River’ indicated that he found it well-balanced, descriptive, analytical and thought-provoking. The book demonstrated a broad humanist philosophy, and a fascination with how people could achieve self-improvement.

There followed some speculation as to the precise locations Naipaul had in mind when writing. He does not mention the name of either the country or the town where the novel is set, but there was general agreement that the country was based on Zaire (previously the Belgian Congo), and that the town might well be a version of Kisangani on the River Congo. The political leader in the background of the story was perhaps drawn from Mabutu Sese Seko, who seized power in 1965.

Discussion moved onto the fact that no one in the group had visited central Africa, which made it harder to evaluate the accuracy of the portrayal. There was debate about whether racist attitudes were expressed towards Africans either implicitly by Naipaul or explicitly by his narrator Salim, (both members of the Indian diaspora). It was pointed out that one of the most heavily satirical passages of the book had as its target the Indian consulate in London.

One member of the group discussed the portrait of Raymond, a recognizable figure to him through his own academic contacts. White academics such as Raymond did indeed exercise some influence in Africa during the 1960s, as many African leaders came to Britain for their higher education. However, it was agreed that Raymond was in fact not a power behind the throne, but ultimately a powerless and undermined individual.

Continuing to look at characterization, we turned to Salim, the novel’s narrator. As is usual when a writer undertakes first person narration, there was speculation about the degree to which Salim was a self-portrait. Elements of his behaviour – misogyny in particular – were compared with aspects of Naipaul’s own personal biography. The view was expressed that Salim was in many respects an ‘empty’ character – an observer of events rather than an active protagonist. He seems predominantly passive, awaiting events or developments that will show him how to lead his life. In this context, the opening sentence of the novel was much admired: ‘The World is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ As a starting point for an open story that invites a variety of interpretation, this was seen as a very well crafted beginning.

Staying with characterization, Ferdinand was considered as representing the fluidity of the continent in general. In fact, all the characters had a role in expressing aspects of Africa. There was a lack of dynamics between them, it was felt. They were all essentially isolated, even Matty and Salim who had spent their lives together. They were also, it was agreed, not particularly sympathetic or appealing characters. Of course, we see them primarily through the eyes of Salim, and it was suggested that Salim himself was not a perceptive observer. In fact he is quite openly uncomprehending about some of the people he encounters, which places a substantial barrier between the reader and the characters.

In spite of this sense of being held at a distance from characters, there was widespread admiration for Naipaul’s prose style. One of the group pointed out for example the book’s fascination with the river itself, and the precision and variety of natural descriptions.

We turned to themes, and wondered if ultimately it was a rather depressing book. Ferdinand’s final words to Salim, when he has got him out of jail and recommends that he flees, suggest capitulation to a nightmarish breakdown of ethics, culture and order. There seems to be no choice left between right and wrong, because there is no right any more. Salim’s efforts to make a success of his life in this place have come to nothing, and all that is left is to run away. At this particular bend in the river and at this point in central Africa’s history, civilization has failed.

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The proposer introduced the book as about uncertainty. A “Black Swan” event equals uncertainty.

Nassim Taleb is Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at University of Massachussetts. He is of Lebanese origin. This was important in the development of his thinking. Lebanon seemed to be a stable paradise until civil war erupted in 1970’s. Taleb was a banker until recently and, as a result of his “Black Swan” book written in 2006 and the current financial crisis, has become a much sought after pundit. On the very day of the Book Group’s discussion, he had been interviewed by Evan Davies on the “Today” programme and had been a speaker at the Davos economic summit. Journalists are always asking NNT to predict Black Swans, proving they do not properly understand the idea.

According to Taleb, Black Swans have three attributes. They are outliers , ie lie outside regular expectations; they have an extreme impact; and we retrospectively concoct explanations for what has happened to make it explainable and predictable. The highly expected not happening is also a Black Swan. The problem is that everyone including the “experts” acts as if Black Swans do not exist. The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history. We need to adjust to the existence of Black Swans. What is surprising is not the magnitude of forecast errors but our absence of awareness of it. Experts are not experts.

Taleb argues that conventional wisdom is inapplicable in our modern, complex, “recursive” environment. By recursive Taleb means that the modern world has an increasing number of feedback loops, causing events to be the cause of more events thus generating snowballs and epidemics. The banking system is a good example, as Taleb said before the current crisis. Taleb has written an essay claiming that the world is dominated by the extreme, unknown and improbable event and we should be studying this more instead of concentrating on the known and repeated. Taleb claims the future will be increasingly less predictable.

Taleb points out that there is nothing new about the Black Swan problem. The central difficulty of generalising from available information, or learning from the past, is an old problem discussed by many philosophers. It is sometimes known as the "Hume" problem but is older than him.

Taleb argues that we generalise too much from the seen to the unseen. We get closer to the truth by negative instances not by verification. Asymmetrical scepticism is the right approach. Popper was the key promoter through his falsification theory. You know what is wrong with a lot more confidence than you know what is right. The natural tendency is to look for conformation rather than falsification.

We also like to summarise, simplify and explain. Not to explain goes against our nature. Information is costly to obtain, store and retrieve. The same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it is. A novel, a story spares us from the complexity of the world. Stories impart order to the disorder of human perception. So Black Swans get left out. We more easily remember those facts that fit the narrative and neglect those that do not appear to play a causal role. History appears in hindsight far more explainable than it actually was - or is. The way to avoid the pitfalls of the narrative is to favour experiment over storytelling, experience over history and clinical knowledge over theories.

What we see is not all the evidence. History hides Black Swans. History is any succession of events seen with the effects of posterity. Silent evidence gives an illusion of stability. The bias lowers our perception of risks incurred in the past.

When people are asked to name three recently implemented technologies that most impact on the world today, they usually propose the computer, the Internet and the laser. All were unplanned, unpredicted and unappreciated initially. They were Black Swans.

We think we know more than we do. Our arrogance results in trouble. Too much information can impede knowledge. The military are more aware of Black Swans than other professions. Security and economic forecasters have a poor record.

Many great discoveries are accidental. Historians cannot predict the future.

The proposer indicated that he had first come to the book as a keen student of history, and the philosophy of history, but it had become even more relevant following the banking crisis. He had found the book fascinating, thought provoking and enjoyable, but acknowledged that Taleb could also be quirky, arrogant and maddening.

A wide ranging and thought provoking discussion ensued. There was general agreement that the book was interesting, important and thoroughly entertaining. The timing of its publication had resulted in the book itself becoming a Black Swan. There was disagreement, however, as to whether Taleb’s analysis was correct. Those with a history background thought the Black Swan idea was a valid one in that context but others argued that Taleb had misused statistics which undermined his whole analysis.

This led on to a discussion about whether certain events were Black Swans, focussing on the current financial crisis, 9/11 and World War I. No agreement was reached. There was also an interesting debate as to how the computer and internet had affected both individual and societal behaviour and whether Taleb’s view was correct that such changes had made the world a more uncertain and unpredictable place than before.

There was more general agreement that the book was irritating, badly argued, over long and needed a good editor. No doubt Taleb’s ego and arrogance made this impossible. There was less agreement as to the effects of this on the substantive argument of the book. Taleb had acknowledged that the book was a populist,polemical essay and it was doubtful whether a more academic book on such a difficult subject would have attracted anything like the same level of attention.

In conclusion, everyone had found the book enjoyable and stimulating despite its irritations.

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