The long view:
- NZZ, 9 October 2023.
- BBC, 11 October 2023.
- Le Monde, 19 October 2023.
- Wall Street Journal, 19 October 2023.
- FAZ, 21 October 2023.
- Al Jazeera, ?? October 2023.
The current war:
The Aztec capital reconstructed by Thomas Kole and collaborators:
An American professor’s perspective as reported on Irwin Collier’s Economics in the Rear-View Mirror:
On an October morning, some years since, a recent Vermont graduate and I entered together the Aula of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University at Berlin. Lectures were still two weeks away; but Germany is a country of leisurely beginnings and this was the morning of matriculation. The great hall was thronged with an interesting company. At a long table sat the Rector Magniﬁcus, Harnack, the mighty theologian, and the professors of the various faculties. Moving about the room were students of three types: foreigners like ourselves; wanderers from other universities of the Fatherland; and boys from the “Gymnasium,” who had passed the “Abiturient” examination and become “mules” or freshmen. These last we regard with interest. They are unquestionably the best trained school boys in the world. For nine years they have been drilled by the best masters, every one a doctor, for some thirty hours a week. They have been taught not simply to remember, but to analyze, compare and classify, until, at the age of eighteen or nineteen stand often on a better footing than graduates of our colleges. But there is another side to the shield, as I learned when I grew to know them better. They have marred their sight — sixty per cent of Germans over eighteen wear glasses. They have hurt their health by long hours of work at home and by little play save perhaps skating in winter and gymnastic exercises on the “Turnboden.” With all his learning, the German Jack is often a dull boy. …
Goodreads rating 4.19.
A sweeping novel of 950 pages (!) which starts on page 960. The Nobel laureate describes hundreds of characters, with even more names; immerses in countless locations, languages, and creeds. Her protagonists always remain strangers.
There is something wonderful in being a stranger, in being foreign, something to be relished, something as alluring as candy. It is good not to be able to understand a language, not to know the customs, to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognizable. Then a particular kind of wisdom awakens—an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious. Cleverness and acumen come about. A person who is a stranger gains a new point of view, becomes, whether he likes it or not, a particular type of sage. Who was it who convinced us that being comfortable and familiar was so great? Only foreigners can truly understand the way things work. (pp. 390)
From Smyrna and Athos to Ivanie, across fluid Poland, Brünn (exact location), Vienna (exact location) and Offenbach to Paris in times of the French Revolution and the Supreme Court. From pariah creditors to noble debtors. Jacob and his daughter Eva; Yente and Nahman; and the heroes in the background, Hayah, Asher, and Thomas. Life in the eighteenth century, torn between hunger, disease, murder and rape; lies that kill, curses that float; and debates about Aufklärung, when religious zeal morphs into political activism and the practice of law.
The Word rules.
… the world is made of words that, once uttered, lay claim to every order, so that all things seem to occur at their behest. All things belong to them. Every curse, even the slightest, has an effect. Every single word that’s said. (pp. 645)
… I patiently stumble forward, not inquiring into the price I will have to pay, and even less so about any reward. My friend and ally is that moment, that urgent hour, the dearest time to me, when suddenly out of nowhere the writing gets easy, and then everything appears to be wonderfully able to be expressed. What a blissful state it is! Then I feel sage, and the whole world becomes a cradle that the Shekhinah has laid me down in, and now the Shekhinah leans in over me like a mother over an infant.
The path to the left is only for those who have shown they deserve it, those who understand what Reb Mordke always said—that the world itself demands to be narrated, and only then does it truly exist, only then can it flourish fully. But also that by telling the story of the world, we are changing the world.
That is why God created the letters of the alphabet, that we might have the opportunity to narrate to him what he created. Reb Mordke always chuckled at this. “God is blind. Did you not know that?” he would say. “He created us that we would be his guides, his five senses.” And he would chuckle long and hard until he began to cough from the smoke.
The novel comes with a bibliography, so is the story real?
Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is … the perfection of imprecise forms. (p. 14)
In any case,
… any person who toils over matters of Messiahs, even failed ones, even just to tell their stories, will be treated just the same as he who studies the eternal mysteries of light. (p. 10)
The Nobel Prize-winner’s richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe.
In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas–and a new unrest–begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank–a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day–is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries–those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is–The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
Goodreads reader Marc’s summary:
For those who like wide-ranging historical novels, this is the real thing. Tokarczuk immersed herself in 18th-century Greater Poland, which then covered large parts of Eastern Europe. Seen from the West, it was a perifere area, but it stood in intense contact with the Eastern Ottoman Empire, which at that time still controlled almost the entire Balkans. Tokarczuk sketches dozens of characters who constantly go back and forth between those two regions. These are especially Jews, and the author examines that Jewish world in great detail.
Her central story focuses on a Jewish heretic movement which actually existed in the middle of the 18th century. The movement was led by Jacob Frank, an Ottoman Jew. He was a very unlikely guru, but had an enormous charisma and managed to get tens of thousands of Jews behind his ‘Trinity Faith’. He seduced them with an eclectic mix of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which was particularly attractive because it offered the Jews, with their always precarious position in Catholic Poland, the prospect of civil rights through baptism.
Olga Tokarczuk is the most acclaimed Polish writer of the moment (twice the Niké prize, once the Man Booker International prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize 2018), but with this book she has had a really difficult time in her own country. Her focus on the Catholic discrimination against Jews in Greater Poland was not appreciated by the right-wing, conservative government currently in power in Warsaw. Also the picture she paints of an extremely diversified Polish nation, with a jumble of ethnicities and religious movements that lived together, contradicts the homogenic Polish identity that has been cultivated since the 2nd world war.
But that is precisely what makes this book extremely interesting. The way Tokarczuk brings all these different movements, cultures and ethnicities to life is a feast for the reader’s eye. Her narrative style even has a certain Marquezian flair, with a dash of magical realism through the character of the old Yenta who remains in a state of coma for hundreds of pages, and – stepped out of herself – glides through space and time, guiding the story a step further.
But there is a downside to this verbal firework: the immersion in all those worlds, the dozens of characters, the constant changes in perspective and time, all this makes reading this very bulky book a real test. For instance, it takes a quarter of the book, almost 250 pages, before the real story about the heresy of Jacob Frank takes off; until then Tokarczuk builds up, with constantly new characters, and travels back and forth between Poland, the Balkans and Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey). Also the sometimes very intense theological discussions among the Jewish rabbis, diving into kabbala, demand a lot from the reader.
Again: this historical novel is quite a tour de force , not only in terms of size and depth. For me, the charm of the reading was mainly in the Chagal-like character of the visual language of Tokarczuk: she regularly sketches dreamy scenes with the comatose Yenta that floats over time and space and oversees everything. But in the long run it’s all a bit too much: the story just lingers on, endlessly, and I missed a real existential story, with people of flesh and blood. Hence the slightly lesser rating. But I’m definitely going to dive into Tokarczuk’s other work!
Goodreads rating 4.19.
Graeber’s book contains many interesting historical observations but lacks a concise argument to convince a brainwashed neoclassical economist looking for coherent arguments on money and debt. After 60 pages, 340 more seemed too much.
… the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it man to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? … debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. … to become simple, cold, and impersonal … transferable.
… money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. … the violence and the quantification—are intimately linked. … the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics.
…The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: despite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected, or quickly reversed, on “moral grounds” until 1898.
… historically, credit money comes first [before bullion, coins]
… ages of virtual credit money almost invariably involve the creation of institutions designed to prevent everything going haywire—to stop the lenders from teaming up with bureaucrats and politicians to squeeze everybody dry … by the creation of institutions designed to protect debtors. The new age of credit money we are in seems to have started precisely backwards. It began with the creation of global institutions like the IMF designed to protect not debtors, but creditors.
… the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths—not only the Myth of Barter … but also rival myths about primordial debts to the gods, or to the state … Historical reality reveals [that the state and the market] have always been intertwined. … all these misconceptions … tend to reduce all human relations to exchange … [but] the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence … the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. … an actual history of the last five thousand years of debt and credit, with its great alternations between ages of virtual and physical money …
… many of Adam Smith’s most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free market theorists from medieval Persia …
Chapter two (“The Myth of Barter”) contains questionable claims about economics as well as interesting historical facts (or claims?):
When economists speak of the origins of money … debt is always something of an afterthought. First comes barter, then money; credit only develops later. …
Barter … was carried out between people who might otherwise be enemies …
… “truck and barter”’ [in many languages] literally meant ”to trick, bamboozle, or rip off.”
What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, … never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, … has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.
Chapter three (“Primordial Debts”) argues the the myth of barter is central to the discourse of economics, which according to Graeber downplays the state as opposed to markets, exchange, and individual choice. He tries to confront this view with Alfred Mitchell-Innes’ credit theory of money, Georg Friedrich Knapp’s state theory of money, the Wizard of Oz (i.e. “ounce”), and John Maynard Keynes (original?) claim that banks create money.
In all Indo-European languages, words for “debt” are synonymous with those for “sin” or “guilt,” illustrating the links between religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by “money.” [money-Geld, sacrifice-Geild, tax-Gild, guilt]
Wikipedia article on the book:
A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.
A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.
Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, “markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence”, though he goes on to show how “in the absence of such violence, they… can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy”.
Reception of the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber’s sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt, as outlined below in the section on “critical reception”.
Goodreads rating 4.55. Surprising, sympathetic.
Stonehenge is tiny. Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian.
Figure III in Paul Schmelzing (2019), Eight Centuries of Global Real Interest Rates, R-G, and the ‘Suprasecular’ Decline, 1311–2018. SSRN.
In the New York Times, John Henderson reports about a new hiking trail in Liechtenstein that was opened to mark the country’s 300-year anniversary.
This Cross-Country Hike Took 5 Days. That’s Going the Long Way.
According to Lonely Planet, the trail makes Liechtenstein one of the top European travel destinations in 2019.
Homo appeared roughly 2 million years ago in Africa and Homo sapiens roughly 200’000 years ago in East Africa. Harari divides his account of the last 70’000 years into four parts: The cognitive revolution (language), the agricultural revolution (about 10’000 years ago in today’s Turkey, Iran, Levant), the unification of humankind (through money, empire, and religion), and the scientific revolution. According to Harari, Sapiens developed more efficient strategies for cooperation than other species and in particular, Neanderthals (which sapiens eradicated around 30’000 years ago). The rest is history, i.e., evolutionary biology and cultural history.
On his website, Harari summarizes:
Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.
According to Harari, the agricultural revolution fostered population growth but made life harsher for most humans (due to less varied diet, harder work, infectious diseases)—and for the animals that Sapiens domesticated; religion, empires, money and trade fostered globalization and unification; the scientific revolution arose from Europeans’ admission of ignorance, and it was intertwined with imperialism and capitalism; whether humankind has become happier over time is unknown but doubtful; and we may soon confront a singularity:
Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed `before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us (p. 461 in the Vintage 2015 edition).
Wikipedia points to critical scholarly reception.
In the NZZ, Christophe Büchi reports how Switzerland became a multilingual country. Immigration occurred in waves; sometimes the immigrants adjusted more, sometimes less.
In a paper, Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman argue that the Protestant reformation after the year 1517 triggered major reallocation, due to religious competition and political economy.
[T]he Reformation produced rapid economic secularization. … shift in investments in human and fixed capital away from the religious sector. Large numbers of monasteries were expropriated … particularly in Protestant regions. This transfer of resources shifted the demand for labor between religious and secular sectors: graduates from Protestant universities increasingly entered secular occupations. … students at Protestant universities shifted from the study of theology toward secular degrees. The appropriation of resources by secular rulers is also reflected in construction: … religious construction declined, particularly in Protestant regions, while secular construction increased, especially for administrative purposes. Reallocation was not driven by pre-existing economic or cultural differences.
During the black death epidemic (1349–1353), atmospheric lead concentration collapsed as mining ceased. This is the result of a study by Alexander More, Nicole Spaulding, Pascal Bohleber, Michael Handley, Helene Hoffman, Elena Korotkikh, Andrei Kurbatov, Christopher Loveluck, Sharon Sneed, Michael McCormick, and Paul A. Mayevski on lead levels in an Alpine glacier. They write that
[c]ontrary to widespread assumptions, … resolution analyses of an Alpine glacier reveal that true historical minimum natural levels of lead in the atmosphere occurred only once in the last ~2000 years. During the Black Death pandemic, demographic and economic collapse interrupted metal production and atmospheric lead dropped to undetectable levels.
In The Great Leveler, Walter Scheidel argues that over thousands of years, only mass violence and catastrophes have triggered significant reductions in inequality.
From the book’s introduction:
For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. … stability favored economic inequality. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. … Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics.
… there is no compelling empirical evidence to support the view that modern economic development, as such, narrows inequalities. There is no repertoire of benign means of compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen.
In Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael,” a gorilla offers his perspective on human civilization and the narratives surrounding it.
Ishmael—the gorilla—characterizes the early agricultural revolution as the takeoff of the nowadays-dominant “Takers’” culture, a culture that does not only reject the hunter-gatherer and herder life of “Leaver” tribes but also finds it acceptable to eradicate the latter. The Takers reject the notion that man is part of a balanced, competitive and evolving natural system; but this rejection places humanity on a trajectory ultimately leading to self-destruction.
The gods realized that “of all the trees in the garden, only the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could destroy Adam.” (9, 6) And so they forbid Adam to taste the fruit of that tree. (He tasted anyway.) The ban constitutes a mystery for Takers. For they think of themselves as destined to rule the world, and “knowledge of good and evil is fundamentally the knowledge the rulers of the world must exercise, because every single thing they do is good for some but evil for others.” (9, 7)
According to Ishmael, the mystery is solved by noting that Genesis reflects a narrative of the Semites, a Leaver people, who experienced the expansion of the Taker culture as Cain slaughtering his brother Abel. The Hebrew later adopted the tale but could no longer make sense of it because they had adopted the Taker culture.
Ishmael makes some other points: “The Takers accumulate knowledge about what works well for things. The Leavers accumulate knowledge about what works well for people.” (10, 8) “The Takers are those who know good and evil, and the Leavers are … those who live in the hands of the gods.” (11, 6) The Leavers are in a position to evolve; they are part of the general community of life, while Takers believe that creation came to an end with man. (12, 3) “The Takers’ story is, ‘The gods made the world for man, but they botched the job, so we had to take matters into our own, more competent hand.’ The Leavers’ story is, ‘The gods made man for the world …; this seems to have worked pretty well so far, so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods.’” (12, 6)
The Economist largely accepts the notion that Irgun terrorism and America’s support for Zionism pushed Britain out of Palestine. It concludes:
On the Haganah’s broader influence, Mr Hoffman notes that al-Qaeda’s Afghan library had a copy of Begin’s “The Revolt”, but does not ask why so many Palestinian prisoners take Israeli university courses on how Jews established their state. Much of what they do, including building terror tunnels, bombing transport nodes, lobbing mortars at residential neighbourhoods and burying arms dumps in places of worship, has antecedents in Jewish militancy. Israel knows Palestinian methods and it has an array of anti-terror legislation which, had Britain responded similarly, might have aborted the future state.
According to Segev, in contrast, Hoffmann over estimates the impact of terrorist acts against colonial Britain committed by Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Statehood for Israel would have come anyway.
The Economist reports about research on genetic differences among UK residents and the implications of the findings.
A few miles east of today’s Belgrade lies a Vinča settlement that dates back to 5000 BC. The Vinča civilization relied on fishing, farming and mining (copper); the Vinča people built houses along streets; and they exchanged goods. They also used an early form of proto-writing (sources: Belgrade tourism site, Wikipedia).
Alex Whitaker writes on his site Ancient Wisdom:
In 1908, the largest prehistoric Neolithic settlement in Europe was discovered in the village of Vinca, just a few miles from the Serbian capital Belgrade, on the shores of the Danube. Vinca was excavated between 1918 and 1934 and was revealed as a civilisation in its own right. Indeed, as early as the 6th millennium BC, three millennia before Dynastic Egypt, the Vinca culture was already a fully fledged civilisation. A typical town consisted of houses with complex architectural layouts and several rooms, built of wood that was covered in mud. The houses sat along streets, thus making Vinca the first urban settlement in Europe, but being far older than the cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt. And the town of Vinca itself was just one of several metropolises, with others at Divostin, Potporanj, Selevac, Plocnik and Predionica.
Frequent territorial change characterizes the eventful and troublesome history of Poland (video). This history is evident all over the place when walking the streets of Warsaw, for example in the historic city that was destroyed in 1944 and rebuilt afterwards, the memorials in its vicinity, or Stalin’s unloved gift to the Polish nation. The Poles value their new found freedom and are acutely aware of threats to it.
Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.
Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:
Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.
1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.