The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius

 

I first read George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” many years ago when I was in the process of learning English which turns out to be an everlasting endeavor. Some time last year, I picked this book up again, after listening to some BBC radio program that quoted George Orwell from this work. Recently while reading the English and their History by Robert Tombs, I noticed that Tombs frequently cited passages from George Orwell’s works, especially The Lion and the Unicorn at length. It naturally intrigued me to read this again. If previously I grasped mostly social, political and cultural knowledge about England and the English during the two world war era, this time I appreciate something new. George Orwell’s skills of writing sharp and exact, yet elegant and at times humorous prose, developing arguments that are both convincing and bold without any nonsense. This work serves as a great example of the practices that George Orwell advocated in Politics and the English Language.

If you are wondering what happened to the English and their History, why have I not written about that giant of 1040 pages? It is indeed being brewed. It seems impossible to tackle that book without going back to the Lion and the Unicorn first.

The Lion and the Unicorn was first published in 1941. It consists of three parts: England Your England, Shopkeepers at War, and the English Revolution. It is set in the World War II era, but traces history back to previous wars that England went through as well as its previous social and political struggles. All three essays deserve to be read closely. The kind of thorough and detailed reading taught by Francine Prose in her Reading Like a Writer serves very well here. Here are a selection of passages to share with you.

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip.

Hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen.

One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

The reason why the English anti-militarism disgusts foreign observers is that it ignores the existence of the British Empire. It looks like sheer hypocrisy. After all, the English have absorbed a quarter of the earth and held on to it by means of a huge navy. How dare they then turn round and say that war is wicked?

Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in ‘the law’ as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like ‘They can’t run me in; I haven’t done anything wrong’, or ‘They can’t do that; it’s against the law’, are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else.

Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.

One is the lack of artistic ability. This is perhaps another way of saying that the English are outside the European culture. For there is one art in which they have shown plenty of talent, namely literature. But this is also the only art that cannot cross frontiers.  

More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed…What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together. The unjust distinctions remain, but the real differences diminish.

This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges…The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.

It is not true that public opinion has no power in England. It never makes itself heard without achieving something; it has been responsible for most of the changes for the better during the past six months. But we have moved with glacier-like slowness, and we have learned only from disasters. It took the fall of Paris to get rid of Chamberlain and the unnecessary suffering of scores of thousands of people in the East End to get rid or partially rid of Sir John Anderson. It is not worth losing a battle in order to bury a corpse. For we are fighting against swift evil intelligences, and time presses, and history to the defeated May say Alas! but cannot alter or pardon.

No political programme is ever carried out in its entirety. But what matters is that that or something like it should be our declared policy. It is always the direction that counts.

I only know that the right men will be there when the people really want them, for it is movements that make leaders and not leaders movements.

Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.

“Come the four corners of the world in arms

And we shall shock them: naught shall make us rue

If England to herself do rest but true.”

It is right enough, if you interpret it rightly. But England has got to be true to herself. She is not being true to herself while the refugees who have sought our shores are penned up in concentration camps, and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax. It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging ‘democracy’, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

     

How to live on 24 hours a day

 

In 1910, Arnold Bennett wrote a small volume of non-fiction titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. It is probably his best-known work among dozens of books that he wrote. I listed this as my book of this week. I would be cheating if I do not inform you upfront that I have read this book before, perhaps four times over a decade. But this week I picked it up again. It is one of those books that deserve a permanent space on my bookshelves, whether residing in north America or Europe. Hopefully this article will lead you to see the reason for that.

On the surface, the writing of this book seems archaic as it was written at the very beginning of the 20th century. I remember it was a rather awkward reading experience at first many years ago. From that first reading, I got the gist without quite comprehending Arnold’s humor and the cultural references in it. Reading it again this week, perhaps thanks to reading it aloud to myself, I re-discovered the propositions he put forth, the idiosyncrasy of the English society, and more importantly the beauty of his lucid and amusing language.

First all, why did I pick this book up again? I was very disappointed and frustrated by the slow progress on an important business with one large service vendor X, whom I shall not name here, but I have been and will continue giving them feedback in the hope that certain improvements could be made. One evening, frustration compounded with exhaustion took hold of me. I reached this imaginary cliff and asked myself: Is there anything further I could do to improve the situation besides what I have done? Is it feasible to stop working with X and find a new vendor Y in the very limited timeline? To both questions, the answer was a very straightforward no. There I was, standing in front of shelves of books, telling myself: Dong Ping, you MUST detach yourself from that dreadful business at least for a couple hours and find a better way of spending this evening. There is no book more appropriate than How to Live on 24 Hours a Day for the occasion.

This book examines the ways we spend our 24 hours a day and prompts us to see how we let time pass by without either consciously noticing or putting much effort into anything constructive for our own well-being and growth. I know very few full-time workers work 8 hours a day in Silicon Valley, but let’s just assume that is the case for general public globally. That leaves 16 hours for other daily activities. How we spend that 16 hours has much more influence on our life as a whole than we usually realise. Next time, before we say “let’s call it a day”, we should think twice and perhaps say that only as far as the employment contract is concerned.

Arnold pointed out that there are so many discussions and writings dedicated to how to manage one’s finances, but not on time.

I have never seen an essay, “How to live on twenty-four hours a day.” Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time you can obtain money – usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloakroom attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.

We all know what time is, to some extent, the importance of it. Yet this book leads us to view time in a completely new light.

Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say: “This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

In the case of living in London, it is common that we spend 45 minutes or more commuting each way. We all read in the tube or the bus. You see free newspapers such as Evening standard, Metro, other subscription-based papers and magazines, paperback books, or ebook readers. There was a time that reading a newspaper on the tube was very helpful towards my learning English and engaging in timely social conversations with people. This book does not oppose reading newspapers and magazines at all. After all, Arnold himself reads multiple newspapers daily. The point is to be aware of what your time is spent on, specially the part seen as regular daily routines. For example, Arnold suggested that one could concentrate one’s mind on a subject and do some serious thinking during the walk from home to the tube station, waiting on the platform, boarding the train and so on.  He urged us to control our mind:

People say: “One can’t help one’s thoughts.” But one can. The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious brain is patent. This idea is one of the oldest platitudes, but it is a platitude whose profound truth and urgency most people live and die without realising. People complain of the lack of power to concentrate, not witting that they may acquire the power, if they choose. Any without the power to concentrate – that is to say, without the power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience – true life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of a full existence.

Arguing against the typical excuse of lacking time to do more beyond an ordinary day’s work and the exhaustion after work, Arnold talked about beginning the day early and employing the engine in activities beyond the ordinary program before starting the work day. He went on debunking the importance of long sleep. A dear friend and mentor of mine taught me that sleep is overrated, among many other wisdoms that he generously shared with me. For both his friendship and guidance, I am eternally grateful. On the matter of how few hours that one needs to sleep per day to still be very productive for a long working day and to be the smartest person anywhere he goes, I forever aspire to reach his level. I did not do too badly today though, having started reading at 4am today (Saturday).

I am convinced that most people sleep as long as they do because they are at a loss for any other diversion…. “Most people sleep themselves stupid.”… Nine men out of ten would have better health and more fun out of life if they spent less time in bed.

He parted us with this final advice on beginning with what we would enjoy doing at our leisure time at small steps:

The last, and chiefest danger which I would indicate, is one to which I have already referred – the risk of a failure at the commencement of the enterprise. I must insist on it. A failure at the commencement may easily kill outright the newborn impulse towards a complete vitality, and therefore every precaution should be observed to avoid it. The impulse must not be over-taxed. Let the pace of the first lap be even absurdly slow, but let it be as regular as possible. And, having once decided to achieve a certain task, achieve it at all costs of tedium and distaste. The gain in self-confidence of having accomplished a tiresome labour is immense. Finally, in choosing the first occupations of those evening hours, be guided by nothing whatever but your taste and natural inclination.

I confess that I do not agree with the advice above. I found myself being more driven by the opposite view: set the bar high, beyond your dream, beyond what is seen as realistic, and run towards it. I may fail miserably with badly damaged confidence. It would force me to search within myself the strength to carry on. I may be pleasantly surprised that strength exists. I may find nothing, sob but get on with the misery. At least I know I have tried. I was honored to meet with Regina Dugan recently. She is very inspiring for young professional women. Her advice on embracing the fear resonates with me greatly and I hope to do more of that. Spending part of an evening with someone like her truly is equivalent to reading a great book, dare I say, (forgive me, Arnold Bennett), like How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

Finally, I leave you with one more quote from the book to ponder:

It is better to have lived a bit than never to have lived at all. The real tragedy is the tragedy of the man who is braced to effort neither in the office nor out of it.

 

Night

My book of this week is Night, written by Elie Wiesel and translated by his wife Marion Wiesel. Elie wrote about his experience of being deported from his home town Sighet in northern Transylvania  to concentration camps  towards the end of the WWII in 1944, at age fifteen. Elie’s mother and sisters were separated from Elie and his father after arriving at Birkenau, the first stop after deportation.

In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.

“Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and space where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand….My hand tightened my its grip on my father. All I could think of was not to lose him. Not to remain alone.

 

Elie and his father went through Auschwitz and Buchenwald together. Elie’s father was beaten by the Schutzstaffel officer and bullied by the other inmates.

The victim this time was my father. “You old loafer!” he started yelling. “Is this what you call working?” And he began beating him with an iron bar. At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning. I had watched it all happening without moving. I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What’s more, if I felt anger at that moment, it was not directed at the Kapo but at my father. Why couldn’t he have avoided Idek’s wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp has made of me…

The health and spirit of Elie’s father both declined considerably and Elie became his caregiver. After a lengthy period of suffering, Elie’s father gave up fighting and lost his hope of survival.

I could have screamed in anger. To have lived and endured so much; was I going to let my father die now?…He had become childlike: weak, frightened, vulnerable…This discussion continued for some time. I knew I was no longer arguing with him but with Death itself, with Death that he had already chosen.

 

Elie’s father became very ill soon afterwards. Sleeping on the bunk above his father, Elie woke up one morning and found his father was no longer there and his place was occupied by someone else. It came to Elie that he must have been moved to the crematorium overnight, burned maybe still breathing.

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…

Reading this book, I experienced an overwhelming amount of mixed feelings: loving, frustrating, sorrowful, abhorrent, disgusting, longing, inconceivable and others. The original book that Elie wrote was over 800 pages. Elie’s writing went through rounds of editing and many difficulties of its publication. As a comparison, the version I have in hand, also the most commonly known and read one has just over 100 pages. Elie called this book his deposition. Is this an eyewitness account, a memoir, fictionalised-autobiography, non-fictional novel or fiction? I cannot help thinking what was cut and lost in revision and translation from its original Yiddish writing, what was washed away by the flow of the time river from the occurrence of the events to being written down in words, what could not be communicated via any language that we are not able to read and indeed the gap between our comprehension and the writing itself. I read it as a faithful depiction of Elie’s experience in the concentration camps during WWII. Throughout the book, we can see the loss of faith, innocence, love, decency, and other emotional and physical beings.

As a young boy, Elie was a devoted believer. However, in multiple sections, Elie wrote about the slow death of faith throughout his time in the concentration camps.

For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?

Why, but why would I bless Him (God)? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine Altar?

In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.

Reading this book brought back the memory of my visit with my dear friend Laurent Risser to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin years ago, not long after its completion. The memorial has over 2700 concrete slabs of varying size, organized in a grid pattern, located in a very large site. It was a beautifully sunny summer afternoon. We walked around it silently for some time. I felt the weight of history and humanity crushing on me like those thousands of concrete slabs. How could humans do this to other humans? The sun cast many shadows, shifting slowly, until the shadows prolonged and covered all. It was a place in which we are reminded that we should never forget how unjustly those killings and tortures were, not for the purpose of revenge but for our own survival as humans; never think that other people’s sufferings are not your own business; never let our consciousness escape us.

Below in italic are some more passages from the book that I found myself reading again and again, slowly being etched to me like those numbered tattoos on Elie’s arm.

As a rule, our townspeople, while they did help the needy, did not particularly like them. Moishe the Beadle was the exception. He stayed out of people’s way. His presence bothered no one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant, invisible.

Every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer.

Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks him. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand his replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.

And why do you pray, Moishe? I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.

There are a thousand and one gates allowing entry into the orchard of mythical truth. Every human being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the orchard through a gate other than his own. That would present a danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are already inside.

“You don’t understand,” he (Moishe) said in despair. “You cannot understand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where did I get my strength? I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still time. Life? I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me…”

People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers……Most people thought that they would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.

The shadows around me roused themselves as if from a deep sleep and left silently in every direction.

The women were boiling eggs, roasting meat, preparing cakes, sewing backpacks. The children were wandering about aimlessly, not knowing what to do with themselves to stay out of the way of the grown-ups. Our backyard looked like a marketplace. Valuable objects, precious rugs, silver candlesticks, Bibles and other ritual objects were strewn over the dusty grounds – pitiful relics that seemed never to have had a home. All this under a magnificent blue sky.

There was joy, yes, joy. People must have thought there could be no greater torment in God’s hell than that of being stranded here, on the sidewalk, among the bundles, in the middle of the street under a blazing sun. Anything seemed preferable to that. They began to walk without another glance of the abandoned streets, the dead, empty houses, the gardens, the tombstones … on everyone’s back, there was a sack. In everyone’s eyes, tears and distress. Slowly, heavily, the procession advanced toward the gate of the ghetto.

The street resembled fairgrounds deserted in haste. There was a little of everything: suitcases, briefcases, bags, knives, dishes, banknotes, papers, faded portraits. All the things one planned to take along and finally left behind. They had ceased to matter. Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb.

We were ready. I went out first. I did not want to look at my parents’ faces. I did not want to break into tears. We remained sitting in the middle of the street, like the others two days earlier. The same hellish sun. The same thirst. Only there was no one left to bring us water.

“Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!” The Hungarian police were screaming. That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first faces of hell and death.

The few days we spent here (ghetto) went by pleasantly enough, in relative calm. People rather got along. There no longer was any distinction between rich and poor, notables and the others; we were all people condemned to the same fate – still unknown.

We mustn’t give up hope, even now as the sword hangs over our heads. So taught our sages.

Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?) So that was where we were going. A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults. I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps … Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…

 

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The absent no longer entered our thoughts. One spoke of them – who knows what happened to them? – but their fate was not on our minds. We were incapable of thinking. Our senses were numbed, everything was fading into a fog. We no longer clung to anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had all deserted us. In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.

“Remember,” he (an SS officer) went on. “Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or crematorium – the choice is yours.”

Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever… And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice: let there be a camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive….These were the first human words.

The stomach alone was measuring time.

The bell. It was already time to part, to go to bed. The bell regulated everything. It gave me orders and I executed them blindly. I hated that bell. Whenever I happened to dream of a better world, I imagined a universe without a bell.

We were the masters of nature. The masters of the world. We had transcended everything – death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth.

Nobody asked anyone for help. One died because one had to. No point in making trouble.

He awoke with a start. He sat up, bewildered, stunned, like an orphan. He looked all around him, taking it all in as if he had suddenly decided to make an inventory of his universe, to determine where he was and how and why he was there. Then he smiled. I shall always remember that smile. What world did it come from?

The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.

Yet at the same time a thought crept into my mind: If only I didn’t find him! If only I were relieved of this responsibility, I could use all my strength to fight for my own survival, to take care only of myself … Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself forever.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.

Let us not forget history. In Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation and entrepreneurship, while striving for success according to personal and societal measures, we should also read some history and not forget that technology alone could not create us a better world.

 

Reading Like A Writer

Prose introduces her book as “the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

Reading Like A Writer talks about close reading, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraphing, plots, creating characters and so on, through many examples from the masterpieces. However, to me, this book itself is a great place to start practising close reading. Prior to reading this book, I find myself drawn to languages: at first Chinese (my mother-tongue, unfortunately I do not converse, read or write in Chinese nowadays but no doubt that I could re-gain that capability if so wish), and later particularly English which although not my first language it is the one that I think, dream, read, speak and write most comfortably. The English language delights me in many ways. It is hard to clearly depict which portion of my fondness for English is owed to the English culture and which to the language itself. Most people probably would agree that culture and its language are inseparable. I love the English language for the freedom to explore, its non-judgemental attitude, the beauty of its words and compositions, the subtleties, and its lyrical and descriptive power. Reading Like a Writer shows me how to read closely and learn from the masterpieces. Prose’s own analysis and writings about the cited works are great to read slowly word to word. The precision of the choice of words, how she structures her sentences and conveys her opinions are all wonderful to note. It opens my mind and allows me to view the works in English more in-depth with detailed dissection, which brings more joy than would otherwise have been available, for example by reading for the storyline alone.

The book itself contains eleven chapters, including close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narrations, characters, dialogues, details, gestures, learning from Chekhov, and finally reading for courage. It is such a brilliant book that I run the risk of citing most of it if I attempt to cover the full book here. For brevity, here I only share with you three topics from the book, close reading, characters and the last one reading for courage.

Close Reading

For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.

Like most – maybe all – writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.

Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.

….

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

Writing about the school assignment she was given to study the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear: Long before the blinding of Oedipus or Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see and deny what was right in front of one’s eyes. Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent – all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness.

We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.

Each word of these novels was a yellow brick in the road to Oz. There were chapters I read and reread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being somewhere else. I read addictively, constantly.

Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.

Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one.

I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it had meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own – a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

Close reading helped me figure out, as I hoped it did for my students, a way to approach a difficult aspect of writing, which is nearly always difficult….They are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write.

Characters:

Chapter six discusses about how to portray characters, using the exemplar characters from The Marquise of O by Heinrich von Kleist, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Middlemarch by George Eliot and Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.

Here is the first sentence from Kleist’s The Marquise of O: “In M—, a large town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children, published the following notice in the newspapers: that, without her knowing how, she was in the family way; that she would like the father of the child she was going to bear to report himself; and that her mind was made up, out of consideration for her people, to marry him.”

An excerpt from Prose’s analysis about Kleist’s writing: Among the unusual things about the way that Kleist creates his characters is that he does so entirely without physical description. There is no information, not a single detail, about the Marquise’s appearance. We never hear how a room looks, or what the latest fashion might be, or what people are eating and drinking. We assume that the Marquise is beautiful, perhaps because her presence exerts such an immediate and violent effect on the Russian soldier that he loses all control and turns from an angel into devil. But we can only surmise that.

Kleist tells you what sort of people his characters are – often impetuous, wrongheaded, overly emotional, but essentially good at heart – and then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys. He has no time for their motives, nor do they, as they struggle, like the reader, to keep up with the pace at which one surprise follows another.

Through the dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen showed us. Using dialogue to establish the character, to delineate the personalities of the speakers, and to acquaint us with the people whom they are speaking about.

The portraying of characters of Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch is very different from the very minimalistic way that the Marquise and the Count were portrayed, more accurately, inferred by the readers in The Marquise of O. George Eliot wrote so well that after reading Middlemarch years ago, the mentioning of the two characters still arouse some anger and frustration for me. Reading the book as a young girl, I felt furious by Dorothea’s blindness of her own value and willingness to be manipulated by Casaubon who is purely self-centered and completely lack of any sense of love or passion towards other human beings. Perhaps that opinion of mine was only valid for that period of being very young and having black-and-white views of the world, and most likely I will see new perspectives if I were to read Middlemarch again.

Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is discussed in depth in this chapter too, particularly the protagonist Frederic. I have not read this book. Two short pieces quoted from the book below delight me enough for it to be added to my reading list.

Frederic Moreau: “The happiness which his nobility of soul deserved was slow in coming”.

In describing Frederic’s thoughts while observing Mrs Arnoux: “He had never seen anything to compare with her splendid dark skin, her ravishing figure, or her delicate, translucent fingers. He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were something out of the ordinary. What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; and even the desire for physical possession gave way to a profounder yearning, a poignant curiosity which knew no bounds.

Reading for Courage

Most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know – those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.

All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.

Literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.

Writers have often found it a little too easy to make the reader sympathize with characters who are beautiful and true and good, a little too simple to make us care about the innocent and the charitable. How much more of a challenge it is to attempt what Dostoyevsky accomplished in Crime and Punishment. We might not automatically expect to empathize with Raskolnikov, a student who brutally kills two old women. So what an achievement it represents not only to make us care about him but also to find ourselves hoping, just as he does, that he can be redeemed.

Discussing the pressure on writers to create likeable characters rather than realistic ones, Prose quoted the following passages from Gogol’s Dead Souls on the different fates of writers who create angels and those we describe human beings:

“Happy is the writer who omits there dull and repulsive characters that disturb one by being so painfully real… The delicious mist of the incense he burns dims human eyes; the miracle of his flattery masks all the sorrows of life and depicts only the goodness of man … He is called a great universal poet, soaring high above all other geniuses of the world even as an eagle soars above other high flying creatures. The mere sound of his name sounds a thrill through ardent young hearts; all eyes greet him with radiance and responsive tears…

But a different lot and another fate awaits the writer who has dared to evoke all such things that are constantly before one’s eyes…the shocking morass of trifles that has tied up our lives, and the essence of cold, crumbling, humdrum characters with whom our earthly way, now bitter, now dull, fairly swarms…Not for him will be the applause, no grateful tears will he see … not to him will a girl of sixteen come flying, her head all awhirl with heroic fervour. Not for him will be that sweet enchantment when a poet hears nothing but the harmonies he has engendered himself; and finally, he will not escape the judgement of his time, the judgement of hypocritical and unfeeling contemporaries who will accuse the creatures his mind has bred of being base and worthless, will allow a contemptible nook for him in the gallery of those authors who insult mankind, will ascribe to him the morals of his own characters, and will deny him everything, heart, soul, and the divine flame of talent.”

There is no doubt how great amount of courage it takes to write truthfully and realistically instead of pleasingly. Further from Prose, reading can give you the courage to resist all of the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way, or to follow a prescribed form. It can even persuade you that it might not be necessary to give your novel or story a happy ending….Nor, you may discover, is it necessary to have an ending in which every loose thread is neatly tied up, every problem solved, and the characters tracked into the future as far as the mind’s eyes can see. To quote Chekhov one more time, here is the ending of the Lady with the Dog, an ending which, I have always thought, could serve as the final few lines of every work of modern fiction. As the story concludes, the aging adulterous lovers are contemplating their future.

“And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning.”

Talking about bad writing days, Prose quoted William Burroughs: the temptation to tear up your work in little pieces and throw it in someone else’s wastepaper basket. She carries on: reading a masterpiece may be even less of a consolation when you first figure out, or are reminded for the thousandth time, of how much work writing is, of how much patience and solitude it demands from the writer who wants to write well, and of how the compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a “normal” life. And, as awful as they are, these doubts and terror pale beside the question of whether your writing will be any good, or of whether you will succeed enough to be able to do it in the first place.

My own experience of writing are mostly confined to technical topics, such as theses, technical papers and books. My creative writing is very limited. Reflecting on my experience of reading, Prose’s words above resonate in me. The solitude of reading in general, the stubbornness of chewing some passages dozens of times to think of and beyond the original intention, the strange yet mighty inner calling to wake up in the small hours and read during weekends. All these lead to a very abnormal life to others. Perhaps the big consolation for me is that, although my aim is high, I do not worry whether my reading and writing are indeed perceived as good by anyone, at least not yet. It is a lot of labor but full of great pleasure for me. A piece of writing from Isaac Babel quoted in the book talks about the hard labor of revision:

“I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it…I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out – repetition, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything … I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel … I take out all the participles and adverbs I can … Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless … A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun … Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard … But the most important thing of all … is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is … We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.”

At the end of the book, Prose lists the books to be read immediately for us. This list is available at the book’s wikipedia page. However, I did not verify the correctness of all titles on this page. Overall speaking, this book broadened my horizon of literature, reading and writing practices. Prose has done her part excellently of teaching us read like a writer in this book. It is up to us who have read the book to practice the art.

Weddings and Funerals

I do not like weddings.

Weddings make me cry.

The moment the bride and bride’s father walk into the ceremony room in the town hall or church, the music in the background, the view of the two people. One is excited with some fear of the future. Uncertain how life will pan out but overjoyed about the marriage itself;  a claim of true independence and grown-up status as a Mrs. The other, holding the hand of his dearest girl, thinking of how much he wishes her to have the happiest marriage and life ahead, despite knowing that there are turmoils in every family. He wants, his darling girl, to know her dad loves her no matter where her new life leads to. She is always his darling little angel. He is both sad and happy on her wedding day. Their facial expressions, their gestures, the way their eyes sparkle, the music, the atmosphere, maybe some factors that have not come to my realisation; I cry, helplessly, among the English in England, where we as a nation are supposed to have stiff upper lips. I usually blame the music to others for my eccentrically emotional behavior. However, I doubt either they or me really believe that is the only reason.

Then come the readings, exchanging of vows, blessings and so on. The traditional wedding vow of the bride contains the phrase “obey you”. Nowadays, we often eliminate that and keep the better part of the sentence for a non-religious wedding: I promise to love, honour and cherish you for all the days of my life. For a Church of England wedding, here is a detailed writing on the wedding vows, blessings and others. One reading of a wedding in London some years ago that I found very beautifully touching and befitting our modern world:

Marriage requires devotion, the ability to listen, the wisdom to know when you are wrong and the humility to be able to put things right. It means making a commitment for life. It calls for trust, understanding and encouragement, a willingness to accept each other for who you are, and the courage to grow, and change together, through the years to come. Above all, it requires unquestioning love. Our wish for you is that you always treat each other as unique individuals, and respect each other’s ideas, suggestions and traditions. To remind yourselves often, of what brought you here, together, today and that these celebrations are just the start of a lifetime of precious memories.

A few years ago, I was at a funeral of a family member. Unfortunately, this family member passed away before he and I could spend much time together. That acute feeling of loss of him compounded with the bottomless emptiness of losing all the chances of knowing more about him directly rather than through others’ memories kicked me badly. I cried. More so than anyone else; probably far too much beyond what was socially appropriate. The music was again blamed. It was the Jerusalem hymn based on William Blake’s poem. From then on, I always thought if any actor has difficulty of shedding tears genuinely in a scene, he could try to sing this hymn silently to himself. Tears are guaranteed to be abundant. This hymn could perhaps also be prescribed to anyone who suffer from dry eye symptoms.

Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold!

Bring me my Arrows of desire!

Bring me my Spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,

‘till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

 

Vows and epitaphs are the roses of the English language. I love them and hate them with equal intensity.

In one of the cemeteries I frequent, I found these beautiful writings. I cannot find words sufficient to describe how deep an impression these words made on me and the imagination of the lives once lived triggered by these epitaphs (whether original or quoted). However few words are inscribed on the tombstone, I am reminded the magnificence of the English language. Standing in the graveyard, a museum of people once lived and who left their marks on many generations to come, I am also reminded of the triviality of myself and the unworthiness of the many earthly pursuits of the human. I recommend anyone who thinks there is more value in shopping on Fifth Avenue than giving the homeless guy a hug to visit a cemetery nearby and read the epitaphs.

Smile, I am still with you

In the faces of my children and grandchildren

In the beauty of my favorite flowers

In the laughters of a joke I would have loved

In the places we visited together

In the everyday memories we made together

Although I no longer live among you

I will forever live within you

— Lori

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown,

we must believe that one of two things will happen.

There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.  

– Patrick Overton

How many items in an art or history museum can you identify that are not related to love, hatred, mortality or life that are also the key threads of weddings and funerals? Just to leave you with this question. I initially titled this short article, Museums, Weddings and Funerals. By now, it is wise to write about Museums as a separate topic later. If you know I walked straight from my bedroom to my home office very early morning, have been writing this and another article untill now, you would want to drag me out of my cave to have a little fresh air and welcome a new weekend day although it is the afternoon already. A cup of tea would be very lovely.