Book Review:The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi


November 19, 2018

Book Review:

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi

Hans-Bernd Zöllner and Rodion Ebbighausen (translated by Vipasha Bansal) (Silkworm Books, 2018)

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/selth-the-daughter

Few figures in modern history have attracted as much biographical attention as Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Griffith Asia Institute’s select bibliography of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising, the third edition of which was published earlier this year, lists 34 books in English about her, all written since 1990. There are several others, in other languages, and even a few collections of photographs. Most have been aimed at the general public, including young readers.

All of these books were written after Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy, adored by millions and held up by the international community as a paragon of virtue, the result of her long struggle for universal human rights and peaceful democratic change.

Very few biographies have appeared since her government took office in 2016, and she was in a position to give practical effect to her ideas about political, economic and social reform. As a result, the world has been waiting for years for a study that rigorously and objectively examines not just the Nobel Peace laureate’s undoubted strengths and achievements, but also her weaknesses and policy failures.

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, by long time Myanmar-watcher Hans-Bernd Zöllner and freelance journalist Rodion Ebbighausen, is a comprehensive and thoughtful account of her life and times, and ventures into a few unfamiliar areas, but it still does not satisfy that need.

Before 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was not just admired, she was idolised. Wherever she went, both within Myanmar and outside it, she was given what journalists liked to describe as “a rock star welcome”. This cult of personality helped her become a household name around the world and boosted her cause, but it had a downside.

In journalistic and even academic circles she was rarely subjected to the same level of critical analysis as other world figures, or members of the military government she opposed.

When more objective Myanmar-watchers dared to point out examples of her poor judgement and tactical missteps, or suggested that, like everyone else, she had flaws in her character, they were subject to an avalanche of abuse. One outspoken critic who wrote disparagingly about The Lady (as she became widely known), and the tunnel vision of her more extreme supporters, was sent a death threat. This had the effect of silencing many commentators aware of her imperfections, or who disagreed with some of her decisions. Even professional analysts began to self-censor what they wrote about her.

To be fair, they did this not just out of fear of being attacked by Aung San Suu Kyi’s legion of supporters, who used the Internet and social media to great effect. Serious observers of Myanmar were aware that to openly criticise Aung San Suu Kyi risked giving the military regime ammunition to use against her.

For years, a virulent campaign was waged against the opposition leader in the state-run news media, where she was cast as a traitorous renegade who had turned her back on her own people. Countless stories and cartoons, including jibes about her marriage to a foreigner and her schooling abroad (in India and the UK) were published with the aim of undermining her popularity with the Myanmar people.

Anything written by foreign commentators in the international press, or said by them in public, that could be used to support the regime and bolster its case against Aung San Suu Kyi, was seized upon and shamelessly exploited. With that danger in the back of their minds, more critical and aware foreign observers tended not to draw attention to her shortcomings as an alternative leader of Myanmar.

Doubtless, in private counsels and confidential reports prepared for senior officials, diplomats and strategic analysts took a hard-headed approach and produced unvarnished assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s character, political skills and suitability for high office. Presumably, they also warned that, should she ever find herself in a position of real power, she would inevitably be forced to choose sides between contending factions, and make hard decisions about contentious issues, in ways that would leave some of her admirers dissatisfied. She would not be able to please everyone, or avoid controversy, simply by referring to broad principles and abstract concepts, as was her usual practice. However, for obvious reasons, the recipients of such assessments were unlikely to share them with the public. Some senior officials (George W. Bush and Gordon Brown spring to mind) may have even been reluctant to accept them. Thus the net effect of the world-wide campaign being waged on her behalf was to strengthen the popular image of her as being without fault or peer, existing above the grubby political fray.

This two-dimensional picture was reflected in most of the books written about her. As Kyaw Yin Hlaing pointed out in a review article, “Quite often the biographies of leading political figures are written by their loyalists, enemies, or by neutral authors or scholars. In the case of Suu Kyi, however, one finds that most of the writings about her are written by her sympathisers and her enemy (the Myanmar junta)”.

Works in the former category were not all hagiographies. For example, Bertil Lintner’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy discussed some of the criticisms usually levelled at The Lady. Other books made passing references to Aung San Suu Kyi’s human frailties and some other perceived shortcomings. However, these character flaws tended to be brushed over as insignificant in the greater scheme of things. As a rule, very few authors attempted to offer an objective picture of the opposition leader that stripped away her public image to show the real person underneath, warts and all. As Barbara Victor wrote in her own biography, titled The Lady, “deconstructing Aung San Suu Kyi is not part of the game”.

 

 

The TOUGH and GUTSY Lady in OSLO

Over the past few years, however, the pendulum has swung completely the other way. Aung San Suu Kyi is now being lambasted by the international community and, albeit to a much lesser extent, criticised by many people within Myanmar. At one level, this is hardly surprising. Her government has disappointed on several fronts, failing to deliver on most if not all the promises she made before the 2015 elections. Given the challenges she inherited, and the unrealistic expectations held about her ability to solve Myanmar’s “fiendishly complex problems”, that was to be expected. However, her dramatic fall from grace in the eyes of the international community has come about mainly because of her response—or lack of it—to the Rohingya crisis of 2016–2017, which saw three quarters of a million Muslims driven into Bangladesh by Myanmar’s security forces in circumstances that have been labelled by the UN ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. She has also publicly defended egregious human rights violations in other contexts.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now the subject of vitriolic abuse in the international news media. Amnesty International recently stripped her of its highest honour, telling her that “you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and and the undying defence of human rights”. There have even been calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.

The collapse of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation, and the flight of her former high profile supporters, begs for a detailed explanation. Also, the apparent abandonment of her principles on universal human rights, and her rejection of the international community’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable in countries like Myanmar, warrants close examination.

 

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

Her current position is in stark contrast to the well-publicised views she held as a political prisoner. While at one level the picture is clear, these issues can be quite complex, and in certain cases her actions may appear less reprehensible when put into a wider context. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi has no control over the actions of Myanmar’s armed forces (Tatmadaw) which, under the 2008 constitution, act independently of her quasi-civilian government. Similarly, on the Rohingyas, there is a rare consensus between the government, the armed forces and the wider population that may restrict her freedom of action. This is not to offer any excuses, simply to emphasise the need for a thorough and objective account of her policies and personal attitudes.

Hans-Bernd Zöllner is in a good position to offer informed comments on such matters. He is an accomplished Myanmar-watcher, with several major works to his name. To English-speakers, he is perhaps best known for his compilations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and informal comments to her followers, published as Talks Over the Gate: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Dialogues with the People, 1995 and 1996.

He has also written a history of the conflict between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, set in a global context. Another work of note is his chapter comparing different accounts of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, published in Volker Grabowsky’s edited volume Southeast Asian Historiography. Rodion Ebbighausen is not well-known in English-speaking countries as a Myanmar-watcher, but he is an experienced journalist who has covered the country for Deutsche Welle and other news outlets. He has also written occasionally about Aung San Suu Kyi, most recently in connection with the Rohingyas.

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

As might be expected, The Daughter is a well-researched and comprehensive account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s early childhood, her time spent travelling as a young woman, her studies at Oxford and her marriage to British academic Michael Aris.

Image result for aung san suu kyi and mahathir in singapore
It describes her return to Myanmar in 1988 and unexpected rise to fame as General Secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy. Her 15 or so years under house arrest are also covered. There is an interesting excursion into Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhist studies, and their apparent impact on her political thinking. The authors also discuss the lack of understanding about democracy in Myanmar and explore Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with her followers.
As Nic Dunlop has pointed out, these sections offer helpful insights into her attitudes and personal philosophy at the time. The book finishes with an account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to the Union parliament in 2015 and subsequent appointment to the newly-created position of State Counsellor (the presidency having been denied to her by the 2008 constitution).

 

Image result for aung san suu kyi and mahathir in singapore

This narrative is well told and covers all the main bases, but is curiously flat. The book goes over a lot of familiar ground, but offers little by way of new information or original analyses of critical events.

Given everything that has already been written about Aung San Suu Kyi, this was perhaps inevitable to a certain extent, but the reader is left wondering why the authors have not addressed more directly and in greater depth the criticisms made of Aung San Suu Kyi during her political career.

 

Despite the general reluctance to highlight her shortcomings, commentators have referred to such personality traits as her profound sense of personal destiny, her aloofness (or arrogance), her refusal to accept criticism or to countenance dissent, her dismissal of potential rivals, and her reluctance to include activists like the 88 Generation Students Group in the wider pro-democracy movement. Nor have the two authors critically examined her encouragement before 2011 of tough economic sanctions against Myanmar and her opposition to tourism, despite the negative impact these policies clearly had on the wider population.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book, however, is its failure to take the opportunity to look closely at Aung San Suu Kyi since she took political office. She has been criticised for vetting all bills herself and taking all important decisions on both party and government matters. She has reportedly surrounded herself with a small group of loyalists, and does not consult others who could offer different advice. These practices have caused serious problems in the conduct of government business.

More particularly, her attitude towards the ethnic communities has been described as both imperious and unsympathetic, encouraging the view that, at heart, she is an ethnic Burman centralist who shares the Tatmadaw’s hard line towards minority groups, including the Muslim Rohingyas. Indeed, over the past few years she appears to have made little attempt to curb the blatant misuse of power by the security forces and judicial system. These are all matters that would have benefited from a rigorous and balanced analysis, both to put the record straight where it has strayed from the truth, and to help explain what appears to many people to be a puzzling about face on the part of someone they once admired.

Zöllner and Ebbighausen have said that they are keen to provide a nuanced portrayal of Myanmar’s crises over the past 30 years, with Aung San Suu Kyi as a focal point. They have succeeded in this aim, but failed to meet the not unreasonable expectation that Aung San Suu Kyi would be examined more critically, now that she has revealed herself to be a more complicated person than was once portrayed. Her elevation to the leadership of Myanmar, and the challenges that she has faced in that role, has required qualities that seem to be lacking.

As former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell has written, “Opposing oppressive state power and running a government are two vastly different skills”. There were bound to be teething problems, and grumbles at the slow pace of change. Also, the 2008 constitution was going to require compromises. However, few people expected that Aung San Suu Kyi would become the target of such bitter invective, mostly from the same foreigners and foreign institutions which had once idolised her.

Myanmar has always been much more complex than popularly portrayed, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been subject to as many myths and misconceptions as other aspects of the country’s modern history. Had Zöllner and Ebbighausen written more about the controversies and criticisms now associated with The Lady, and tried to explain them in greater depth, they would have produced a more interesting book, and one that made a greater contribution to the burgeoning literature on modern Myanmar.

Dr Andrew Selth is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. He is the author of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising: A Select Bibliography and Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff From Mandalay.

New York Times Book Review: Andrew Roberts on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill–A Man of Courage


November 17 ,2018

New York Times Book Review: Andrew Roberts on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill–A Man of Courage

 

 

CHURCHILL
Walking With Destiny
By Andrew Roberts
Illustrated. 1,105 pp. Viking. $40.

In April 1955, on the final weekend before he left office for the last time, Winston Churchill had the vast canvas of Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Lion and the Mouse” taken down from the Great Hall at the prime ministerial retreat of Chequers. He had always found the depiction of the mouse too indistinct, so he retrieved his paint brushes and set about “improving” on the work of Rubens by making the hazy rodent clearer. “If that is not courage,” Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, said later, “I do not know what is.”

Lack of courage was never Churchill’s problem. As a young man he was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery fighting alongside the Malakand Field Force on the North-West Frontier, and subsequently he took part in the last significant cavalry charge in British history at the Battle of Omdurman in central Sudan. In middle age he served in the trenches of World War I, during which time a German high-explosive shell came in through the roof of his dugout and blew his mess orderly’s head clean off. Later, as prime minister during World War II, and by now in his mid-60s, he thought nothing of visiting bomb sites during the Blitz or crossing the treacherous waters of the Atlantic to see President Roosevelt despite the very real chance of being torpedoed by German U-boats.

 Churchill had political courage too, not least as one of the few to oppose the appeasement of Hitler. Many had thought him a warmonger and even a traitor. “I have always felt,” said that scion of the Establishment, Lord Ponsonby, at the time of the Munich debate in 1938, “that in a crisis he is one of the first people who ought to be interned.” Instead, when the moment of supreme crisis came in 1940, the British people turned to him for leadership. Here was his ultimate projection of courage: that Britain would “never surrender.”

 
Image
Credit: Associated Press

If courage was not the issue, lack of judgment often was. Famous military disasters attached to his name, including Antwerp in 1914, the Dardanelles (Gallipoli) in 1915 and Narvik in 1940.

So too did political controversies, like turning up in person to instruct the police during a violent street battle with anarchists, defying John Maynard Keynes in returning Britain to the gold standard or rashly supporting Edward VIII during the abdication crisis.

His views on race and empire were anachronistic even for those times. The carpet bombing of German cities during World War II; the “naughty document” that handed over Romania and Bulgaria to Stalin; comparing the Labour Party to the Gestapo — the list of Churchillian controversies goes on. Each raised questions about his temperament and character. His drinking habits also attracted comment.

Such is the challenge facing any biographer of Churchill: how to weigh in the balance a life filled with so much triumph and disaster, adulation and contempt. The historian Andrew Roberts’s insight about Churchill’s relation to fate in “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” comes directly from the subject himself. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny,” Churchill wrote of that moment in May 1940 when he achieved the highest office. But the story Roberts tells is more sophisticated and in the end more satisfying. “For although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping,” Roberts writes, adding that Churchill learned from his mistakes, and “put those lessons to use during civilization’s most testing hour.” Experience and reflection on painful failures, while less glamorous than a fate written in the stars, turn out to be the key ingredients in Churchill’s ultimate success.

He did not get off to a particularly happy start. His erratic and narcissistic father, Lord Randolph Churchill, saw the boy as “among the second rate and third rate,” predicting that his life would “degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.” His American mother, Jennie, was often not much kinder, sending letters to him at Harrow.


By the late 1930s, out of office and despised for his opposition to appeasement, Churchill seemed finished once and for all. But he was ready. “The Dardanelles catastrophe taught him not to overrule the Chiefs of Staff,” Roberts writes, “the General Strike and Tonypandy taught him to leave industrial relations during the Second World War to Labour’s Ernest Bevin; the Gold Standard disaster taught him to reflate and keep as much liquidity in the financial system as the exigencies of wartime would allow.”

Image result for alan turing and churchill

 

Winston Churchill later claimed that Turing had made the single biggest contribution to allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

Alan Turing and the Ultra decrypters in the second war; the anti-U-boat campaign of 1917 instructed him about the convoy system; his earlier advocacy of the tank encouraged him to support the development of new weaponry. Research for a life of Marlborough (a book that Leo Strauss called the greatest historical work of the 20th century) taught Churchill the value of international alliances in wartime.

If Churchill’s entire life was a preparation for 1940, “the man and the moment only just coincided.” He was 65 years old when he became prime minister and had only just re-entered front-line politics after a decade out of office. It would be like Tony Blair returning to 10 Downing Street today, ready to put lessons learned during the Iraq war to work. Had Hitler delayed by a few years, Roberts suggests, Churchill would surely have been away from front-rank politics too long to “make himself the one indispensable figure.”

Image Credit;The New York Times

Experience certainly did not make success inevitable. In France, Marshal Pétain, revered as the “Lion of Verdun” for his glorious career in World War I, made all the wrong decisions as prime minister from June 1940 onward, equating peace with occupation and collaboration.

Churchill was the anti-Pétain, but what was it that made him “indispensable”? Hope, certainly, and an ability to communicate resolve with both clarity and force. Recordings of wartime speeches can still provoke goose bumps. In the end, Roberts sums up Churchill’s overriding achievement in a single sentence: It was “not that he stopped a German invasion … but that he stopped the British government from making a peace.”

That turned out to be the whole ballgame. After the Battle of Britain was won and, first, the Russians and, then, the Americans came into the war, Churchill knew that “time and patience will give certain victory.” But it also meant a gradual relegation to second if not third place. Britain had entered the war as the most prestigious of the world’s great powers. By its conclusion, having lost about a quarter of its national wealth in fighting the war, Britain had become the fraction in the Big Two and a Half, and was effectively bust.

Roberts is admiring of Churchill, but not uncritically so. Often he lays out the various debates before the reader so that we can draw different conclusions to his own. Essentially a conservative realist, he sees political and military controversies through the lens of the art of the possible. Only once does he really bristle, when Churchill says of Stalin in 1945, “I like that man.” “Where was the Churchill of 1931,” he laments, “who had denounced Stalin’s ‘morning’s budget of death warrants’?”

Some may find Roberts’s emphasis on politics and war old-fashioned, indistinguishable, say, from the approach taken almost half a century ago by Henry Pelling. He is out of step with much of the best British history being written today, where the likes of Dominic Sandbrook, Or Rosenboim and John Bew have successfully blended cultural and intellectual history with the study of high politics. But it would be foolish to say Roberts made the wrong choice. He is Thucydidean in viewing decisions about war and politics, politics and war as the crux of the matter. A life defined by politics here rightly gets a political life. All told, it must surely be the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written.

Richard Aldous, the author of “Reagan and Thatcher” and “Schlesinger,” teaches at Bard.Richard Aldous, the author of “Reagan and Thatcher” and “Schlesinger,” teaches at Bard.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Life of Triumph and Disaster. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

<
<

Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development


November 15, 2018

Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development

The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.

“It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.

For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read”‘ Siddhartha’’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’  But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him.

His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young.

“Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”

Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”

Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.

Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”

The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:

Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.

Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”

 

Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.

It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reenactments of this primal struggle.

From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.

Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.

These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.

“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide.

The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)

Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.

Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”

After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.

But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.

The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly.

Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.

Image result for hermann hesse siddhartha quotes

 

The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.

Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:

And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.

Image result for hermann hesse siddhartha

“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.

Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.

By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.

It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”

This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression. This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the November 19, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Art of Failure.”

 

A Life of Nietzsche Turns the Spotlight on an Idol Long Misunderstood


November 6, 2018

https://www.nytimes.com

A Life of Nietzsche Turns the Spotlight on an Idol Long Misunderstood

By Parul Sehgal

By Parul Sehgal

Image result for I Am Dynamite! A Life of Nietzsche By Sue Prideaux

All his life, Friedrich Nietzsche hated being photographed. Execution “by the one-eyed Cyclops,” he called it. In almost every surviving photograph, he looks fugitive and uneasy, “as if his clothes are borrowed,” Sue Prideaux writes in an exemplary new biography, “I Am Dynamite!” “The elbows and knees are not in the right places and the jackets strain at the buttons.”

A man stuffed into the wrong clothes. This is how Nietzsche has come to us through history, for decades notoriously misappropriated by Nazis and nationalists. Under the watch of his sister, Elisabeth, handmaiden to Hitler, this philosopher who deplored German nationalism (“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, that is the end of German philosophy”) and anti-Semitism (“I will have all anti-Semites shot”) was refashioned into an intellectual architect of the Third Reich. The Nazis distributed copies of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to troops in the field.

Fifty years of scholarship has done much to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s reputation and to reveal the extent of Elisabeth’s meddling. She assumed care of him in his final years, when fame had found him but he was long gone to madness. With the tacit approval of Heidegger, she strung together uncollected notes into poisonous little tracts, piecing together a Nietzsche to serve as a Nazi mouthpiece.

His ideas of the Übermensch and will to power were stripped of their provocation and clowning and rendered as crudely authoritarian. The “hard maxims” he proposed to the individual — to be courageous, to seek out the enemy and relish war — were made bluntly literal and adopted by nations, bizarrely, given that the only thing Nietzsche loathed more than war between nations (to him a form of madness) was the idea of the nation itself. He relinquished Prussian citizenship early in his career and remained proudly stateless.In this biography, Nietzsche steps out of the mists of obfuscation and rumor, vividly evoked with his beautiful manners and ridiculous mustache, the blue-lensed glasses to protect his delicate eyes. Prideaux relies on the mapmaker’s method of triangulation, using time not place as the fixed point and drawing her subject into focus by examining the events in his life, his personal writing and his published work. “This falls into the biographical fallacy, I know,” she has said in interviews, “but my justification is a passage from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ where Nietzsche says that every great philosophy is a form of involuntary and unperceived memoir. In other words, all philosophy is, to an extent, autobiography. One illuminates the other.”

What is illuminated here owes as much to Prideaux’s sensibility as her approach. Nietzsche said, “To see something as a whole one must have two eyes, one of love and one of hate.” But to see Nietzsche, it seems helpful to have binocular vision that can accommodate the sublime and the ridiculous. His was a life of prodigious work and self-sacrifice but also profound blundering. Taking a vacation, he could be counted on to lose his spectacles, his luggage and his way. No sooner was he adopted by a mentor (Wagner) than he was dispatched to shop for his custom-made silk underwear — and betrayed later when Wagner suggested, in a letter dictated to one of Nietzsche’s committed enemies, that Nietzsche’s legendarily bad health was caused by compulsive masturbation.

Sue PrideauxCreditDouglas Fry

Freud said that of all men only Nietzsche truly knew himself, and his letters can be wildly funny and full of comic set pieces. Prideaux relishes this side of him. It helps that she is something of a specialist in the lives of histrionic male geniuses of the 19th century. Her previous, prizewinning biographies were of August Strindberg and Edvard Munch (incidentally both of them passionate Nietzscheans; Munch painted “The Scream” after being introduced to Nietzsche’s work by Strindberg).

For all his influence, Nietzsche lived a short and solitary life. There are only so many notes for a biographer to hit: his intense friendships with Wagner and Lou Salome, the intellectual it-girl of her time, muse to Rilke and Freud. What Prideaux contributes is mainly shading and psychological insight — never more than when she takes on his prime antagonist: his body.

Nietzsche’s father died early, from “softening of the brain,” after suffering years of debilitating headaches and periodic muteness. Some kind of neurological disease or disorder most likely afflicted the son as well (Prideaux casts doubt that he suffered from syphilis as is commonly believed). From childhood Nietzsche was subject to excruciating headaches and eye pain. A school doctor predicted total blindness. Cures were humiliating and painful: He was left to lie in darkness for a week at a time, leeches attached to his ears to draw the blood down from his head. Later, on the battlefield of a Prussian war with France, he contracted diphtheria and dysentery. The treatment at the time — silver nitrate, opium and tannic acid enemas — destroyed his intestines. At any moment in his adult life, he suffered from uncontrollable vomiting, hemorrhoids, blinding eye pain and the constant taste of blood in his mouth.

He spent much of his (sane) life wandering between spas in the Alps, desperately seeking cures, toting along 220 pounds of books with him. But Prideaux brilliantly describes how he “turned his affliction into an advantage.” His famous style — those stinging aphorisms — became his way to condense his thoughts during moments of reprieve between attacks of incapacitating headaches and eye pain. “It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what everyone else says in a whole book — what everyone else does not say in a whole book,” he wrote in “Twilight of the Idols.”

It can feel as if Nietzsche’s actual philosophy gets short shrift in the book. In the acknowledgments, Prideaux thanks the philosopher Nigel Warburton for overseeing these sections — efficient if bloodless summations. They don’t convey the allure of his ideas of the Dionysian, his fury at the human tendency toward submission and self-enslavement, his particular appeal to the shipwrecked. Style is Prideaux’s concern. But, of course, it was style that left Nietzsche so vulnerable to distortion. (It still is: The white nationalist Richard Spencer for one has said he was “red-pilled” — awakened — by Nietzsche.) He did not advance a school or system of thought, but a spirit of inquiry. He called himself the “philosopher of perhaps.” He once ended a book with “Or?—”

Nietzsche was fond of Ovid’s idea that Bene vixit qui bene latuit — he lived well who hid well. Taking his example, we might rejoin: “Perhaps.” As this attentive, scrupulous portrait makes clear, there may be even greater pleasures — to say nothing of justice — in being found.

 

I Am Dynamite!
A Life of Nietzsche
By Sue Prideaux
Illustrated. 452 pages. Tim Duggan Books. $30.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: A Misperceived Thinker Steps Out of the Mists. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

 

 

 

New York Times Book Review–Unhappy Conservatives


October 26, 2018

Books of The Times

To hear Max Boot tell it, he feels as forlorn as the despondent, battered elephant on the cover of his new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” Boot minutely describes a disillusionment that wasn’t only “painful and prolonged” but “existential.”

Here he is — a lifelong Republican with sterling neoconservative credentials (an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War and a champion of “American empire”) — explaining why he’s eager for the day when “the G.O.P. as currently constituted is burned to the ground.”

The scorched-earth rhetoric reflects not just a pro-war pedigree but also a profound feeling of betrayal. In the run-up to the November 2016 election, Boot was a vocal Never Trump conservative who couldn’t fathom that a “crudely xenophobic” reality television star would become the standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party, much less president of the United States. Along with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” another new volume by a Republican critic of Trump, Boot’s book attempts to answer a looming question for conservatives unhappy with the current occupant of the White House: What now?

“The Corrosion of Conservatism” does double duty as a mea culpa memoir and a political manifesto, detailing Boot’s “heartbreaking divorce” from the Republican Party after decades of unstinting loyalty. He charts a political trajectory that gave his life social and emotional meaning. As the 6-year-old son of Jewish refuseniks, Boot emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976; at 13, he was inducted by his father into the world of “learned, worldly, elitist” conservatism with a gift subscription to National Review.

Max Boot CreditDon Pollard

Years later, even amid the peer pressure of “Berzerkeley,” the young Republican persisted. He may have been a white man of some means, but he enjoyed seeing himself as a besieged minority.

He “loved making a bonfire” of Berkeley’s “liberal pieties” in his column in the student newspaper and trolling his peers with a “Bush-Quayle ’88” sticker on his dorm-room door. He swiftly clambered up the echelons of the conservative establishment, editing the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal by the time he was 28 and eventually advising the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

Those candidates all lost their bids for the highest office, but it would take Boot a while to get to where he is now — repulsed by the Republican Party’s fealty to President Trump and instructing Americans to “vote against all Republicans.” His surprisingly anguished book is peppered with so many penitential lines (“I am embarrassed and chagrined”) and so much bewildered disappointment in figures like Rubio (“I thought he was a man of principle”) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (“I had viewed him as smart, principled and brave”) that even the most die-hard leftist might be moved to hand Boot a hankie.

Not that he’s a particularly moving stylist; Boot’s clean, starched prose marches forward with all the spontaneity of a military parade (he’s uncommonly fond of words like “pusillanimous” and “japery”). But the stodginess reveals how much soul-searching it must have taken to write this candid, reflective book.

For his entire life, Boot wanted to be a good soldier. Instead he’s now in his late 40s, waking up to the historical brutality of “white identity politics” (“I have had my consciousness raised,” he says) and incredulously wondering: “How could all these eminences that I had worked with, and respected, sell out their professed principles to support a president who could not tell Edmund Burke from Arleigh Burke?”

How indeed? And Arleigh who? The confident name-dropping (of an admiral in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, natch) is quintessential Boot, who describes himself as one of the “sophisticates” of the Republican Party.

There’s something refreshing about an elite conservative owning up to being an elite conservative. The closest that Ben Sasse comes to doing the same in his new book is a cryptic recollection about how, when he and his wife lived in Chicago, they “were fortunate to be able to make ends meet.” (He was working as a management consultant at the time.)

Image result for Ben Sasse book

BenSasse (B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale) spends a great deal of “Them” honing his down-home credentials (Nascar, TGI Fridays). He emphasizes the importance of civil debate, denouncing Fox News and MSNBC, and laments the extreme partisanship that characterizes public life in the Trump era. But “the dysfunction in D.C.,” he says, stems from something “deeper than economics,” and “deeper and more meaningful” than politics. “What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word,” he writes. “Loneliness.”

He shores up his argument by referring to scholars of social isolation like Robert Putnam and Eric Klinenberg — though the socially conscious Klinenberg (with his emphasis on the crucial role of publicly funded institutions) might find it hard to recognize the conclusions Sasse has drawn from his work. Community, Sasse says, is fostered by individual acts of charity and fellow-feeling; government does what it needs to do when it gets out of the way. “Citizens in a republic must cultivate humility,” he writes in a section titled “Civics 101.” It’s “the only way to preserve sufficient space for true community and for meaningful, beautiful human relationships.”

This is standard conservative stuff; a little cloying in the delivery, sure, but not shocking. After all, Sasse — who regularly boasts about having one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate — doesn’t have a responsibility to become a Democrat in the Trump era, much less satisfy Boot’s desire for a politician who can “make centrism sexy.” (I had to laugh before I cringed.) Even Sasse’s ability to sentimentalize “rootedness” in little communities in one breath and welcome the “uberization” of existing industries in the other can be chalked up to an old strain of techno-optimism among business-friendly conservatives.

What’s curious, then, is not so much the careful avoidance of politics — politicians are really good at this — but Sasse’s repeated assertions that political solutions are meaningless. “Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking,” he writes. Public servants like him “simply need to allow the space for communities of different belief and custom to flourish.” It’s a pretty idea, though anyone familiar with how “belief and custom” have long propped up local prejudices (Jim Crow being a glaring example) knows that there’s nothing simple about it.

Image result for Ben Sasse book

As he did in his previous book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” Sasse talks a lot about the importance of “meaningful work,” yet he has chosen to be a United States senator, spending five days a week away from his family back in Nebraska in order to do whatever it is he does in Washington — which is what? Apparently vote with Trump close to 90 percent of the time and help his party try to bulldoze health care legislation and tax cuts through Congress, keeping crucial details secret until the last minute — all the while writing a book that solemnly proclaims the necessity of respectful debate and “engaging ideological opponents.”

“Our occupation links us to other people and gives us an identity and a sense of meaning,” Sasse muses, before waxing lyrical about a bedbug exterminator. For all his paeans to other people’s jobs, you might begin to wonder what the senator makes of his own.

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

The Corrosion of Conservatism
Why I Left the Right
By Max Boot
260 pages. Liveright Publishing. $24.95.

Them
Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal
By Ben Sasse
272 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Dismantle The G.O.P.? Or Just Look Past Politics?

A New Biography Presents Gandhi, Warts and All


October 15, 2018

By Alex von Tunzelmann

GANDHI
The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
By Ramachandra Guha
Illustrated. 1,083 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.

“The number of books that people write on this old man takes my breath away,” complained the politician B. R. Ambedkar of the proliferation of Gandhiana. That was in 1946.

Image result for ramachandra guha

 

Ramachandra Guha  (pic above) must have smiled when he quoted that line in his new book, the second — and final — volume of his biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Few figures in history have been so extensively chronicled, including by himself (Gandhi’s own published collected works run to 100 volumes and over 50,000 pages). The really surprising thing is that there is still so much to say.

“Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948,” encompassing both world wars and the struggle for Indian independence, is a portrait of a complex man whose remarkable tenacity remained constant, even when his beliefs changed. It is also extraordinarily intimate. Gandhi drew no distinction between his private and public life. He made his own body a symbol, mortifying it through fasting or marching for political and spiritual change. He even went public with his sexual life — and the negation of it through brahmacharya, or chastity.

It is difficult to write about a man who was a revered spiritual leader as well as a keen political operator. Guha, the author of “India After Gandhi” and “Gandhi Before India” (the first volume of the monumental biography that this book concludes), approaches Gandhi on his own terms while trying not to gloss over his flaws. Perhaps inevitably, with one who has been regarded almost as a saint, it is the flaws that will capture many readers’ attention. A key theme that emerges is Gandhi’s effort to control himself and those around him. This extended from his own family to his political allies and opponents.

 

The most compelling political relationship Guha reveals is the antagonism between Gandhi and the aforementioned B. R. Ambedkar, the pre-eminent politician of outcaste Hindus then known as “untouchables” and now as dalits. Guha’s book charts the two men’s interactions over decades, along with Gandhi’s own changing views on caste.

Even while he still saw some value in the caste system, Gandhi opposed untouchability. Guha is at pains to refute Arundhati Roy’s dismissal of Gandhi as a reactionary on caste. He details Gandhi’s exhaustive campaigns to allow untouchables into temples, and his many attempts to persuade other Hindus of his caste to accept them. Certainly, Gandhi did much brave and important work. Yet he still characterized untouchables as “helpless men and women” who required a savior — namely, him. As Guha says, Gandhi’s rhetoric “sounded patronizing, robbing ‘untouchables’ of agency, of being able to articulate their own demands and grievances.”

Image result for politician B. R. Ambedkar

Gandhi fought Ambedkar over establishing separate electorates for untouchables, arguing that these would “vivisect” Hinduism. “I want political power for my community,” Ambedkar explained. “That is indispensable for our survival.” Gandhi’s reply, as quoted by Guha, was that “you are born an untouchable but I am an untouchable by adoption. And as a new convert I feel more for the welfare of the community than those who are already there.” Gandhi cared passionately about untouchability: He repeatedly emphasized his willingness to die if that was what it took to end it. What he could not seem to do was let untouchables themselves take the lead.

Image

Some of the most interesting parts of this book concern another group Gandhi sought to instruct: women. Two sections in particular are likely to raise eyebrows. The first is Guha’s account of Gandhi’s relationship with the writer and singer Saraladevi Chaudhurani in 1919-20. Gandhi was, by then, celibate; both he and Sarala were married to other people. Yet their letters speak openly of desire — “You still continue to haunt me even in my sleep,” he wrote to her — and he told friends, “I call her my spiritual wife.” He signed his letters to her Law Giver, which, as Guha observes, was “a self-regarding appellation that reveals his desire to have Sarala conform to his ways.” Gandhi’s friends appear to have talked him out of making this “spiritual marriage” public. Eventually he distanced himself, confessing that he did not have the “infinitely higher purity” in practice “that I possess in thought” to maintain a “marriage” that was perfectly spiritual.

The secon section that will provoke controversy tackles an even more sensitive subject: Gandhi’s notorious brahmacharya experiments, beginning in 1946. When Gandhi was involved with Sarala, he was 50 and she was 47, a mature woman exercising her own free will. Nearly three decades later, when he was 77, he made the decision to “test” his vow of chastity by sleeping in a bed with his teenage grandniece, Manu Gandhi.

Manu was vulnerable. She had lost her mother at a young age and had been taken in by Gandhi and his wife (who was deceased by the time the “experiments” started). Manu grew up in an ashram in which everyone was devoted to her great-uncle. She wrote a diary mentioning the “experiments” that Guha quotes, though it is a compromised source: Gandhi read it as Manu wrote it and his own writing appears in the margins.

Guha has found a letter written by Horace Alexander, a close friend of Gandhi’s. Alexander said that Gandhi told him Manu wanted to test her own vow of chastity. Guha suggests that this puts a new light on the “experiments,” and that Manu may have become involved partly to deter another man who was pursuing her romantically: “There may have been, as it were, two sides to the story. Both Gandhi and Manu may have wanted to go through this experiment, or ordeal. To be sure, there was a certain amount of imposition — from his side.”

That caveat is important, for, as Guha allows, there was an enormous power differential between Gandhi and Manu. It is not clear that the letter from Alexander changes how we view the “experiments”: He spoke only to Gandhi, not Manu. In the wake of #MeToo, we know that the powerful may delude themselves about the willingness of those they manipulate, and that their less powerful victims may go along with things they do not want because they are overwhelmed by the status of their abuser.

Lest anyone think this applies modern standards to a historical event, Guha provides extensive evidence of the horrified reaction of many of Gandhi’s friends and followers at the time. Most were appalled that a young woman should be used as an instrument in an “experiment,” and some of his political allies, like Vallabhbhai Patel, feared it would become a scandal. At least one, the stenographer R. P. Parasuram, left Gandhi’s entourage when Gandhi refused to stop sharing a bed with Manu.

Guha does as much as any reasonable biographer could to explain the “experiments” with reference to Gandhi’s 40-year obsession with celibacy. Ultimately, though, the reader is left feeling that Gandhi’s own defenses of his behavior are riddled with self-justification, and Manu’s voice may never truly be heard.

Gandhi posed a huge challenge to his world in his time, and still does. Guha’s admiration for his subject is clear throughout this book. He tries to explain controversial aspects of Gandhi’s life by contextualizing them within Gandhi’s own thinking. Some of Gandhi’s fiercer critics may feel this is soft-pedaling, but it does help build a fair, thorough and nuanced portrait of the man. Gandhi spoke for himself more than most people in history, but even the most controlling people cannot control how history sees them. Guha lets Gandhi appear on his own terms, and allows him to reveal himself in all his contradictions.

There is much truth in a verse Guha quotes, written by Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai:

To live with the saints in heaven
Is a bliss and a glory
But to live with a saint on earth
Is a different story.

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of “Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Gandhi, Private and Public. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe