Musings from the Bunker 4/14/20
Good morning everyone!
There has been no end to the musings on the internet about what our pets must be thinking now that their people are always at home. A favorite is how dogs are so exhausted by all the walks that people take when bored and grab the leash for a walk. And then there are those who think that what goes on in a dog’s head is deeper than we think…
IT HAS BEEN WORSE
As tough as these times are, they could always be tougher. The Great Depression, WWII, the camps, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, Bosnia, Serbia, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, large swathes of human history. And for those at risk—both physically and financially—these are tougher times than we are experiencing. We may have it bad—but not that bad. The seminal work of Viktor Frankl contemplates struggle in times worse than these:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
While we remember calamities of the past and contemplate the challenges of the present, authors have considered dystopian worlds of the future. Just as the past allows us to reflect on the present, futures imagined offer us prognostications from the present.
BOOKS OF A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE
Bob Sessa recommended 1984 as a favorite book. I agree. The genre of dystopia is rich with great imaginings, many of which make the current crisis seem like child’s play. I hope you will consider cracking a few of these open and learn about these imagined worlds. Here’s the first of two groups of suggestions:
Nineteen Eighty-Four. Government control, the party, newspeak, Big Brother. It’s all here. From a 2017 New York Times review, worth quoting at length: “In ‘1984,’ Orwell created a harrowing picture of a dystopia named Oceania, where the government insists on defining its own reality and where propaganda permeates the lives of people too distracted by rubbishy tabloids (“containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology”) and sex-filled movies to care much about politics or history. News articles and books are rewritten by the Ministry of Truth and facts and dates grow blurry — the past is described as a benighted time that has given way to the Party’s efforts to make Oceania great again (never mind the evidence to the contrary, like grim living conditions and shortages of decent food and clothing).”
Handmaid’s Tale. This story of Gilead, by Margaret Atwood, has become a classic. From Goodreads:Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. The first season of the TV show follows the plot of the book. The subsequent series do not meet the brilliance, novelty, and imagination of Ms. Atwood.
Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. Not nearly as famous as the others, but the book I read in high school that got me worried about thermonuclear war. It’s considered in the top 100 science fiction novels; think along the lines of Seven Days in May or Fail Safe.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. I reread this book, named for the temperature at which paper burns, after visiting the square near Humboldt University, where books were burned during the rise of the Nazis. What a book—the “firemen” burn the books. It’s about books but so much more—the triumph of technology and banality.
Station Eleven. This is a recent work, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Here’s a summary from BuzzFeed: “Twenty years after a mysterious flu wiped out nearly the entirety of the human population, sects of survivors are rebuilding some kind of civilization in various settlements. One of those survivors travels among the settlements as part of a group called the Traveling Symphony, who have committed themselves to preserving and presenting the arts. But when they land in a community led by a dangerous prophet, they find their lives at risk.”
KEEPING WITH THE THEME OF BOOK BURNING… BEBELPLATZ
Speaking of Fahrenheit 451… Bebelplatz, in Berlin, was the site in 1933 of one of the largest book burnings in history. To think it sits in front of Humboldt University, an institution devoted to learning, is particularly unsettling. There is a stunning memorial there, consisting of empty underground bookshelves below the square, visible from the plaza above. And there is this quotation from Heinrich Heine, one of the greatest German poets (ironically, a Jew):
“That was but a prelude;
where they burn books,
they will ultimately burn people as well.”
--Heinrich Heine, 1820
THE NAME BEHIND HUMBOLDT UNIVERSITY
After the war, the former Friedrich Wilhelm University was named for the Humboldt brothers, Friedrich and Alexander. Alexander was a famous naturalist. There is a great book called The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. It was designated one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Peter Weil gave this to me as a gift—it is a great read about a guy who was a cross of South American explorer and a “German John Muir.” Trigger warning for non-believers—he predicted human-induced climate change.
PREVIOUS MUSINGS FROM THE BUNKER
In case you want to see the past issues, they’re here: https://glennsonnenbergblog.wixsite.com/mysite