The main problem of the twentieth century

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that great documenter of the twentieth century’s “other Holocaust” in Soviet Russia, was born the year after the Bolshevik Revolution, in December 1918. Somehow he lived to the ripe old age of ninety, despite enduring the travails that he described with such vim in his three volumes of the The Gulag Archipelago. Having just finished wading through an abridged version, I can’t really say that its easy going, even in this shorter format. Of course, one can hardly blame Solzhenitsyn for that; as he admits in the afterword, at no stage did the whole work ever lie on the same editing desk or in the same place at the same time – it really is a “true mark of our [Russian] persecuted literature”, as he describes it.

Mixed in with all the horrors and the anecdotes, there are little bursts of broader insight that bear some musing. Take this cut, for example (p.385):

This is surely the main problem of the twentieth century; is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping? Can a man do without ideas of his own about good and evil, and merely derive them from the printed instructions and verbal orders of his superiors? Oaths! These solemn pledges pronounced with a tremor in the voice and intended to defend the people against evildoers: see how easily they can be misdirected to the service of evildoers and against the people!

There’s certainly something to that observation. Which leads us to an obvious question along the same lines: what will the “main problem” of the twenty-first century be?

It’s early days at this stage, but in the developed world at least, it seems to me as though the triumph of egocentrism (“me-ism”) and the implied supremacy of the individual as actor in the global political economy will pose some serious questions of our civilisation. The wealthy individual today is powerful – in several senses more powerful than governments; in the developed world, even the moderately wealthy individual today is relatively comfortable. Information is more freely available to individuals everywhere than ever before, and yet in some respects, it has a greater level of paucity than it did prior to the Internet, when serious newspapers were king. Our greater access to information means we tend to take less time to digest individual pieces of information, meaning there is less reason for information producers to publish information of any significant intellectual depth. This trend has also of course spread to the communication technology space, through technologies like SMS and Twitter. It seems likely that the great philosophical dialogues of the future will be a rapid-fire succession of brainfarts. Erm… LOL?

More broadly, today’s implied equivalences between wealth and achievement and hedonism and success leave something to be desired of human society, I would have thought. Particularly if some peculiarly global problems (e.g. climate change, the ethics of inequality) prove to dominate the political discourse of this century. In embracing the power of “me”, I really hope we don’t all forget that people can do some fairly amazing things when they work together.

On writing

I am sure that some feel that it is an exaggeration to suggest that blogging is a form of writing (in the prissiest, writing is something you do when writing a book sort of way). Nevertheless, I’m fairly certain that just about anybody that blogs or indeed has tried their hand at writing anything at all will gain some form of solace from this recent article in the Guardian.

Not writing for a living provides me with lots of wonderful procrastination excuses that I would never have as a full-time writer. On the other hand, perhaps the difference between having all day and a few key hours at my disposal is not realistically so great. While I was unemployed for several months last year I certainly found that the apparent glut of free time at my fingertips did not magically and immediately translate into a welter of productive writing. When it comes to procrastination, it would seem that the human mind (or at least mine!) is remarkably adaptable in always managing to find a way.

Of the nine writers who offer up their opinions on writing, I find Hari Kunzru’s contribution to be the most similar to how I feel about writing in general:

I get great pleasure from writing, but not always, or even usually. Writing a novel is largely an exercise in psychological discipline – trying to balance your project on your chin while negotiating a minefield of depression and freak-out. Beginning is daunting; being in the middle makes you feel like Sisyphus; ending sometimes comes with the disappointment that this finite collection of words is all that remains of your infinitely rich idea. Along the way, there are the pitfalls of self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you’ve nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting. But when you’re in the zone, spinning words like plates, there’s a deep sense of satisfaction and, yes, enjoyment…

I’d be interested to hear on what other bloggers might think on this topic, and which writer’s contribution they most identify with.

The Costello Memoirs

Some lessons learned after buying and taking the time to digest this book:

1) There are arguably literary reasons why few on the Liberal side of politics have had accounts of their time in the party published.

2) Never engage your stepfather to “ghost-write” your memoirs.

Although The Latham Diaries was a spiteful and often ill-considered piece of work in the context of the Labor Party, it was also very well written and a pleasure to read. The Costello Memoirs, I’m sorry to say, was not really a pleasure to read. I am not sure what Peter Costello was aiming to shed light on by publishing this book, but the tome that has emerged from the writing process is a banal and slightly confused historical summary of his experiences in the Howard Government. If you know a bit about politics and have followed the ebbs and flows of the Liberal Party’s political fortunes federally over the last decade, you may find that reading this book does little more than jog your memory.

Moreover, should you decide to read The Costello Memoirs, you may even find that it befuddles your memory rather than jogs it; its structure in some respects defies chronology. The book often takes on something of a rambling style, almost as if events are described in the book as they came to the minds of the authors, rather than where they reside in the chronological context of the story. This book seems made for episodic excerpting in the glossy magazines of the nation’s Sunday newspapers; as a singular tome, however, it comes across as shallow and choppy.

The opening chapter takes the reader to the night before last year’s federal election, setting the scene for the removal of the Howard Government from office. The next couple of chapters seek to describe Costello’s life growing up and his ascent (descent?) into the ranks of the Liberal Party and then onward to parliament. Chapter Three (focusing on the “Dollar Sweets” case) is a minor masterpiece of character assassination with respect to the union movement, somehow managing to completely ignore the good things that unions have done in this country whilst perpetuating all the Peter Reith-inspired stereotypes. The remaining majority of the book is purportedly focused on the Howard Government’s four terms in office, but chronologically speaking it is all over the shop. “Chronological” chapters are interspersed with “issues-based” (e.g. the Asian Financial Crisis and “leadership”) chapters throughout the book, with the result that, for example, Costello rambles on about Andrew Peacock’s up and downs in the Liberal Party in the 1980’s after describing the Howard Government’s third-term in office. Continuing in this ramshackle vein, the last chapter in the book takes a look at some of the “unfinished business” that the Howard Government left behind, and it is only in this chapter that Costello delves in detail into the republican debate and referendum of 1999.

In buying this book, I guess I was hoping for a few things. Specifically, I was hoping to learn a bit more about Peter Costello the man, how he really thinks about politics, and his candid views on the trials and tribulations of the Howard Government. Perhaps it is a function of the fact that Costello is still in parliament and all it is all too soon for this book, or he is just too much of a “gentleman”, but I am not sure that we are reading the real Peter Costello in The Costello Memoirs. It still feels as though we are reading an uber-polite, straitjacketed version of what the former Treasurer really wants to say about the Howard years, cloaked in cobwebbed triumphalism. It does make me wonder whether some part of Costello is still undecided about his future, and quietly hopeful that his colleagues will carry him on their shoulders to the front lines of battle again, as Opposition Leader.

If past experience is any guide of course, he will need to be carried on the shoulders of his colleagues into the fray; he certainly won’t be leading the charge.