Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Robert Kaplan at Harvard Bookstore

Robert D. Kaplan spoke about his new book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and The Future of American Power at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA Monday night, October 25. A focus on the Indian Ocean, he informed, allowed him to escape the confines of the old Cold War world dichotomy, the paradigm that aggregated the world on the basis of two competing ideologies, and write instead from a perspective that views the world as an "organic continuum." In his analysis, the Indian Ocean promises to be the crucial sphere of competition between two emerging economic and military powers, India and China.

The US role in this region, he asserted, will be to establish cooperative ties to the region's existing stable democracies (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea). In addition, Kaplan suggested that perhaps the most important ally in Southeast Asia will prove to be Vietnam. In fact, Kaplan predicted that in the near future the US will begin selling nuclear technology to Vietnam. Such a relationship might well resemble the nuclear partnership with India negotiated by the second Bush Administration.

He talked for about 20 minutes and used only a single note card which he barely referenced. Following his remarks, he answered questions for about 40 minutes, each question addressed with precise, informed, unhesitant replies.

Notes From the Talk

"Cold War area studies" no longer relevant.

Burma - vast mineral resources, water riches. A country coveted by both India and China.

The decades long Sri Lankan civil war that pitted the governing Sinhalese against the minority Tamils was essentially won for the Sinhalese by Chinese who came to their rescue with military and economic aid. In return? The Chinese are building a deep water port off Sri Lanka's coast.

Indeed, China is building deep water ports in several countries around the Indian Ocean basin, their longterm strategy being to establish important economic "zones of influence."

Islam is actually a considerable sea-faring civilization. The Indian Ocean edges numerous Islamic countries including the country with the highest Islamic population in the world, Indonesia. Sinbad the Sailor - an Omani. "Cosmopolitan seafaring"

Monsoon - not actually a storm, but a wind and weather system. For six months the winds blow in one direction and then they reverse and blow six months in the other direction. This dependable weather system facilitated vast seafaring contact between points as distant as East Africa and China. Long before Portugal's Vasco da Gama ventured around the Cape of Good Hope, vast networks of ocean trade already flourished throughout the Indian Ocean.

Kaplan: over time, China will peacefully incorporate Taiwan into China.

Of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - they have served to "fast forward" the rise in importance and power of China and India.

See Blake Hounshell's review of Kaplan's Monsoon in Foreign Policy.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Paris Review, New Editor, Interviews on line

The New York Times reports that the Paris Review, now under the editorship of Lorin Stein, has made all their  writers interviews available online. A fantastic resource.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The "Mad Heads" of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

It's always a good thing when, out of the blue, you become aware of an artist for the first time, and it's especially fun when the artist is some striking, truly original, bizarre character with a wild biography. Such is the case for me with Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), a sculptor of "mad heads," an article about whom appears in the October 28, 2010 edition of the New York Review of Books and which I read with considerable interest.

The Yawner
Willibald Sauerlander, in the NYR article, notes of Messerschmidt that "There was always something unsettled about his biography, the life of an outsider." Apparently a talented sculptor, at some point his career veered off the path of acceptability and commercial success and he began to sculpt "head pieces" or, as th. schmid, a researcher with a quirky website devoted to the artist, calls them, "mad heads." Made of stone, pewter or lead, the heads are extraordinarily expressive busts, at once both comical and disturbing.

The NYR blog has a slide show of 10 of the heads.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dennis McNally: Jack Kerouac and the American Bohemian Tradition

Dennis McNally gave a talk "Jack Kerouac and the American Bohemian Tradition" to a capacity gathering in the theater of the Lowell Visitor Center on Market St. This was the 25th anniversary of the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festivities.

Notes Sitting Listening

as an historian, McNally tries to "put phenomena in context"

~ artists as "antennas of of the human race"

~ in the 1950s "Communism" was just a code word for the modern world in general; in the 1950s there was "an overwhelming pressure to conform."

THE ALTERNATE VOICE - everyone that didn't fit into mainstream conceptions of normal American life.


  • anti-materialism
  • religious skepticism
  • individual value over the corporation/state
  • sexual freedom & sensuality
  • American Bohemian Tradition consistently demonstrates an attachment to African-American cultural breakthroughs (jazz in particular)

Bohemian life  = a "life protest" to counter the "soulless, flat corporate world."

(In the Q&A after the talk someone asked if there is a Bohemian culture today and McNally hesitated, shook his head, and basically said "it's hard to be a Bohemian in today's world.")

First mention of Buddhism in America? Thoreau in 1844 in the Transcendentalist magazine "The Dial," the translation of a Buddhist text at the request of Emerson. Kerouac very much into Thoreau.

Kerouac's great gift? His "naive defenselessness." Meaning, the beautiful wonder with which he saw the world. He investigated the soul and the idea of endless eternity, "the void," instead of distracting himself with the usual politics business stock market book review Literary Canon orthodoxy. He was already living in eternity while the culture around him grew sillier and more irrelevant.

Jack Kerouac's Grave, Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Ma
October 2, 2010