ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON  (1904-1978) was a Harvard Professor of Economics from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s. He was known particularly as a historian of economics and among other things postulated the ‘Backwardness Theory’. His paper Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (1962) was and is to the best of my knowledge, unsurpassed in its clarity of argument and groundbreaking perspective. The essay, which is grand tour of European History, Culture, and Economics (among other things), postulated that the more backward an economy the more it will pass through certain marked stages of development, in other words that there would be a heavy reliance of banks and state funding and that general consumption in such an economy would be restricted because of the necessity to invest in capital projects.

Gershenkron was a man of letters. His writings and essays were lauded as masterpieces of erudition and powerfully concise writing, and his lectures were simply legendary in terms of scope, breadth of learning and entertainment value. He actually rewrote them from scratch year ofter year as his knowledge increased and sheer memory for detail and statistics required revisiting the substance and essence of what he had been teaching (primarily economic history)

I started reading about Gershenkron, when I came across Nicholas Davidoff’s memoir of his Grandfather (who was Gershenkron)  – called THE FLY SWATTER which is beautifully written, and though a memoir of a beloved family member and someone who profoundly influenced him, does not stint to give a complete picture of  a complex and profoundly fascinating character.


An emigre from the Russian Communist and the Nazi regimes, and truly world class intellect who, because of history was deprived of an early academic fulfillment, he found a home for himself in the US, strongly identified as an American, and with his family made a life for himself as a Harvard man.

Gershenkron, known as ‘Shura’ to his family, was a polyglot’s polyglot. He spoke 20 languages, read hundreds upon hundreds of books a year (he had for instance devoured Charles Dickens in five different languages)  and filled his days and for that matter nights with the pursuit of knowledge. His light was invariably on, and when he did sleep, he rose extremely early to resume his work. In THE FLY SWATTER, Davidoff talks about Shura’s attempts (p.193) with Erica his wife, to find about 100 different translations of Hamlets quatrain to Ophelia ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’.

Everything fascinated him. He was an intellectual butterfly, flitting from one subject to another as he devoured facts, figures, novels, poems, and articles. So wide ranging was his knowledge that he was offered chairs in three different departments at Harvard, something that probably caused a bit of a shock in the departments concerned despite the fact he turned the job offers down. This is because Gershenkron was a difficult person. He was an intimidating, overwhelming, exacting uncompromising personality. He was capable of using his abilities to dismantle an argument or a thesis from the root and leave his debating partner flattened, the ground taken from under them. And this he did – a lot. To put it mildly he did not suffer fools – at all.

For Shura (Gershenkron) the pursuit of academic and intellectual truth was the ultimate ideal and nothing came in the way of that. Those who were shoddy with their facts or bad with their statistics or did not work as hard as they should received from him a verbal spanking they would never forget.

But this pursuit was flawed. Shura was excessively competitive. He had to know more. He had to have read more than you, be more accurate, more dedicated. His work was peppered with obscure quotes in obscure languages because no one would have that range of knowledge at their fingertips. And he knew that.

The double experience of exile, from Russia, then Austria, and particularly the loss of his exceptionally brilliant little brother, had damaged him – perhaps more than he or others even realized. He became excessively defensive and insecure, a kind of prisoner of his own need for exactitude but his capacity for competitiveness actually inhibited his development. His books were collections of essays. This was  a form he preferred to a full length work for a few reasons. Shura feared death because of his bad heart – in fact he had been told by his doctor once he had only a year or two to live. Nevertheless its also true that lots of thinkers and writers have worked on large tomes despite death beckoning. Anthony Burgess wrote three novels the year after being told he had an inoperable brain tumor. Looking at the essay form it is easy to see it is more controllable. It has a definite end in sight and holds none of the pitfalls of a lengthy work’s capacities for bad avenues of argument and wrong conclusions and pedestrian styles of prose hidden inside lengthy chapters. This would be something unthinkable for Alex Gershenkron, the consummate defensive perfectionist.

Instead of the big books he produced brilliant essays replete with facts figures and obscure quotes and references sometimes in a dozen languages.

Gershenkron never produced the ‘great work’, the summation of his career. This big book was something friends, colleagues, and rivals were always looking for. He was one of those few minds well capable of producing groundbreaking ideas, a Marx, a Keynes, producing world shifting theses. But no one outside rarefied academic circles ever heard of him. Underneath that towering ego, that ruthless frankness, those cutting critiques, that devastating capacity for thought and recollection of facts, figures, and whole tomes, was an enormous intellectual timidity.

It is a truism that the more one knows the more one longs to really know. Or to put it another more conventional way, the more one knows the more one knows one does not know. In other words as knowledge accrues, there is an increasing consciousness of all the gaps in what one knows, all the suppositions that fill the holes where truth and certainty lies. Truth, if it can be defined, if it exists, is an infinity multiplied by an infinity. We are constantly operating on the edge of the unknown, trying with our little knowledge and our enormous capacity for error. all our knowledge is marked by a great horizon of finitude. Its marked by the edge of our lives and the fact that we will never really know everything, and we are going to die.

Gershenkron, through the many losses, disappointments and bereavements he suffered knew all too much about human finitude. This led him to a kind of writers block from which he never escaped. It was almost like the novelist who never finishes his or her novel. He was the thinker who never knew enough to start or even finish his great book.

A kind of humility is needed to really work at creating something new, whether in the field of economics or history or poetry or physics. Uncertainty and ignorance and groping in the twilight between ignorance and knowledge one tries to work and make something anew from what we know, and more to the point, what we know we don’t know.

The implication from this is a kind of negative judgement on what Gershenkron achieved in his life. Not at all. He was known as ‘The Great Gershenkron’ for a reason. Revered, feared, and honored, he was as I said, the polyglot’s polyglot. Everybody learned from him. And everybody should have known his name.


(American Beauty, 1999)

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“My job consists of basically masking my contempt
for the assholes in charge , and, at least once a day,
retiring to the men’s room so I can jerk off while I
fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble Hell.”

Alan Ball, creator of the Six Feet Under TV Series which I frankly thought always too dark, loveless and unbalanced a drama/comedy to ever stand the test of time (may I be proven wrong by such an opinion) also came up with the utterly mesmerising American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes and written by , yes, Alan Ball – an idea that had been gestating inside him for eight to ten years prior. The idea for the play (it was originally written as a stage play, then shelved as Ball realized there was no way it would work, coming out of his offices one day during the Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco scandal, where one evening afer work he bought a comic where each of the characters (Fisher and Buttafuoco) were both drawn and depicted as respectable moral citizens and as bad guys. Ball read the comic and thought to himself that the truth about the scandal lay somewhere in between, that neither character were fully innocent or guilty, that innocence or guilt, was, in a sense perhaps the wrong way to look at such an event or sequence of events. So he started writing the script that eventually became American Beauty.

Lester Burnham is 42 years old. In less than a year, he will be dead. The thing that tickled me most about the movie was the method employed in telling the story. I loved the cleverness of approaching the entire story from the perspective of a dead person – Burnham speaks from Elysium. He starts telling the story from the perspective of the afterlife, telling the spectators of the move, the audience, that he knows he is looking at himself from the hereafter, and that this movie is a vision of another life, a life that Lester tells the audience is a kind of death in itself. He is comfortable, in a beautiful house in a beautiful area with a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter and this is the ideal, the vision of beauty, is as near as one gets to the supposed perfection of the American aesthetic. This supposedly is beauty, yet Lester is dead, or might as well be dead. Nothing is happening. He drifts from morning to evening, masturbating in the shower, not making love to his wife who endlessly disrespects and talks down to him, day after day drifting further away from his daughter, writing pointless advertising copy for a magazine for fifteen years, a job he deeply hates yet is trapped into because of his lifestyle. This loveless meaningless existence ends when he literally burns down his entire life the moment he sees this girl dancing before a football game. She is literally the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. The picture of erotic beauty and an icon for the youthful erotic desire, the life force he has lost in his middle aged living death he spoke about at the beginning of the movie. Burnham goes nuts. He starts smoking really good pot, working out, walks out of his job, falls insanely in love with a teenager and takes a job in a fast food restaurant.

This seeming quantum shift at a time in Lester’s life when half of his life is already over, when he is very married, when he realizes death is coming. In fact the horizon of his realization is that death, its proximity, the absolute closure that death brings. It is this that enables Lester Burnham to see through the shallow existence that has over a lifetime turned into empty time, meal after meal where no communication occurs, occasions of family intimacy that are without meaning, time after time where no love is exchanged, day after day in the office where no real meaningful creative work is done and money is the only goal of every days labour, not that money or its pursuit is in itself anything worth objecting over. Lester’s passion for Angela, a rather vacuous child, is his passion for a connection, for colour, for life. Its only when he gives up what was a pointless life that he finds peace, a peace on sees at the moment of his death. Except by all appearances what he did was insane behaviour. Was he right? Did he do the right thing? Certainly if he had any friends who cared about him (he seems to have not a lot of friends), they would be deeply distressed that Lester, whom they had known for so long and who seemed such a decent chap, has suddenly become victim to his intense fantasy life, the cliché middle aged existential crisis. Perhaps he is having some kind of breakdown, manic episode. It is so easy to pathologize non conformity. Clearly there is something wrong with Lester Burnham. But the fact that he is behaving in the way he is does not, in accordance with the story of the movie, directly imply that the cause of his pain is within him. It is caused by the world. The world is making him crazy. It is killing his soul. It is draining his life force, his manhood, cutting him off from his nature. This is a satire on the nature of love and meaning in the world of 1990’s US middle class existence: material, atomised, devoid of significance.

Is there a conclusion to this story? American Beauty leaves us – like all great stories beautifully told – in the circular world of the story. All the magic moments of funny, witty, tragic interplay are circling round in our heads afterwards. There are no neat answers and there are no clear questions. He is just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose. Aren’t we all? And don’t we all live for those transcendental moments of beauty and truth? Aren’t we all dead without them?