The Dragon

It’s extraordinary how much a city can change in a short period of time. Take Dublin. In 2013 when I last lived here full time, Dublin was a vibrant city in the midst of change, just pulling out of the last vestiges of a huge economic slump. There was a sense of hope, of expectation, of burgeoning change. People were angry and yet hopeful. Now the economy has taken off and a type of lonely impersonal self-absorption has set in.

The city is bustling with busyness and smartphones and businesses and commuters. I see traffic and armed police officers, huge shopping queues, coffee shops with laptop wielding nerds and professional couples, people with baby strollers decompressing during lunchtime, solitary folk texting during break-time, stone faced professionals performing at breakfast meetings wielding busy clipboards and watching their tone and body language, restaurants filled brimful on weekday evenings when they should be half empty, and hordes of daily commuters trudging to work in obligatory reflective gear while I walk my dog at seven AM.

I am stuck in Dublin. But only for a short time. I am trapped in the city while I await the sale of my house to go through. It’s a frustrating depressing time. I have no job. I am recently unemployed having worked in a school in Karpacz, Southern Silesia in Poland. I loved my job. I loved teaching, and Poland was beautiful, if not a country grimly drifting so far rightward to becoming autocratic and living in a forbidding past. Some reports since my own departing seem to validate my choice to get out. Friends who live there right now are planning their departure in the forseeable future. However I had to come back to see through my house sale. Most of all, I had to come back because Ireland is my home, and I love Ireland.

The house I live in is empty. And, as I said, I have nothing to do. Moreover, its Christmas – ugh. And I just don’t do Christmas. From my early teens Christmas has always been a meaningless time for me. So as I pen this, I am aware how my own emotional filters colour these impressions and word pictures. Yet despite this caveat, the things I pen here have that gut feeling of a deep truth.

Its morning. I am still in Fairview Park. It’s dark and frosty and a huge half-moon hangs in the morning sky.  Workers whizz past along bicycle tracks in generic helmets and reflective gear and it all seems so correct and legal and safe and, well, boring. I just couldn’t do it. Not now…

Truly I say to myself (as my dog drags me round the park chasing pigeons), the life of a writer is incomprehensible to someone who does not write, who has never experienced its thrill, its seduction, its consciousness altering potential, the sheer rush of producing something good (though as Bob Dylan says you have to write ten bad songs to write one good one).

Once one enters into the dragon’s cave of being a writer, once one discovers the gold the Dragon sleeps under, nothing else in life is as beautiful or as enthralling. One has to befriend this Dragon. Not tame it, but befriend it. Accept its awesome power and beauty, and never be tempted by the gold.

There’s a lot of gold in the city now. Maybe its a different gold to the one that I am tempted by. And people are chasing it. I wonder if they know there is  usually a Dragon guarding it down there. Dragons take no prisoners. They look busy, these people. Focused. They are travelling as though they have a purpose. They are clean. Rested. Drinking coffee from one of those cappuccino stands that dot thoroughfares. The sun is coming up. Others have swung out on their bikes onto the main roads. Traffic is obscenely busy into the city centre. These people have got about twenty minutes to be at their computers. Or desks. Or meetings. Clients are waiting. I am going home. Have to make a sandwich. Or something. I haven’t decided yet. Yes, I guess I am hungry. Definitely a sandwich.

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Dont Believe The Hype

You and I are being lied to. There is no war on terror. There is a war. But it is not a war against terrorists or terror. Its a war for territory. For land. And Oil. For power. People with power want more power, and they will do what is necessary to pursue their goals. There have been terrible attacks. Paris. London. Madrid. New York. But you don’t hear about the terrible attacks on the other side of our planet. Its a difficult thing to admit, but if you keep bombing people from miles above using robot planes, or invading them, there are going to be terrible events. If you keep giving them weapons while calling them terrorists, then there are going to be attacks. It is as inevitable as sunrise. And when there are terrible, horrible unconscionable attacks against civilians, there is then the justification needed to spend billions escalating that war for territory and oil, more robots killing from miles above, more unlimited surveillance, more masked military patrolling the streets with weapons, more restrictions on movement. So don’t believe the hype. Lets survive. Just keep calm and carry on. These people will eventually be voted out of power. Lets hope the new bosses aren’t as bad as the old bosses.

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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH ( I Mean Really )

EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE HEARD OF ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON

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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.

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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.