May 31, 2004

Good news! My Brazil project is back on track! We’re hoping to finish translating my book of aphorisms in the summer, then try to find a publisher in Brazil. Since the translator has relationships with Brazilian publishers, we’re optimistic about finding a Brazilian publisher who will publish my book. My book of aphorisms was called Decadence and Renaissance until a friend, who was a marketing expert, suggested changing the title; we decided to call it Conversations With Great Thinkers: The Classics For People Too Busy To Read Them. Now we’re going to go back to Decadence and Renaissance. I suppose it needs a subtitle, but I haven’t thought of one yet.

I continue to revise my book, chapter by chapter. In this issue of Phlit, I’d like to show you the latest version of “Ethics.”

1. Ethics

[The rest of this section is now Chapter 2 of my book Conversations With Great Thinkers.]

2. By the Way

A. I recently saw an American movie called “A River Runs Through It.” It’s about two brothers growing up in Montana in the early 1900s. They learn fly-fishing from their father, a minister; much of the movie deals with fly-fishing. One might say that the star of the movie is Nature — the rivers and mountains of unspoiled Montana; in this respect, it reminded me of “Postmen in the Mountains” (the Chinese movie that I mentioned in a recent issue of Phlit), though it isn’t quite as good as “Postmen in the Mountains.” It seems that the Chinese are writing better stories, and making better movies, than Americans now are.

Like many American movies, “A River” is hyper-emotional, as if the director pressed the “Slow Motion” button whenever the scene contained some emotion; this is a vice of which Chinese movies are usually free. (I was once watching a sugary American movie with my 6-year-old daughter. The man gave the woman a long look, the woman gave the neighbor a long look, the neighbor gave the child a long look. Finally my daughter shouted, “C’mon, talk! Say something!”) Perhaps this hyper-emotional quality is due to arrogance, vanity, Hollywood’s infatuation with itself.

“A River Runs Through It” exemplifies two psychological laws:

  1. a minister’s son often becomes a hell-raiser, a law-breaker; as Jung would say, the minister represses his shadow, and his son lives the life that his father left unlived;
  2. the elder child is usually more self-disciplined than the younger child; the elder child is highly valued by his parents, and comes to see himself as valuable, hence he’s unlikely to “throw away his life” with wild behavior.1

I like the conclusion of the movie: the protagonist, now an old man, reflects on his life, and says, “in the end, everything merges into one, and a river runs through it.” The movie shows us natural beauty, and it also shows us a deep feeling for natural beauty. The movie is based on a memoir by an obscure writer, Norman Maclean; it seems to gain additional power by being a true story.

B. I also saw an Irish movie, “The Boxer.” It’s the story of a Catholic boxer in Northern Ireland who is released from prison after 14 years, and then tries to resume his old boxing career and his old romance. Emotions aren’t puffed up, drawn out, Slow Motion — as they are in many American movies. “The Boxer” deserves praise for giving the viewer an insight into the political situation in Northern Ireland. More generally, it gives the viewer an insight into how politics can consume a person’s life, consume a society. The only vices of the movie are excessive violence (a common vice among modern movies), and a plot that is a little too intricate, too contrived.

C. I recently saw an excellent documentary on public television about the history of Japan. It discussed the period when power was fragmented among numerous samurai. Then three samurai leaders tried to unify the country — Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa. Nobunaga was known for his cruelty, Hideyoshi for his impetuosity, Tokugawa for his patience.

There was a little bird who wouldn’t sing, and Nobunaga said, “little bird, if you won’t sing, I’ll kill you.” Hideyoshi said, “little bird, if you won’t sing, I’ll make you sing.” Tokugawa said, “little bird, if you won’t sing, I’ll wait for you to sing.” Tokugawa became shogun (leader of Japan) in 1603, and his dynasty ruled until 1867.

D. One of my favorite living writers, the diplomat and historian George Kennan, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. His biographer, Yale historian John Gaddis, recently appeared on Booknotes (a TV show). Gaddis is an “authorized biographer” — Kennan is cooperating with him, supplying him with materials, etc. Gaddis and Kennan agreed that Gaddis wouldn’t show a draft of his biography to Kennan, and wouldn’t publish it until Kennan had died. Gaddis says that Kennan often calls him on the phone, and apologizes for delaying his biography. Kennan wrote two superb volumes of memoirs, and two acclaimed books on Russia between 1917 and 1922. He also wrote about the diplomacy leading up to World War I (France’s alliance with Russia, etc.); he planned to write three volumes on this subject, but only completed two.

Kennan had four children. His oldest child, Grace, wrote a memoir called Growing Up in the Cold War.

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. An example would be the Carter brothers, Jimmy and Billy. The elder brother, Jimmy, became President through his self-discipline and determination, while Billy was famous for his undisciplined behavior. back