Mao: A Life

By Philip Short

I’ve been wanting to read Philip Short’s biography of Mao Zedong for a while. I am, secretly, a sucker for historical biography, and I have a particular taste for humanity’s anti-heroes. I’ll brush right by biographies of inventors, statesmen, visionaries; my shelves are clogged with insane monarchs, conquerers, murderers and war-mongers.

Mao Zedong, the Communist revolutionary who would rule China for nearly 30 years, is a subject of intense fascination to those of us who like to peer into darkness. He is considered the greatest mass murderer of all time – it is possible that he is responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined (high estimates place his death toll at around 80 million people). So Short’s biography was on my list.

It’s a great, whopping book: some 630 pages of dense biographical information. It’s beautifully presented: clear, thorough, persuasive. I learned a lot, but, having finished it, I find that I have been arrested by a single moment, and my emotional reaction to that moment has entirely dominated my impression of the book.

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong was a nobody from Hunan province. He moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He (Mao) wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read.  I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.” (p. 83)

This passage, Mao’s recollections of being ignored by the intellectuals he so admired, is excerpted very early in Short’s biography. However, having finished it, I find that this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

That clerk would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that killed tens of millions of people.  He is, more than any other figure, the architect of China’s current global position. But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten.  

How many people do you interact with every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pump your gas, see you to your table, drive your Uber?

And those people, those are just the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

What if one of them will become Mao?

I’ve been disturbing myself with this concept for days now, rolling it around in my head.

Of course, it’s always unnerving to imagine that you might have been brushed by enormity. It’s disconcerting to imagine that history’s next great killer might be taking your order. But what’s even spookier, to me, is the fact that, later, when he was the Great Man, those men never even realized that they had met Mao. They would not have recollected his face, because we don’t remember people that don’t matter. They would never know that their lives had intersected with his, that they had slighted the man who would become Mao.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, Mao did not know he would become Mao. Maybe, if he had known, he would not have wanted to become Mao. We think of the great villains of history as born, but it is, of course, possible that they are made. The clerk in the Beijing University library would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but, in 1918, he had not yet.  And maybe he need not have.

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, Mao Zedong was inevitable. He would become the man we all know, would find his way to his role, would make space in history for himself.

But it is equally possible that he only might have become Mao. Perhaps Mao, as we know him, was the result of thousands of small accidents, the end product of innumerable coincidences. What if those moments hadn’t happened to him? What if they had happened to someone else? Perhaps many men might have become Mao – perhaps, under the right circumstances, most men.  Maybe history could make murderers of us all, if she chose.

Philip Short

This isn’t a movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters, like other freaks of nature, just happen: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues or nightmares?

I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me so badly. That there is no outcome in which I order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one. But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the future monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, even if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt

When you were a kid, did you ever feel as though you belonged to a completely different species than everyone around you?  As though you were totally alien, a tiny island of strangeness in a vast sea of normality?  That there was no one like you, no one who would ever understand why you liked the things that you liked, dressed the way the you did, wanted the things you wanted?

I did.  When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was the weirdest person on the planet, humanity’s outlier, doomed never to do the right things and never to have companions in my own, odd interests.

CannibalismI was wrong, though.  There are other weirdos like me, and I can tell because otherwise there would be no market for books like ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘.

Some books are about exactly what you think they’re about. ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is both a history, and a natural history, of cannibalism.  It describes the circumstances in the animal kingdom in which cannibalism reliably occurs (in what species, in what conditions).  What animals eat their own young, and why?  What animals eat other peoples’ young, and why?  What animals eat other adults, and why?

And it’s a history of human cannibalism.  Schutt, on principle, doesn’t spend time on so-called Cannibal Killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, aberrant individuals who happened to eat other people.  Instead, he is interested in institutions of cannibalism in human society, either rituals in which humans construct meaning around the eating of other humans, or circumstances in which humans semi-reliably eat other humans (like mass starvations).

He does spend a chapter on the Donner Party, the incident of human cannibalism with which most of his readership will be familiar.  But he also devotes a chapter to, for example, the practice of placenta-eating, which he describes (defensibly) as cannibalism.

I can see already that I am going to have difficulty describing how happy it makes me that this book exists.  ‘Cannibalism‘ isn’t literature, for sure, and it probably won’t go down as one of the all-time most beautifully written scientific texts.  But it’s an entire book about cannibalism!  It’s 300 pages of well-articulated information about the myths and facts of cannibalism – I really can’t offer praise much higher than that.

I think that there are two essential relationships that people can have to the grotesque.  Some people have a basic disinclination to the weird and the gross.  They find it aversive, or boring.  They have no interest in learning, say, which insects can lay eggs under your skin, or how to get a lightbulb out of a human rectum (or why someone would even put a lightbulb in a human rectum, for that matter), or what an infection of flesh-eating bacteria looks like, or any of the other creepy information lurking at the corners of the human world.

And then there are people like me.  It’s not that we like learning about serial killers, or bloodworms, or disturbing sexual perversions, not exactly.  It’s that, as soon as we learned that the knowledge existed, we needed to have it.  We were drawn to it.  The gruesome has an irresistible fascination for us; say to us, “Don’t look at that – it’s disgusting, or wrong, or forbidden”, and you have only assured that we will look.

If you are the sort of person who is not attracted to the strange, then ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is not for you, and it will help not at all if I tell you that, for example, there is an entire chapter on sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (though, of course, that was an immense selling point for me).  It’s called ‘Sexual Cannibalism, or Size Matters’.

Which chapter heading also usefully describes the writing style of ‘Cannibalism’.  Although Schutt is a professor of biology, ‘Cannibalism’ is meant for a popular audience, and is written in a jokey, approachable style.

Bill Schutt.jpeg
Bill Schutt

I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment.  Popular science is difficult to write.  You never make everyone happy: you’re either too dense for the layman, or too dumb for the scientist.  Schutt isn’t quite able to make up his mind on which way he’d like to err, so he sort of tries to disguise a lot of the actual science by surrounding it with dramatic description and dad-jokes:

“Insects undergoing pupation, the quiescent stage of metamorphosis associated with the production of a chrysalis or cocoon, are also vulnerable to attack from younger conspecifics.  The ravenous larva of the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites) not only consumes conspecific pupae, but also embarks on a killing frenzy, slaying but not eating anything unlucky enough to cross its path.” (p. 23)

“All caecilians do share one characteristic unique to the amphibians: internal fertilization, and during this process, sperm is deposited into the female’s cloaca with the aid of a penis-like structure called a phallodeum…But as interesting as the concept of legless caecilians wielding their penises underground might be (admittedly, it disturbed some of my older Italian relatives until I explained the spelling differences)…” (p. 80)

But there is a lot of science, and that I do mean that as a compliment.  I learned a lot about cannibalism, both in humans and in animals  (I think my all-time favorite fun fact (soon to be deployed at parties, I can tell), is from the chapter on Christopher Columbus and the alleged cannibals he encountered in the New World:

“But whether or not these strange savages had tails (and even if they were supported by trained fish and Amazonian girlfriends), plans were soon being formulated to pacify the Caribs, who were now being referred to as Canibs.  According to scholars, the transition from Carib to Canib apparently resulted from a mispronunciation, although in light of stories describing locals as having canine faces, I agree with Yale professor Claude Rawson that “Canib” may also be a degenerate form of canis, Latin for “dog”.  Eventually, canib became the root of “cannibal,” which replaced anthropophagi, the ancient Greek mouthful previously used to describe people-eaters.” (p. 102)).

And Schutt deals properly and respectfully with the problem that many of the “facts” of human cannibalism, the famous stories from Papua New Guinea and of the Aztecs, among others, are probably exaggerated or fabricated.  Even the so-called eye-witness reports were often racially biased, and accusing a tribe or a people of cannibalism was often just the easiest moral justification for enslaving them and confiscating their property.

I also want to put a small plug in for the illustrations, which are weird and charming and chosen without rationale that I can understand.  Some are deeply helpful and clearly scientifically apropos, but some are bizarre and seem to be there just to amuse, which they do.

For example, the first is a useful one from the chapter on the Donner Party, which shows their trail.  Next is one of dubious, but potential, utility, from the chapter on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, of the structure of a ‘hypothetical prion’.  The third is stranger still, an illustration of ‘skull moss’, which is, as you might have expected, moss grown on a human skull (preferably that of a hanged man), and which was used to treat bleeding.  And, perhaps most confusingly, and also from the chapter on Mad Cow Disease, is a drawing of a hamburger, in case you didn’t know what one looked like.

As, I said, charming, about as charming as a book on cannibalism could possibly be.  And, if you are anything like me, that’s pretty charming.

Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

By Ron Rosenbaum

‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed.  I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.

Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.

[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412)  I totally agree.]

Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale.  Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.

Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’).  So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.

But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.

Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories.  It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler.  It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.

Explaining HitlerIt’s about why we need to explain Hitler.  It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him.  It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world.  It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.

It is exactly my kind of book.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:

‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.

‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.

‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.

‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.

‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.

‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.

‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler?  When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?

Ron_Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum (looking, I think, unnecessarily ferocious for a journalist)

Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one.  I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would.  Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives.  He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing.  He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose.  It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.

“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism.  Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”.  Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature.  Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)

“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him.  And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy.  Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from?  Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler?  Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)

If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.

But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going.  I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!

What is evil?  Are people evil, or just actions?  Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic?  Was Hitler evil?  Does it matter?  Was the entire Nazi leadership evil?  At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians?  Can a whole nation be evil?  How about a species?

Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust?  What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil?  It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?

Is it wrong to even ask these questions?  By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him?  Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?

I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before.  Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.

But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler.  There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture.  Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil.  We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.