Seeing Through the Fog of War

According to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, the western perception of the Middle East is clouded systematically and structurally to the point that even actual experiences are casted in the same light of ‘mysticism’ and ‘strangeness’ of all past depictions, creating an oriental blind spot for many in the West. He specifically identifies this as being especially present for Europeans, for whom the Middle East has been the locale and source of much of their history, while Americans typically associate the Orient with the Far East.

However, I want to discuss specifically the impact of Orientalism upon the Western perception of Afghanistan and America’s 20-year war there which ended last year. The US first sent troops to Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11 upon the twin towers to seek out and kill Osama Bin Laden, eventually doing so in 2011. However, the rest of the years were spent on a nation-building project to move Afghanistan from a Taliban-led religious state to one organized around a democracy, something which has obviously not been effective in the long run, given that the Afghan government backed by the United States fell in mere weeks following the official withdrawal of US forces.

However, despite the continuous efforts (or perhaps more aptly described as ‘failings’) of the US to build up the Afghan nation in a ‘democratic’ image over the past 4 presidential administrations, what remains striking is how the perception of the Afghan people has changed and not changed. Even with the continued interaction between the US and Afghanistan, the overall image of Afghanistan has remained as a place where conservative Islamic values hold sway and a place to be bombed indiscriminately, no matter who is fighting or why. This image has only been reinforced as American attempts to ‘civilize’ the nation have failed drastically, making it seem as if the Afghan people could never hold to western values and ideals for fundamental social, political, and historical reasons. The problem with this image, however, is that it lacks a lot of nuance. The nation-building first commenced by the Bush administration, for all of its flaws, has made progress in emphasizing women’s rights and increasing the literacy rate, and the apparent exodus of Afghans following the Taliban victory also seems to indicate that there is not as much appetite for Taliban rule as might be perceived.

Afghanistan is now wracked by a series of humanitarian crises, several of which are triggered by the freezing of government assets (now Taliban assets) outside of the country. It seems that American perception of Afghanistan has taken on a new dimension, being that since Afghanistan has proven impervious to change, we should take no efforts to do so. It will be interesting to see how Orientalism will continue to affect our views of the Middle East, for better or worse, as the region continues to develop and change.

Growth Doesn’t Need Suffering

Shakespeare’s King Lear is a play in which the development and growth of the titular King Lear is induced by a set of tragic circumstances which befall him. This type of growth also befalls other characters, the most notable being Gloucestor and Edgar. The betrayal of his daughters and subsequent night out in the storm pushes him into “O, matter and impertinency mixed, / Reason in madness!” ( When out in the storm after being pushed out by Goneril and Regan, Lear contemplates the “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,” (III.iv.32), and states that “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this.” (III.iv.36). This realization of his follies and flaws when he had power comes as a result of his suffering, but it comes too late for him to act substantially.

Similarly to Lear, Gloucestor is a man who suffers immensely from his perceived betrayal from Edgar and later actual betrayal by Edmund and the tearing out of his eyes. Yet, with the help of Edgar, he also seems to see more clearly, stating, “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused. / Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him” (III.vii.111). Through his suffering, Gloucestor becomes more aware of his situation and the truth of the complex matters surrounding him, similarly reinforcing the theme that suffering will aid a person in growth and development, even if such growth may come too late to save a person from a poor fate (given that both Gloucestor and Lear die at the end of the play).

However, I think that this theme is incomplete as a concept if the actual structure and form of the play is left unacknowledged. If personal suffering is required for personal growth, then there might not be a reason aside from pure entertainment to read or watch a tragedy like King Lear – only our personal experiences in life will provide us the growth for us to advance towards greater self-actualization and mutual recognition. However, the fact that novels, plays, and literature as a whole can concretely affect us and allow us to understand the follies of Lear and the other characters within the play means that in some aspects, we can learn the lessons of Lear and apply them in our own lives without needing to suffer and ultimately die as Lear had. In reading the play, though we might be able to relate ourselves to Lear or even feel as if we are Lear, placed in a tragic situation deteriorating by the minute, we are ultimately kept safe by the barrier of the fourth wall. With this in mind, I think a revised theme with regards to suffering in King Lear could be that although suffering may lead to a person growing and developing, keeping an open mind and heart will also allow a person to learn the lessons of others and grow and develop in a similar manner without the same level of suffering.

Arguably, this is also a flawed argument. No matter how much empathy we hold for Lear or even other characters in literary works, a personal tragedy will also be more visceral and ‘real’ in our minds, given that they are more proximate and real than what literature can convey through words. It’s hard to say whether there are certain things in life which can only be learned through personal experience, but I don’t believe that personally experiencing suffering is necessary for all things in life. Such a notion is a slippery slope, especially when comparing magnitudes of suffering – does one person’s suffering outweigh or invalidate another’s, or does it simply contextualize it? (This topic is also conveniently explored by King Lear in comparing Edgar and Lear). It all seems to come down to empathy and mutual recognition – will it allow us to grow and learn from our past mistakes, or must we make them again to drive home the lesson?

Bands and Balalaikas

If there was ever a song to represent the euphoric hope which existed near the end of the Soviet Union and Cold War, “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions from the album Crazy World would be that song. Written shortly after and based upon a music festival where the Scorpions performed in Moscow, Russia, “Wind of Change” is a power ballad expressing the experiences of connection and societal shifts occurring at the time.

The central theme present throughout “Wind of Change” is that changing circumstances and situations over time will inevitably result in larger societal changes, as the dreams and expectations of individuals shift inexorably. These changes, although sometimes drastic and wide-ranging, will generally tend towards being beneficial to those populations by allowing greater interpersonal connection. The song seems to deepen the experience of optimism and hope which permeated throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union near the end of the Cold War, taken from an outsider’s perspective. Although the audience for the song seems to be music audiences from the West, and especially English-speaking audiences, the song’s more primary purpose seems to be in communicating its themes of change and experiences of hope to populations in the Soviet sphere of influence.

In the first verse of the song, the Scorpions use symbolism of the “wind of change” and vivid imagery to convey the sense of how societal changes have made their way through every aspect of life in Moscow and which are visible to even outside observers. The speaker sings,

I follow the Moskva

Down to Gorky Park

Listening to the wind of change

An August summer night

Soldiers passing by

Listening to the wind of change

The usage of “Moskva”, “Gorky Park”, and “Soldiers passing by” specifically create an image of a traveller going down the Moskva River through a controlled Moscow. This relatively calm setting is disrupted by an intermittent “Listening to the wind of change”, emphasizing how far that “wind of change” has seeped into the surrounding setting that it can not be ignored any longer. This idea is also reinforced by the usage of “wind” as the purveyor of change in the whole song – unless an individual lives underground or underwater, there is no way to escape the wind or what it brings. Therefore, everyone will take notice of changes occurring in the fundamental relationships of society, from visitors to soldiers.

The song directly addresses the audience with two rhetorical questions in the second verse to emphasize how the situation that the speaker and audience find each other in is entirely novel, and was essentially unthinkable until recently. This seems to parallel the dynamics between the West and East near the end of the Cold War, especially as the nations began to form more open and frequent connections. The speaker sings in the second verse,

The world is closing in

And did you ever think?

That we could be so close?

Like brothers

The two rhetorical questions quite literally emphasize how the societal changes occurring were inconceivable until recently and the new connections that outsiders are making with the population of Moscow. They also serve a dual purpose in making clear the intended audience of populations behind the Iron Curtain, as well as making it even clearer that the speaker is generally based upon the Scorpions themselves. Another notable line within this verse is, “Like brothers”, which also emphasizes the connection made between the speaker and the audience to the extent that they seem like siblings.

Though not directly related to the language, one other thing I would like to point out about this verse is how Klaus Meine sings it. His inflections and pitch of the rhetorical questions are nearly identical to the corresponding matter-of-fact lines from the first verse, which might seem to somewhat imply that the current situation would have been simultaneously inconceivable in the past and inevitable.

The ideas present in the second and third verses are tied fairly close together, with personification used to emphasize the idea that it would be inconceivable to stay stuck or beholden to the memories of the past, the inverse of the idea emphasized in the second verse. The speaker sings,

Walking down the street

And distant memories

Are buried in the past forever

Here, the lines “distant memories” being “buried in the past” emphasize how even though the current connections being made seemed inconceivable before, the memories of the past are now being stripped of their influence for better or worse. With changes in society come changes in how the past is viewed and interpreted and sometimes even remembered. Another notable device in the verse is the diction used for the words to describe the memories, being “distant”, “buried”, and “forever”, further emphasizing the large gulf between the past and present even if it was not necessarily too long ago.

“Wind of Change” by the Scorpions is simply powerful and powerfully simple. Through careful multilayered usage of symbolism, metaphor, and diction, the song conveys the indescribable atmosphere of joy and hope present near the end of the Cold War with large structural societal changes imminent. It emphasizes the seeming inconceivability and inevitability of such shifts and the interpersonal connections formed as a result. It has touched generations and will continue to connect with people in the future as a power ballad of hope, optimism, and change.

Good People and Bad Situations

The world of Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exist West can be summarized as one possible future of our own world, with the exception of the magical doors which pop up as an escape for those attempting to escape violence. In Exit West, however, the emphasis is not placed on these doors or the greater conflicts between the militants, the governments, and ‘rich’ western nations, but rather in the intimate and personal struggles of Nadia and Saeed.

However, even in a world with an inordinate amount of senseless war and destruction, ranging from the apocalypse which descended upon Nadia and Saeed’s home city to the massacre in Vienna and the riots which followed, there still are people who try their best to do the right thing. When seeking a way out of the city after it had fallen to the militants, Saeed and Nadia follow the tip of a friend to find agents who could direct them to one of the magical doors. When they do find one, the agent demands “their money and Saeed gave it to him, uncertain whether they were making a down payment or being robbed” (90). The agent does eventually follow through with his promise, giving Nadia and Saeed access to a door to Mykonos. Although the agent could have easily simply worked with the militants and betrayed or scammed Nadia and Saeed, he followed through with his commitments in the most perilous of circumstances.

This idea is further reinforced in the depiction of the riots in Vienna following the militant massacre in the streets. Although a mob was gathering intended to “attack the migrants gathered near the zoo”, some planned to “join a human cordon to separate the two sides, or rather to shield the migrants from the anti-migrants” (109-110). Although the attacks have shocked and shaken certain parts of the population, other parts remain strong in their commitment to humanity and mutual recognition, even as the situation grows more dire as the days go on. One woman in Vienna was forced off a train for declaring her commitment to those principles, but remained steadfast in her commitment to “still go” to the human cordon no matter what.

In Exit West‘s world, although there exists shocking amounts of brutality and violence, there also are good people scattered throughout trying to do the right thing, whether it is popular or easy or not. Perhaps that reflects our own world, one which is not too dissimilar from Exit West in substance save for the concept of the doors, similarly filled with good people making the best of bad situations.

Is Existentialism Deterministic?

In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus argues that Sisyphus, the hero of the absurd, is happy in his supposed punishment to eternally push a boulder up a hill. He reasons that in order for the punishment to be real, Sisyphus must be conscious of his own condition. Since Sisyphus continues to press on regardless of the futility of his task, Camus reasons that Sisyphus must therefore be content with his fate. “[A]ll is well” (20) and Sisyphus can find fulfillment in the endless task of rolling the boulder up the hill and watching it fall back down. He is therefore happy.

According to Camus, “If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which [the absurd man] concludes is inevitable and despicable” (20). The crux of the existentialist viewpoint as endorsed by “The Myth of Sisyphus” is that life is full of random violence, the most brutal of which being the inevitability of death. We are therefore free from any obligation to any societal constraints or illusions imposed upon us, since the inevitability of death means that none of it matters. This seems to result in the conclusion that people freed by existentialism can now act out their own lives with a free will as radical subjects. As Camus writes in The Stranger from the perspective of Meursault, “I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so?…Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why” (121). An absurd hero controls their own fate.

Determinism, or the idea that all things that have and will happen are inevitable consequences of the ‘initial event’, seems to be clearly incompatible with the concept of ‘radical subjectivism’. Free will is defined in this blogpost as the inverse of determinism, that each person is ultimately free to act outside of the influence of their environment. This idea is clearly expressed in Baron d’Holbach’s article “We Are Completely Determined”, in which he explains that if science is to be accepted as being fundamentally true, then free will can be concluded as an illusion made up by our minds to provide the veneer of control. According to d’Holbach, “Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it.” Free will is an illusion created by the complexity of the mind, where one is “unable to unravel all these motions…and supposes himself a free agent.”

The structure of this argument is curiously similar to those made by existentialists to destroy societal notions, but it would seem a lack of free will would contradict the idea that once one was free from societal notions, they could now be master of their own fate – under the doctrine of determinism, that person was always going to become an existentialist, and the actions they take now as a ‘radical subjectivist’ were already predetermined by the fundamental laws of the universe.

To resolve this seeming contradiction, there must be one of two conclusions made about determinism and free will:

  • The world is deterministic and our belief in free will is an illusion. However, this illusion is acceptable as a substitute for real free will in our actions as individuals.
  • The world is not completely deterministic.

The first conclusion would be unacceptable to any self-respecting illusion-breaker. If existentialism and its conclusions about the human condition are taken as a fact, in a deterministic world, we still do not really control our fates. The second conclusion is exceedingly difficult to prove, but its existence as the only other option means that if we are to understand Camus as being correct and Sisyphus to be happy, then d’Holbach must be wrong. Existence precedes essence and necessitates freedom of will.

Inevitability and Meursault

At the end of the first part of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, Meursault, the narrator whose lens we view the world through, shoots a man five times. He describes the encounter as being “where it all started”, feeling as if the final four shots he fired had knocked “four quick times on the door of unhappiness” (59). This shocking event seems to disrupt the relative calm of the previous part and shift every aspect of Meursault’s life in a new direction.

I would like to examine if this event was inevitable – does Meursault’s established characterization in Part I of The Stranger ensure that Meursault’s reactions and actions lead him to the fatal encounter between himself and the Arab man at the end of Part I? Was there any other path for him to take?

In Part I, Meursault can be easily characterized as emotionless and heartless in his reactions to his mother’s death and his relationship with Marie Cardona.

However, I think that his character may be a bit more complex than that. The dry syntax of Part I seems to present an emotionless Meursault, as he does not seem to feel any grief or shock at his mother’s death, but rather viewing it as “one of those things that was bound to happen sooner or later” (33). Despite this, Meursault still seems to hold some level of affection for his mother after her death, consistently referring to her as “Maman” and attending her vigil and funeral, if not without some difficulty.

I believe Meursault’s emotionless tone stems from a notion that things “didn’t matter” no matter how they resulted (8). Although he acknowledges the value others might place upon immaterial goods such as relationships and traditions, to Meursault they represent something extraneous and unnecessary. This is epitomized with Meursault’s conversations with Marie about if he loves her, to which he responds, “I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so” (35). He is simply apathetic about the world, and this apathy acts as a large contributing factor to Meursault’s actions in the final pages of the section.

The main conflict of Chapter 6 is the continuing strife between Raymond and the brother of one of Raymond’s ex-mistresses, who he had accused of cheating on him and beaten. Meursault considers the conflict concluded after a brief scuffle between Raymond, Meursault, Masson, and two Arab men, one of whom was the brother previously mentioned, as well as a second encounter where the two Arab men backed off while Meursault and Raymond were deciding whether or not to confront them.

As stated above, Meursault’s final encounter with the brother of one of Raymond’s ex-mistresses occurs when Meursault goes for a walk by himself, and sees the man sitting with his head underneath a rock. Meursault steps towards him, the man pulls out a knife, and Meursault shoots him.

Meursault has several opportunities to avoid the encounter – once when he could climb the staircase back to the house, and once when he could turn around once he saw the Arab man. However, to him, “To stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing” (57). Meursault’s apathetic attitude ultimately meant that although he did not necessarily wish to kill a man, his actions – or rather, a lack of active decision-making – led inexorably to the final event in the chapter.