An incisive, at times controversial, consideration of moral action in the face of dehumanization, and its implications for everyday life. Hardly a memoirist or historian of the Holocaust and the gulag has failed to grapple with the issues of moral behavior in the Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. Did the suffering of the inmates bring out the best or the beast in them? And what of the victimizers—can they be viewed as less than human? Todorov (The Conquest of America, 1984), having considered scores of testimonies from survivors, rejects either extreme. ``The most optimistic conclusion we can draw from life in (and outside) the camps is that evil is not inevitable,'' he writes. But Todorov, a Bulgarian-born literary and cultural critic with the Centre National de Recherches in Paris, seeks to make fine distinctions among various types of moral behavior. This is not merely a historical quest; Todorov believes that, extreme as the situation of the camps was, it can shed light for us on morality in everyday life. Indeed, one of the distinctions he makes is between heroic virtues (loyalty, courage), which are most relevant in wartime, and ordinary virtues (caring, sharing), which apply at all times and which he considers superior to heroic virtues. Todorov offers a detailed consideration of inmates, oppressors, and onlookers. For instance, he notes that totalitarian governments aim to deprive their subjects of independent will and judgment; this implies that any of us, under totalitarian control, could commit atrocious acts; it doesn't, however, relieve individuals of guilt for their crimes. The impersonal tone of Todorov's analysis is relieved by occasional asides in which he follows his own rule that those making moral judgments must look first at themselves: He honestly and movingly considers his own naive complicity with Communist terror as a youth in Bulgaria. Todorov has original and surprising insights into the moral condition of those in the camps; but most important are his reflections on how the fragmentation and depersonalization of modern life contributed to that evil. His lessons for us today are compelling and ineluctable. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-8050-4263-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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