THE BURDEN OF MEMORY, THE MUSE OF FORGIVENESS

A disturbing moral dilemma is explored by the noted Nigerian writer. In the first and by far the weightiest of the three essays that make up this volume, Nobel laureate Soyinka (Art, Dialogue and Outrage, 1994, etc.) struggles with a dilemma: how should societies respond to the commission of despicable acts in public life? These can occur on a systemic level, such as slavery in the US or apartheid in South Africa, or through the hands of an individual tyrant such as the current ruler of Nigeria, Sanni Abacha. In either case, forgiveness, a salve on the wounds to promote healing, would seem to be the morally superior option, even if such generosity is beyond the capabilities of most people. But is excusing morally outrageous behavior moral or simply foolish? Perhaps healing requires revenge, an excising of the cancer. Are we to imagine, for example, a repentant Pol Pot walking the streets like any other man, freed by the forgiveness of those whom he did not manage to kill? Soyinka identifies forgiveness as “a value far more humanly exacting than vengeance” yet cannot swallow the proposition that it will, by itself, suffice. Something is missing from a process which absolves the perpetrators of tyranny so completely that they assume the same moral or civil status as those whose conduct is crime-free. Soyinka’s answer is reparations, a paying back from victimizer to victim, but even this sits somewhat uneasily. As in the remaining essays focusing on negritude, there is a sense that the playwright in Soyinka is building layers of thought not to resolve the issue, but to illustrate its unresolvability. No definitive analysis proving that reparations will solve the moral dilemma is to be found here, and perhaps that is part of the cost of despicable acts: once committed, there are no longer answers with which we should be completely comfortable. Powerful stuff. (For another look at these questions, see Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, p. 1438.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-19-512204-4

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998

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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 48 LAWS OF POWER

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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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

THE ROAD TO CHARACTER

New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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