Monday, September 19, 2016

The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an outstanding book -- meticulously researched, but written in a compelling, accessible style, and with great humanity and compassion.

Author David J. Morris unearths the social and cultural history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the US. He surveys the potential treatments. He explores the role of social justice in our understanding of PTSD.

But above all, Morris confronts the meaning of trauma, in society and in his own life. Morris was a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq. After narrowly escaping death, he returned home questioning everything he thought he knew -- and eventually having to face the reality of his own trauma. Morris' dual role as both researcher and subject give this book a unique power as history, social science, and personal essay.

People have known for centuries, for millennia, that traumatic events produce after-effects, but different cultures in different eras have explained those effects in different ways. The modern history of trauma is linked to the carnage of 20th Century war. And our current understanding of PTSD owes everything to the Vietnam War, and the experience of returning veterans who publicly opposed the war.

In this way, the history of PTSD encompasses a history of 1960s and 1970s peace activism, especially of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that began a sea-change in the culture of the United States. As a student of peace, I found this part fascinating.

Taking this even further, Morris links PTSD and social justice. Powerless and marginalized people are more likely to be traumatized by one or more of the four principal causes of PTSD: war, genocide, torture, rape. Taking a social and cultural perspective forces us to confront a world that causes these traumas. In this view, PTSD is not so much an illness as a moral condition brought on by the worst of human society.

The United States Veterans Administration (VA) sees it quite differently. To the VA, PTSD is strictly a medical condition. And this matters greatly, because research about PTSD is almost entirely funded and controlled by the VA. Explaining trauma as purely medical or biological doesn't address the causes at all. In fact, it does the opposite -- it normalizes PTSD as a natural consequence of unavoidable circumstances.

As for treatment, Morris surveys what's out there and finds most of it useless. VA hospitals and insurance companies prefer therapies that can be "manualized" -- made uniform, with a certain number of treatments and little or no emotional engagement from the therapist. Statistically, these types of therapies appear to be useful -- until one learns that the numbers don't include all the patients who drop out! Talk about cooking the books: everyone for whom the treatment isn't working or, in many cases, is actually worsening their symptoms, is simply ignored.

Morris himself feels that therapeutic talks with an empathetic person with some training goes further than neuroscience can. "What they [the VA] seem to want instead," Morris writes, "is mass-produced, scalable, scripted therapies that make for compelling PowerPoint slides."

I have PTSD, and much of The Evil Hours brought a shock of recognition -- the feeling that someone else is expressing your own thoughts, saying exactly what you've been thinking all along. Morris perfectly articulates how trauma plays out in one's life, the depths of change it brings about.

Morris writes: "We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness.”

In the immediate aftermath of my own trauma, while trying to write about my experience, this is exactly the image I fixated on. We are, all of us, dancing on the edge of a great precipice, usually unaware of how terrifyingly close we are to that edge. Then something happens, and we understand it, not in some theoretical way, but immediately and profoundly, perhaps in a way humans are not equipped to understand. We talk about "the fragility of life" but we don't know what that is -- until we do. Then we spend a lifetime trying to live with the knowledge.

"One of the paradoxes of trauma," writes Morris, "is that it happens in a moment, but it can consume a lifetime. The choice of how much time it is permitted to consume is usually in the hands of the survivor."

The Evil Hours may be very useful for people who are figuring out how to stop PTSD from consuming any more of their lives. It is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the effects of trauma on the human mind. [This review was originally published on wmtc.ca.]

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind


The phrase “Conceptual categories” is a technical term for something we all do whether consciously or not. When we see a tree we know it to be a tree because of our concept of trees. The tree you see over there fits the category in your mind called tree. Sounds simple enough---but it isn’t. What I have described is called the correspondence theory of truth in epistemology. To have knowledge according to this theory two things have to happen. My concept has to be correct and my concept must be correctly linked to the experienced object “out there.” There is much controversy with this theory. For starters there is the troubling worry about how I can be certain I have the right concept (is it the same as yours? What about the guy living on the other side of the planet?), and can I be certain the object out there really is the thing I think it is, be it tree or whatever.  You might think this is just an academic problem that philosophers spend way too much time pondering. Yet suppose we aren’t talking about trees, suppose instead we are talking about a landmine that you think you may have just stepped on. Questions of knowledge and certainty would suddenly loom large wouldn’t they?

George Lakoff (co-author of the celebrated title Metaphors We Live By) has written an account of the latest multidisciplinary findings on the cognitive act of categorizing. His thesis is that the old way of construing knowledge, which I have called the correspondence theory of truth, has been largely discredited. Why? Because research in cognitive sciences, psychology and linguistics has shown that objectivism as understood in correspondence theories of truth, that is the idea that there is one concrete and correct way of experiencing a given object, is simply not true.  Instead of this old objectivist view of knowing Lakoff’s own theory, which he calls experiential realism, takes each person’s experience as being uniquely her own. This is a much more relativistic approach to epistemology. Relativism is an ancient bugaboo of philosophy and Lakoff knows it.

What is at issue isn’t the truth of how we come to know the things we know, but the nature of reason itself. You can intensify the significance of these findings by saying our whole understanding of what it means to be a knowing, acting human being is being altered by what cognitive scientists are discovering. That is some heady stuff.  Is the mind like a machine? If it is like a machine how does it connect to the things out there to know them? If there are objects out there won’t they necessarily transcend the mind? Lakoff declares all of these ideas discredited, but it is that word, transcendence, that I think is really behind the motivating spirit of this work, or more accurately the attack upon any notion of transcendence as a guiding principle in epistemology.  The idea that we are minds in bodies (or more traditionally phrased, souls in bodies) and that the world has been created with purposes and meanings out there to be discovered by these minds in bodies is an old idea that science has long wanted to discredit. Minds, souls and essences are very hard to locate under a microscope. Cognitive scientists maintain there are no spirits, souls, or minds capable of existing independent of the body and no essences to things. We are thoroughly biological beings in a physical world and we use our various different conceptual schemes to categorize the world in unique ways. The way you categorize your experience is different, not better or worse, than the way I categorize my experience. This is the new, revolutionary science of the mind.

The problem is this understanding of our situation is not new and hardly revolutionary. As I read through the book I kept asking myself, is the picture of the philosophic tradition being presented here correct? Have philosophers since ancient times simply taken it as common sense that we are minds/souls working to have our ideas correspond correctly with the essential natures of the things in the world? Just about every word (concept) in that last sentence has been debated by philosophers for over 2000 years. As soon as Plato drafted the first version of his theory of Forms (transcendent, eternal essences that are the real objects of knowledge) there were philosophers lined up and ready to challenge him on the idea of disembodied ideas. This is precisely Aristotle’s main complaint of his teacher. Despite what Lakoff maintains, philosophers have never wholly endorsed the correspondence theory of truth. It has been widely known and for a long time that the theory has its problems. Indeed it has been widely known that the notion of a soul in a body is problematic. Medieval theologians, thinkers one might assume would be most readily accepting of a correspondence theory of knowledge based on a soul seeking to know God’s creation, were aware of the issues with the rather puzzling notions of souls and essences.

What is interesting in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things is the attempt to deal with the charge of relativism. If you see the world in your unique way and I see it in my unique way, can it be said that we share a world? What is it that is being shared? Clearly there is something “out there,” independent of you or I. One could say it transcends us, even if it doesn’t transcend our various ways of categorising it. This is the stuff that philosophers find endlessly intriguing. Lakoff has not ended the debate on the question of how the human mind comes to know the world, but he has contributed to it. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Genius of Birds



The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman was an analysis of avian characteristics. When we think of animal intelligence, all too often mammals come to mind. Yet the traits that some bird species possess surpass the abilities of most mammals, and that includes humans. Ackerman divided her book into eight chapters, each focussing on a specific trait, such as the ability to use tools, vocal virtuosity and spatial and temporal ingenuity. We are introduced to some specific species such as the New Caledonian crow, whose craft of hooks and tools from barbed pandanus leaves is unmatched in the avian intelligence of any species. 

Some birds imitate human speech, such as parrots, while far more species imitate other birds. Even among birds that do not copy others, their own call must be learned by the chicks from their parents. Some species, such as the mockingbird, can acquire up to four hundred calls. Ackerman states that all birdsong is learned, much like a human parent will teach a baby how to talk:

"Johan Bolhuis, a neurobiologist at Utrecht University, remarks on how strange it must seem to an outsider for scientists to be comparing birdsong with human speech and language. 'If we were looking for some kind of animal equivalent, wouldn't we look to our closest relatives, the great apes?' he asks. 'But the odd thing is, so many aspects of human speech acquisition are similar to the way that songbirds acquire their songs. In the great apes, there's no equivalent at all.'"

There are several theories about birds' uncanny ability to navigate flight paths that are global in their range. How can birds, such as the arctic tern, travel from pole to pole and not get lost? I saw arctic terns in Iceland on the island of Grímsey and as far south as the island of Tristan da Cunha. How can any bird not lose its way going these colossal distances? Ackerman analyzed numerous test results which focussed on various areas within birds' brains, their ability to sense magnetic fields, infrasound and even olfactory detection. She was left with a strong case that all of these sensory skills are needed in avian navigation. Science may have to admit that a bird relies on all of these skills of perception and not just on one. I did learn how flocks of birds coordinate their movements so that hundreds act in precise unison:

"We've since learned that the spectacular collective behavior of flocking birds (and schooling fish, herding mammals, swarming insects, and human crowds) is self-organized, emerging from simple rules of interaction among individuals. Birds are not 'transfusing thought.' communicating telepathically with their flock members to act in unison, as Selous surmised. Instead, each bird is interacting with up to seven close neighbors, making individual movement decisions based on maintaining velocity and distance from fellow flock members and copying how sharply a neighbor turns, so that a group of, say, four hundred birds can veer in another direction in a little over half a second. What emerges is almost instantaneous ripples of movement in what appears to be one living curtain of bird."

Ackerman provided plenty of data compiled from both field and laboratory testing to back up her wondrous claims. She provided generous endnotes and her acknowledgements were filled with the names of experts in the field, so The Genius of Birds had the backing of science by scientists. It was presented in a style to appeal to all readers, even those without a background in bird knowledge. Although I prefer notes to have superscript numerals to indicate their ordered presence in the endnotes section, in this case it was smart to leave them off. The flow of the read would have been ruined had the eye been drawn to so many superscripts. I would have been obligated to refer to the back of the book each time. As it was, when I finished reading a chapter I thumbed to the end and read all of the notes so the antecedents were still fresh in my memory.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life


Thank goodness for Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life by Allen Frances, M.D. This book was written in response to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The fifth edition of the DSM, known officially as DSM-5, has been plagued with controversy ever since it came out in 2013 for its alleged hypermedicalizing of the human condition. What used to be considered quite normal behaviour and merely part of the range of emotions we experience in our lives might now be considered a mental disorder, and faux conditions are now labelled official "diseases". Just taking a longer time to mourn for a deceased loved one might get you tainted with a diagnosis of melancholia. And don't get me started on the explosion of bogus diagnoses of ADD and ADHD, as well as childhood autism. With the exception of severe autism, all of these three "A" diagnoses do not exist.

Those are my views. I am no psychiatrist, yet I am not alone. I side with the author, Allen Frances, in the belief that the current state of American psychiatry has seen an explosion in wholly useless diagnoses resulting in the hypermedicalizing of millions. Allen Frances is no antidrug purist or enemy of psychiatry. He is the most qualified person who can make any of these claims, for he was the chairman of the DSM-IV Task Force and part of the leadership group for DSM-III and DSM-IIIR. He is professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University School of Medicine. The prior edition of the DSM has his name on it, so you can bet he knows whereof he speaks. So what happened in between the publication of the DSM-IV in 1994 and the DSM-5 in 2013? There is one answer, and it's a biggie:

"DSM-IV was a bit player in the continuing march of diagnostic inflation. The major engine was drug company marketing. Three years after DSM-IV was published, Pharma lobbyists finagled an unprecedented reversal in federal regulations to allow advertising directly to consumers."
Watch the American evening news at 6:30. Or watch "60 Minutes" on Sunday. The only commercials you will see will be for pharmaceuticals. "Ask your doctor" the ads say, but you only do this after you have heeded the message in the commercials and have already diagnosed yourself:

"The ads were usually misleading but devastatingly effective. Patients self-misdiagnosed and asked their doctor for the magic pill that would correct their chemical imbalance. The doctors listened. Patients who requested a drug they had seen advertised were seventeen times more likely to walk out of the office with a prescription. The massive advertising had put the companies in charge of diagnosis."

Pharmaceutical companies have the keys to the kingdom:

"The business model of the pharmaceutical industry depends on extending the realm of illness--using creative marketing to expand the pool of customers by convincing the probably well that they are at least mildly sick. Disease mongering is the fine art of selling psychiatric ills as the most efficient way of peddling very profitable psychiatric pills. Manipulating the market is particularly easy in the United States because we are the only country in the entire world that allows drug companies the freedom to advertise directly to consumers."

The drug companies love that they can advertise on TV. In the past nineteen years they have tried to sell disease by convincing viewers that something is wrong with them. Your child can't concentrate? It's ADD. Toddler is fidgety? He's bipolar. Can't remember where you left the car keys? You've got mild neurocognitive disorder. Why are people so gullible to accept these bogus diagnoses? Frances writes:

"Society has a seemingly insatiable capacity (even hunger) to accept and endorse newly minted mental disorders that help to define and explain away its emerging concerns."

Yes--"explain away". That's the key verb if I ever heard one. Our society does not take responsibility. We love to blame others for our mistakes. Did your toddler fall into the gorilla pen at the zoo? Blame the zoo. Did you fall into a fountain while keeping your eyes glued to your phone as you texted while walking? Blame the mall. Do you have difficulty concentrating? You have a mental disorder called Adult ADD. And you need medication for it. How did Frances, the Chair of the Task Force for the DSM-IV, feel about the new edition?

"DSM-5 has just been published--not a happy moment in the history of psychiatry or for me personally. It risks turning diagnostic inflation into hyperinflation--further cheapening the currency of psychiatric diagnosis and unleashing a wave of new false epidemics."

Frances maintains that there is no magic pill for our mild mental ills. What we might be experiencing as depression, anxiety or restlessness is just a normal part of the human condition. We will get over it on our own. He maintains that sure, we should monitor ourselves, but there is no need to rush to a doctor to get a prescription just because we're feeling under the weather. And there are millions of Americans who are now feeling under the weather all the time. Ironically their unnecessary prescriptions are making them less healthy. They have developed addictions to these drugs and deleterious side effects such as obesity, one of the most common consequences of psychiatric medication. And sadly, they are not getting the psychiatric help that they need. And that really is all they likely need: consultation with a psychiatrist and not a prescription. Frances cannot stress this enough in Saving Normal, that psychiatric care is all too often denied those who need it the most. An overwhelming number of patients on some kind of psychiatric medicine obtained their prescriptions from their primary care physician (PCP). These doctors, Frances maintains, are too rushed and above all too inexperienced to diagnose a psychiatric disorder. They are all too willing to write a prescription, often for a drug the patient himself asked for, and shoo the patient out of the office:

"The inevitable result has been diagnostic inflation and massively excessive medication use. It makes absolutely no sense to do most of our psychiatric diagnosis and treatment in primary care settings. Accurate diagnosis requires expertise and simply can't be done properly in the seven minutes most PCPs now get to spend with patients--especially when the patients have been primed by false advertising to demand the wrong thing. Overprescription of psychotropic medication by PCPs has become a serious threat to public health, but has pushed Pharma revenue through the roof. There is almost never a justification for the use of antipsychotic and antianxiety medication in primary care, but it is done all the time."

Drug companies are calling the shots; they've out-Trumped the media on an NRA scale. How can you convince people that they're not sick at all, when:

"With an assist from an overly ambitious psychiatry, all human difference is being transmuted into chemical imbalance that is meant to be treated with a handy pill."

Frances filled Saving Normal with chapters on psychiatric fads of the past, present and future. We can relive witch hunt hysteria, multiple personality disorder (diagnoses of which went through the roof after the movie "Sybil" came out in 1976) and the most recent tragic fad, that of ritual satanic abuse in American daycares. The chapters on the present fads was most interesting, especially the sections entitled "Attention Deficit Disorder Runs Wild" and "Autism Becomes Fashionable". Frances got it right with that one: parents cart out their fashionably autistic children on talk shows half expecting the studio audience to throw them coins in a bucket.

In spite of the psychiatric doomsday the DSM-V brings, Frances is cautiously optimistic that we will not end up drugging the entire population in Huxleyan soma. The solution to the current state of hyperdiagnosis is not to be in such a rush to find a solution:

"The lesson for me was that diagnosis needed to rest in order to let research catch up. It made no sense to keep rearranging the furniture of descriptive psychiatry, creating new diagnoses or altering the thresholds of existing ones, based only on the whims of the experts who happened to be in the room."

Indeed. Dump the drugs, put your cellphones down and go outside. Kids, adults, everyone: get some exercise. Frances--as well as science--make the case for improved attention spans and relief from depression simply by weaning yourselves from your phones and electronic devices. Unplug yourselves, or you will truly be foolish people.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia



The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov was written in 2013, two years after the Supreme Leader Marshal Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father, the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. Lankov was a Soviet-era exchange student who studied in Pyongyang and his fluency in Korean endeared him to his teachers and gave him access to the North Korean public. This book was unlike other modern accounts of the DPRK which I have read, in that it painted thoroughly dismal portraits of the future of the North after the inevitable downfall of its totalitarian system of government. I have read--and reviewed--quite a lot about the DPRK already, yet no book went as far in its detailed scenarios about the state of the northern half of the Korean peninsula after the Kim regime collapses. Yet before we get to the future of the DPRK, we have to deal with its past and present, and Lankov kept his history confined to the first chapter. The author thankfully did not bore me to sleep with his Korean War history, as I am prone to doze off when I read war stories. Thus I confess a personal prejudice for war histories in general.

Kim Jong Un inherited a country that is worse off that at any time since the Korean War. The DPRK continues to struggle as a nation punished by sanctions and does not want to see another famine. What can it do to feed its population if its economy cannot provide? The answer, surprisingly, seems to be by not reforming its economy:

"Unfortunately for the common North Koreans, the Pyongyang leaders' unwillingness to emulate China has very rational explanations. North Korean leaders stubbornly resist reform not because they are ideological zealots who blindly believe in the prescriptions of the Juche Idea (they do not, and the idea itself is too nebulous to be a guide to a practical policy anyway) nor because they are ignorant of the outside world. They are neither irrational nor ideological--on the contrary, they are rational to the extreme, being, perhaps, the most perfect bunch of Machiavellians currently in operation. The North Korean leaders do not want reforms because they realize that in the specific conditions produced by the division of their country, such reforms are potentially destabilizing and, if judged from the ruling elite's point of view, constitute the surest way of political (and, perhaps, physical) suicide."

Lankov asserts that any reforms would trigger the end of the Kim regime. Once the population tastes reform, it will demand more. The North Korean elite fears an Arab Spring or a Ceaușescu-style purge if reforms are introduced, therefore no one is willing to implement any kind of change out of fear of losing one's elite privileges. Without a new economy, the North is left on its own, and can only get attention by stirring up trouble. And the DPRK has perfected the art of rocking the boat by blackmailing its enemies and even its few allies:

"Indeed, from the North Korean point of view, it did not merely confirm that blackmail works, but rather confirmed that blackmail works wonders. One could hardly find a better confirmation of the efficiency of Pyongyang's usual tactics--first make a crisis, then escalate tensions, and finally extract payments and concessions for the restoration of the status quo."

The North Korean tactic of issuing nuclear threats then reaping the rewards--all on its own terms--has led some diplomats to say enough is enough. They are calling North Korea's bluff, knowing full well that the North will never launch a nuclear missile against the South or any of the ROK's western allies. To do so would be an act of suicide. The strategy of leaving North Korea alone, letting it rant to an empty room, is new, yet has not proven to be entirely effective, as the North has perfected the art of getting whatever it wants regardless of international pressures. It is much like trying to say no to wailing baby:

"The North Korean regime is thus not going to respond to either pressure or rewards, and this is increasingly obvious to the interested parties. There is therefore a great--and growing--temptation to say that North Korea is better to be forgotten and safely left alone. This is the essence of the 'strategic patience' strategy, which has quietly become the mainstream thinking of the US foreign policy establishment after 2009. In essence it says that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea, and maybe even 'reward' it with some monetary and political concessions, as long as North Korea does what the United States wants it to do--that is, starts dismantling its nuclear program. If it doesn't do so, the United States should, as strategic patience promoters insist, ignore North Korea's antics, since North Korea isn't going to be all that harmful anyway. A somewhat similar attitude seems to be dominant among the South Korean Right. These people believe that aid and political concessions make sense only if North Korean leaders agree to policies that are seen as 'rational' by Seoul.
"This reasoning might be attractive, but it seems to be unrealistic. North Korea has not the slightest desire to be left alone. Indeed, they cannot afford to be left alone. In order to compensate for the innate inefficiency of their economy, they need outside help, delivered on their specific conditions. So far, the best way to squeeze this aid has been to appear dangerous, unpredictable, and irrational. Therefore, they will continue to appear thus, attempting to cause more trouble for those countries and international forces from whom they hope to squeeze some resources. The alternative is not really attractive--either to survive on meager and perhaps diminishing returns of their nonfunctioning economy or to become excessively dependent on just one sponsor (China)."

Lankov believes that the North cannot sustain itself and regime collapse is inevitable. When this will all happen is the question. The author supplied multiple scenarios of reunification, none of which involved a peaceful transition and blending of states. The irony is, as the Korean War falls further into history, more and more South Koreans do not want reunification. They see the costs they will have to bear to support their impoverished countrymen and say no thank-you. The mainland Chinese are worried that regime collapse will send a flood of starving unskilled North Koreans across its border, so they aim to keep the status quo. The international reaction is to leave the North Koreans to lie in their own threadbare bed, yet pretty soon the bedposts will rot and the mattress will fall down. What then? No one wants to deal with this inevitability.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance


Insanely rich bankers and investors, Popes (and not always good Popes), champions of humanism, Godfathers to the rich and powerful, supreme diplomats, facilitators for some of the brave early practitioners of experimental science, extravagant patrons of the arts, and experts at marrying into royal dynasties. The Medici clan were, if nothing else, an extremely busy household. From humble beginnings (the first recorded mention of the family occurred around the year 1230) in the hills and valleys near Florence to the very pinnacle of power in the Italian peninsula and beyond the Medici are, and have been for generations, a fascination to everyone interested in Renaissance history.

Not all but many members of the Medici family had unquenchable ambition. They were smart, that’s for sure. Their ancestors started off as money changers probably hauling around a little cart in the local piazza exchanging florins for lira or scudo (all kinds of different coins were in use at the time). This is nothing revolutionary. Lots of families were doing similar work. But like I said the Medici had ambition---and smarts. With mathematical principles as their tools (maybe “weapons” would be a better analogy) they figured out how to exchange their coins for higher profits. Then they turned their efforts towards making money lending at interest (they even managed to maneuver around the delicate religious prohibition against usury—the history of this concept is interesting in its own right and worth researching). From there they became shrewd investors with an eye for quality. They bribed the right people (you never want to bride the wrong people, it’s just not profitable) and eventually got themselves the coveted title of “Bankers to the Pope.” Money just seemed to come looking for them at that point.

The Medici were a lot of things but they were not nobles. The nobility have never liked upstarts (not much has changed in this regard). To break through that barrier (again ambition and smarts) they doled out florin like animal balloons at a carnival. Oh the parties! Nobody schmoozed like the Medic schmoozed. Fast forward three generations and you find Medici blood in French, Spanish, and Germanic royal families. Cosimo and Lorenzo were smiling in their graves.

As you and I know the good times don’t last, they never, ever do. How does one describe what was lost to the Medici over time? I want to say “vitality” but that doesn’t capture it. The “spirit of ambition” comes closer but is still lacking; there was plenty of luck and serendipity in what they managed to accomplish. It seemed Fortuna’s gifts were whittled away with each passing generation. The family just didn’t have it anymore. Read the chapters on Cosimo de’ Medici and then read the chapters describing the life and times of Gian Gastone de’ Medici and you will understand what I mean.

The rise and fall of this awesome family is captured brilliantly by Paul Strathern. His historical biography of the family has a great narrative arc. The final chapter left me with a sense of melancholy as though with thy passing away of Anna Maria Luisa the world had lost something special. And it did.

One last bit of business. You should know this book is more than a biography of the various Medici family members. You could read the book and walk away with a rich understanding (and appreciation) for the Italian Renaissance as an important historical era in the development of western civilization.  The big artists of the time, and individuals like Galileo Galilei and Savonarola, all make appearances in the story. All in all a great read.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spain: The Centre Of The World 1519 - 1682


Robert Goodwin has written a history of imperial Spain that has an almost novelistic quality in its presentation. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, titled simply Gold, covers the era of expansion when Spaniards built one of the world’s largest overseas empires. Part two, titled Glitter, covers the era of decline when the Spanish empire, overstretched and bureaucratically encumbered, had to contend with a series of costly wars and an extraordinary currency inflation. It was in this glitter age, however, that the greatest of Spain’s artistic achievements were accomplishment.

I am noticing a trend with many of the historical non-fiction books that I read these days. They all begin with a prologue or introductory chapter that details a particularly dramatic scene from history. In Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682 the prologue describes the first treasure ships arriving at Seville from the new world. The ships carry large golden disks once the property of the Aztec emperor but now held in the hands of sweat and grime covered conquistadors whose heads are filled with dreams of land and titles, normally the preserve of nobility but up for grabs at the right price. These harquebus carrying warriors wait anxiously to present their emperor Charles V with this incredible gift. It is one of those moments in history when it seems the universe holds its breath. Charles V, whose eyes must have matched the circumference of those disks once he saw them, would have understood immediately the significance of this prize. The disks meant empire. The colonies could now be properly settled and managed, the wars abroad were now winnable, the issues domestically could now be resolved and all of it paid for by American gold and silver.

The rise of Spain was rapid. It began with the joining in marriage of the crowns of Castile and Aragon. This union was consolidated by the very capable Charles V who did much to expand and consolidate the early empire. His son Philip II brought the empire to its height before witnessing the beginnings of its slow but inevitable decline. Spain had produced some fantastic art during its rise but in its decline art reached a level of beauty and influence that has remained an impressive legacy. Names such as Cervantes, Velazquez and El Greco belong among the most illustrious in human artistic endeavour.

What I like about the book is that the author takes imaginative liberties with his historical materials. He provides the reader with a possible (all be it hypothetical) dialogue between notable historical figures. For example, there is a brief discussion about art between the Emperor Charles V and the painter Titian (who though born in Italy spent much of his productive life as Spanish royal court painter), and a spiritual tete-a-tete between St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. There is also an extended discussion of Cervantes’ famous work, Don Quixote. History with some literary criticism thrown in—wonderful. 

Goodwin has done justice to the dramatic story of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. If you like reading about the histories of countries and/or kingdoms, and if you like your history to be entertaining, then this book will satisfy.