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History

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Title: The Enlightenment and the Invention of the Modern Self
Lecturer: Leo Damrosch
Producer:
The Teaching Company
Duration: 24 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

This relatively short series of lectures covers, as the title implies, the Enlightenment in Europe and the changing perception of the self. The lecturer is Leo Damrosch, previously unknown to me, and his method is to approach the changing ways of interpreting the human mind through various books, mostly autobiographies, and see how these reflect the society in which they were written. In doing so, we also get a glimpse of the history, politics and culture of the time, since it is of course impossible to untangle the invention of the modern self from the other strands of human history making up what we call the Enlightenment.

I am not overjoyed by this series of lectures, mostly because I think the overall goal is very vague. After finished the series, I am still not sure what the lecturer wanted to say or what the series was about. I got a lot of separate pictures from various books, but I did not get a feeling of invention or evolution. Also, I am not convinced that approaching history and relying so much on fiction and autobiographies is a good idea. There might be no better way, but the problems it creates are serious. For instance, most of this series is spent on explaining what happens in various books, which further adds to the feeling of isolated pictures, disconnected from the larger scenery. I would have liked to have much more on more general issues. Perhaps it is telling that I thought the last two lectures were the most interesting ones, namely those on William Blake, spelling the death of the Enlightenment and the beginning of Romanticism

As is usually the case, the lecturer is still not bad in himself, although I might not approve of his strategy or of the subject itself. However, he is far from as entertaining and pedagogically brilliant as some other of the professors behind series from The Teaching Company (Patrick N. Allit, Ashton Nichols and Gary W. Gallagher come to mind). I will not stop listening to lecture series like this one, but I will not recommend this particular one to anybody else, except if you happen to be very interested in the books and authors presented in the course.

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Yesterday, I received an e-mail with the results from the take-home exam I handed in for our course about recent history and politics in North-East Asia. One of my goals for March was to earn full grades for the two exams we had, but it is only now, six weeks later, that I can conclude that the goal was actually accomplished (I had 175.5 out of 177 on the other exam). Still, four important things remain before I can focus fully on preparations for my Taiwan adventure. First, there is a project that is to be handed in next week. Second, there are three language-related exams (one translation, one general, and one technical Chinese).

As usual, I publish exams I hand in (last years take-home exam can be found here). It is written in Swedish, and focuses on five question relating to: economy in the region as a whole, opposition parties in Japan, negative aspects of Chinese growth, Chinese system of guanxi, and politics in South Korea. I received 95/100 on this course.

Download exam (597K, RTF)

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Title: 天地英雄
English title: Warriors of Heaven and Earth
Directed by:
He Ping
Written by:
Bai Song, Chen Kuo-fu
Year: 2004

I have decided to start watching films in which the characters speak in Mandarin, not because I hope to understand what they are saying, but because I want to hear more spoken Chinese. Occasionally, I do understand what they say, but not very often. Even though many of these films are made for export, I still get a taste of China by watching them, which is also partly why I do it. As was the case with The Emperor and the Assassin, the films are sometimes brilliant as well, which certainly helps.

Regrettably, Warriors of Heaven and Earth does not come close to The Emperor and the Assassin, although they are set in a similar environment. The story is set much later, around 700 A.D. in which fugitive ex-lieutenant Li, who is to be hunted down for starting a mutiny by refusing to kill women and children prisoners. Japanese emissary to the Chinese court, Lai Xi is sent to kill Li, but recognises that his target is on an imperial mission and they postpone their final duel until they reach the capital. However, many perils awaits in the desert before they get their, since the caravan they have undertaken to protect is more valuable than it might seem at first.

To my mind, this is the major problem with this film is that it does what the Emperor and the Assassin, only not as good. Still, this film has certain merits which might make it worthwhile (I say might, because I am still quite not sure). Firstly, the sceneries are marvellous and covers a wide range of beautiful landscapes, nicely integrated into the narration. Secondly, the soundtrack succeeds in blending with the rest of the film and adding to the general atmosphere thus created.

This film lacks an interesting story, together with deep and moving themes, all this performed by brilliant actors. All this (and more) can be found in the Emperor and the Assassin, so I can see no reason at all to recommend this film.

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Title: One Man’s Bible
Original title: 一个人的圣经
Author: Gao Xingjian
Year: 1998

Introduction
I read this novel as part of a study assignment, which is why it is more ambitious than my normal reviews. The instruction was basically to reflect upon the novel and its contents and since I thought I might as well publish what I hand in, here you have my reflections on Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible. This novel is utterly impossible to spoil, so even though I do reveal parts of the story, I do not feel that I have to issue a spoiler warning.

Summary
One Man’s Bible is a story composed of two narrative threads, beautifully interlaced to form varied and lucid fabric depicting the author, his background and relation to his native country: China. The focus of the novel is roughly equally distributed between the two threads. The first explores the author’s historical heritage, focusing on the Cultural Revolution and the period following it, the second consists reflective musing on literature and life, always with clear connections to his personal background.

About the author
Gao Xingjian is a fascinating character in many ways, not least because of his background. He was born in 1940 to a bank official and an actress in Ganzhou, People’s Republic of China. Before the Cultural Revolution, he studied at university and worked as a translator. During this period, he also produced numerous works of literature, but he was compelled to burn them all out of fear of government reprisals (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

As the tremors of the Cultural Revolution shook China, Gao fled to the rural parts of western China in order to hide. He worked on a farm and later as a teacher, but persevered in his writing. Yet again, he had to immolate his manuscripts to avoid persecution by the authorities. After the Cultural Revolution, he moved back to Beijing and became a renowned and prolific playwright (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

In 1987 he left China, probably for good, since he does not want to return to that authoritarian state. He is now settled in France, where he has begun to produce literature in French, as well as to publish old material in translation to English (as of 2008, four books are available in English). Gao Xingjian is possibly most well-known for being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

About the novel
As I have already stated briefly, One Man’s Bible consists of two parallel stories, and although interlaced and supporting each other, I think reflections upon the book will merit from treating these threads separately. Let me begin with the thread concerning historical times, because it is the basis of the novel and without it, the thread taking place in modern times would be pointless.

Writing about terrible things belonging to the author’s personal history is always difficult, because there is so much suffering in the world that I as a reader do not feel the need of adding more. Certain authors are capable of writing about terrible events and, at the same time, manage to create great literature (Imre Kertész and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spring to mind). I think that Gao Xingjian places himself firmly in this exclusive group of authors, mostly because of the reflective writing that parallels the historical retelling (more on that later), but also because it is apparent in his writing that his main objective is not to earn sympathy or to paint as dark a picture as possible of China’s history. This impression does of course not render this very story in a more positive light, but it makes the novel worthwhile.

The author focuses on fairly subjective narration of his experiences, not always in chronological order, but always with added comment and thought. It is not a wallowing in filth, repression and terror, but rather a story of a deeply reflective man put in a society in which he cannot thrive. It is moving to know that although he risked death, he still wrote during the Cultural Revolution. Thinking reflectively and openly was not something he felt that he could do, but over and over throughout his writing, he expresses an aptitude for reflective writing.

Note that Gao Xingjian does not write to encourage humanity to learn from history, because, as he rather cynically puts it “when people have forgotten about it [the terrible times], it will make a comeback, and people who have never gone crazy will go crazy […] This is because madness has existed since the birth of humanity, and it is simply a question of when it will flare up again” (p. 195). Instead, it is a one man’s bible, a story about a lonely man and his need to “release himself”, something which he associates with a “deep, instinctual animal drive” (p. 196).

I have previously read one book which takes place during the cultural revolution (Red Azalea by Anchee Min) and, even though I would like to make it clear that I do in now way intend to say that these books are similar in any other way, I would like to say that their portrayal of society is reminiscent of each other. Both are stories about repression, albeit it in different ways, and paranoia and fear are themes which run as a scarlet thread through both novels.

Throughout the novel, the author often touches on the issue of wearing a mask to conceal one’s real emotions and thoughts about what is going on in one’s vicinity, which is a theme I think can be traced to most novels set in repressive, totalitarian states. Perhaps, it is something present in most societies, albeit that the consequences of violating the masquerade is fatally different in the China of Gao’s youth, compared with that of present day Sweden. We all wear masks to present a face to the world which enables us to survive and thrive in the social milieu. The difference for me personally is of course that changing masks is something that can be allowed to function naturally and is seldom forced upon me from the outside. In the China of One Man’s Bible, this is not so. The author notes that “[h]is real face only came into existence later on, when, finally, he was able to take off the mask. But taking it off was not an easy matter, because the face and the facial nerves had become stiff from wearing the mask” (p. 212).

By way of making a connection to the other narrative thread in the novel, I would like to comment on another theme, which is present in almost all 61 chapters of One Man’s Bible, namely women. In the beginning, Gao’s relationship to the opposite sex is fairly ordinary, but after being scorched by a particular girl who betrays him after him having invested trust and emotion into his relationship with her. He says that you (here using second person singular to address aspects of himself, more on that below) “wander from country to country, city to city, woman to woman, but don’t think of finding a place that is home. You drift along, engrossed in savouring the taste of the written language, like ejaculating, leaving behind some traces of your life.” (p. 426) It is through his conversations with these women that we receive the story of One Man’s Bible. Women also constitute an important thread running through the historical narration, since the author often uses them as a basis from which to explore his past.

As seen in the quotation above, the author uses second person singular to separate himself from the story, because, as he says, literature is like a camera for a photographer in that it allows the author to shield himself from what he is writing about. This technique feels awkward in the beginning, but after a while, I sense a true separation between author and main character, and I cannot help but admire how skilfully this is executed. In certain chapters later in the novel, Gao uses this technique to highlight certain effects (since he uses third person singular for his historical narration, he is thus enabled to comment on what has happened, both from his standpoint behind the camera, as it were, and as a participant in the events he describes).

Conclusion
Gao Xingjian manages to do what few other authors are capable of, namely to write about suffering and misery in a way which makes his novel worthwhile to read, not because of the suffering, but because of the way in which the author relates to it. The greatness of One Man’s Bible resides in its ability to combine such reflections and still manage to create great literature. The language of this English translation (by Mabel Lee) is excellent and the stylistic ingenuity shown by the author makes this pure joy to read. Even though it is sometimes hard to relate to what is being told, and although the story itself is not always mesmerising, my overall impression of One Man’s Bible is very good. I intend to read more by Gao Xingjian and, if I may, I humbly suggest you do the same.

References

Gao Xingjian. (2003). One Man’s Bible. Flamingo: London.

Literature resource center (accessed 2008-02-21).

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Title: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, 5-7
Lecturer: Patrick N. Allitt
Producer:
The Teaching Company
Duration: 36 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

Patrick N. Allitt concludes this 84-part lecture series on the history of the United States (see the first and second review), beginning with the industrialisation of America and concluding with a few lectures on the 1990s, terrorism and Bill Clinton. It has been a long journey and in this review I will focus mainly on Allitt’s contribution, but I will also say something on the subject of the series as a whole.

To start with, it should be mentioned that it must be one hopeless task to summarise the entire history of the United States into such a small span of time. I think Allitt succeeds in choosing relevant topics and he spends an adequate time on each. However, I still think his contribution inferior to his earlier performance in connection with his lecture series on Victorian Britain. I do not know if it is due to my wider experience of lecturers, to the fact that I found the subject matter more interesting or simply to the fact that he has to cover way too much in too brief a period of time. Regardless of the reason, I still did not enjoy the last three parts of this series as much as those prior to them.

Regarding the series as a whole, my impression is positive (The Teaching Company has never let me down before) and I recommend the series if you feel (like I do) ignorant about the subject. For more serious people, the series is much too shallow to be of great interest. However, I still recommend part four, concerning the American Civil War to everyone.

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Title: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, part 4
Lecturer: Gary W. Gallagher
Producer: The Teaching Company
Duration: 16 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

Professor Gary W. Gallagher continues to depict the history of the United States, beginning where Guelzo left off, i.e. in the prelude to the American Civil War. In sixteen well-planned and expertly performed lectures, Gallagher presents the setting in which the war took place, what happened during the war and what consequences it had for the United States as a nation. The narrative is divided into various themes, covering military development, slaves, economics and much more.

As usual, the lectures are very good, but as you can see, I think that Gallagher is worth half an additional snail compared to Guelzo. Why? Gallagher’s lectures are more structured and he also makes this structure obvious to the listener. He always begins with a summary of what he is going to say, which points he is going to pursue, and so forth. At the end of the lecture, he ties everything together and sets the stage for the next lecture. Very well done indeed.

Also, I think that the subject matter is more interesting. I did not know much about the American Civil War, so listening to these sixteen lectures was truly entertaining as well as educational. I recommend them, because even if you are not interested in listening to all 84 lectures, it is perfectly possible to listen to these sixteen lectures if you have the opportunity. The series now change lecturer yet again to professor Allitt, previously review on this website for his excellent lecture series on Victorian Britain.

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Title: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, parts 1-3
Lecturer: Allen C. Guelzo
Producer: The Teaching Company
Duration: 36 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

The Teaching Company’s lecture series about the history of the United States is fairly ambitious, spanning 84 lectures of half an hour each, three different lecturers, roughly 500 years of American history and a broad variety of subjects. Therefore, I have decided to split the reviews of this series into three parts, one for each of the lecturers. First out is Allen C. Guelzo, who lectures on the history of the United States up until the dawn of the American Civil War.

Positive things first. Guelzo is an excellent lecturer (yes, I know, it will soon be boring to praise The Teaching Company’s lecturers, but it cannot be helped, because they are indeed that good), with a pleasantly modulated voice fit to accompany me during the day. His style is clear, straightforward, and connects isolated events into themes and more general ideas.

I think Guelzo picks germane threads of history to weave this bigger fabric depicting the history of the United States. He is anxious to explain why things happened the way they did and does not resort to merely telling a tale of what has happened. His style is lively and animated, which pulls the listener into the narrative.

On the negative side, Guelzo starts by saying that it is easy to be smug about proud of being an American in such a way that it is perceived as smugness by non-Americans. The problem is that he makes himself guilty of this at several instances, especially in the beginning. It is always the Europeans who are evil, but as soon as the settlers do something good, they are suddenly called Americans instead. And so on. However, this is not a very big issue and apart from being a bit annoyed at times, it does not really affect the overall impression of the series so far.

I have finished roughly half of the series, but I will return to you with my impressions as soon as the lecturers switch again. By way of summary, this series is suffused with the same sense of quality and adept teaching skill which I have begun to associate with The Teaching Company.

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Titel: Emerson, Thoreaus and the Trancendentalist Movement
Föreläsare: Ashton Nichols
Producent: The Teaching Company
Omfattning: 24 x 30 minuter
Medium: Ljud
Recenserad: 2007-05-29

Ämnet för den här föreläsningsserien sammanfaller med en kurs vi läser i skolan, vilket är anledningen till att jag började lyssna på den. Snart hade dock föreläsaren lyckats så bra med entusiasmera att det inte hade behövts någon annan motivering för att lyssna vidare.

Föreläsningen handlar om den transcendentalismrörelse som uppstod i mitten av 1800-talet i nordöstra USA, med frontfigurer som Emerson, Thoreau och Alcott. Rörelsen handlade bland annat om mer liberal teologi, att det fanns något gudomligt inom varje människa. Vägen till att uppnå detta gick inte via församlingar eller skrivna regler, utan genom intuition och tillit till den individen. Från Emerson och kompani kan man därför spåra den tro på individen som dominerar USA idag.

Professor Ashton Nichols är kompetent så det förslår och han har verkligen lyckats med uppgiften att såväl förbereda vettiga föreläsningar som att sedan genomföra dem. Det ligger på en begriplig nivå och han är noga med att förklara vad han menar. Han har valt att presentera transcendentalismen genom en mängd personporträtt, vilket jag tycker fungerar riktigt bra.

Jag vill rekommendera den här serien till alla som är det minsta intresserade av att förstå sig på amerikaner, eller på annat sätt är nyfikna på källan till begrepp såsom “civil disobedience” eller “self-reliance”.

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Titel: Victorian Britain
Föreläsare: Patrick N. Allitt
Producent: The Teaching Company
Omfattning: 36 x 30 minuter
Medium: Ljud
Recenserad: 2007-03-23

Att lyssna på för kursen externa föreläsningar är ett gammalt knep jag använt mig av flera gånger tidigare. Eftersom jag beräknar att jag har ett par timmar per dag då det inte går att göra något annat än att lyssna (när jag går, diskar, städar, lagar mat, etcetera), är detta ett mycket effektivt sätt att skaffa sig stora mängder bakgrundsmaterial till ämnen jag pluggar. Det är givet att allting inte fastnar, men tillräckligt mycket gör det för att det ska vara någon idé.

Den här föreläsningsserien handlar om Victorian Britain, vilket är en av två epoker jag skrev tenta på nyligen, och presenteras av en herre som heter Patrick N. Allitt. Seriens genomförande är exemplariskt från början till slut och jag har egentligen ingenting att klaga på. Jag visst inte att jag var intresserad av perioden innan jag började, men nu har jag fattat det. I de 36 föreläsningarna har han hunnit gå igenom kultur, socialt liv, inrikes- och utrikespolitik, ekonomi, teknisk utveckling och mycket, mycket mer. Varje föreläsning är väl avgränsad och behandlar ett eget ämne, även om de alla hänger ihop bra. Allitt har trevlig dialekt och en röst som gör sig bra för föreläsningar av det här slaget och mycket av seriens storhet kommer utan tvekan från hans utförande snarare än innehållet. Han är duktig på att blanda upp vad han säger med bra exempel och stundtals roliga anekdoter.

Serien är dock inte helt perfekt, men jag tror snarare att det beror på att ämnet inte är det bästa tänkbara för min del. Herr Allitt gör dock ett förbaskat bra försök och når nästan hela vägen fram (vilket är flera sniglar mer än jag hade förväntat mig). Jag kan också tycka att sammanhanget mellan föreläsningarna är lite svagt, men det kan ju också betraktas som en fördel. På det stora hela är jag mycket nöjd med den här föreläsningsserien och kan varmt rekommendera den, även till er som inte är specifikt intresserade av ämnet.

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