V.S. Naipaul – The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage (1962) is V.S. Naipaul’s first work of travel writing. It is an account of his returning journey to five Caribbean “post-colonial” societies, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica.

The Middle Passage, Naipaul takes the title of his book from the name for the route travelled by the slaves as they were transported from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies, is a highly personal book. Naipaul is continuously confronted with his feelings, the fear of returning to tropical Trinidad, the fear of remembering. Not surprisingly, emotions make him unconsciously biased toward the people of his native country and the other post colonial Caribbean countries. He lucks that kind of stimuli, the rigour and the emotional curiosity of a traveller.

I have tried hard to feel interest in the Amerindians as a whole, but had failed. I couldn’t read their faces; I couldn’t understand their language, and could never gauge at what level communication was possible. Among more complex peoples there are certain individuals who have the power to transmit to you their sense of defeat and purposeless: emotional parasites’ who flourish by draining you of the vitality you preserve with difficulty. The Amerindians had this effect on me.

The cultural gap between Naipul and the Caribbean region is too wide and unlike to be narrowed during the journey. He is detached, sad and uncertain, an outsider; he sees the post slave-holding societies with a critical eye and in order to corroborate his observations he quotes Victorian travel writers, such as Antony Trollope and Charles Kingsley.

All these do not suggest that the work is unimportant. Quite the opposite! The Middle Passage mirrors the cultural blend of the multiracial Caribbean societies, the differences, tensions and conflicts. Insightfully and vividly written, a human and intellectual adventure.

…. [The paths and ditches and houses and fields looked so alike. The house stood on a rectangular plot of land, and, with ditches on all sides, appeared moaned. Rustling junk in a rusting corrugated-iron  shed; a bicycle wheel against a pillar; chickens in the dust and drying mud below the two or three dwarf coconut trees; a bad-tempered barking mongrel; and the mosquitoes thick in the damp heat. A young spastic Indian woman in a slack cotton dress held the dog. We crossed the moat and made our way to the back of the house where, unprotected from the sun, a very old man with white hair and bristle of white bird sat on the ground rubbing oil on himself. The mosquitoes left him alone; they left Jonny alone. But thwy fastened on to me, to my hair, my shirt, my trousers,and even my eyelets of my shoes. Movement didn’t disturb them; they had to be brushed off.] ….

…. [A derelict man in a derelict land; a man discovering himself, with surprise and resignation, lost in a landscape which had never ceased to be unreal because the scene of enforced and always temporary residence; the slaves kidnapped from one continent and abandoned on the unprofitable plantations of another, from which there could never more be escape;] …..

Wealth Inequality and the Forces of Convergence | Reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

A 700-page book on economics is not exactly a light read for someone with a background in environmental sciences, but after all this success, discussions and reviews, I felt I had to read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I borrowed it from the library and I am glad I did. There have been plenty of reviews, critiques and a variety of arguments for and against, but, to me, the real importance of the book lies in just a few pages where the author discusses the forces of convergence that have led to decreasing inequality.

Thomas Piketty’s central argument is that when the returns on capital (r) outpace economic growth (g), {r>g} over time, wealth inequality increases and therefore, those who control wealth will always get richer and those who depend on the growth of the economy, the labour, will always be poorer compared to the rich. Piketty’s suggestion that a global tax of up to 2% a year should be introduced on individual wealth to prevent capital concentrating in the hands of the few has been controversial but there has been no real attack. One of the problems with the global tax is that it requires a high level of international cooperation.  Some, Bill Gates included, have suggested a progressive tax on consumption instead.

Inequality  is one of the biggest challenges facing the world  today. A high level of inequality does not affect only the poor, but can be detrimental to growth, stability and well-being in general. The demand for governments to tackle extreme inequality is growing.

 Forces of Convergence

Thomas Piketty suggests that there are two forces of convergence that could decrease inequality, both within and between nations. One is the diffusion of knowledge and two, investing in people. In his own words:

“The main forces for convergence are the diffusion of knowledge and investment in training and skills. The law of supply and demand, as well as the mobility of capital and labour, which is a variant of that law, may always tend towards convergence as well, but the influence of this economic law is less powerful than the diffusion of knowledge and skill and is frequently ambiguous or contradictory in its implications. Knowledge and skill diffusion is the key of the overall productivity growth as well as the reduction of inequality both within and between countries.”

Knowledge transfer and diffusion can generate innovative ideas for the 21st century. But we need to accelerate the process of diffusion and find even better ways to include people and improve their skills. Piketty says,

“…….. the principal force for convergence –the diffusion of knowledge– is only partly natural and spontaneous. It also depends in large part on educational policies, access to training and to the acquisition of appropriate skills, and associated institution.”    

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, said,

“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness”

Phantoms on the Bookselves

After owning books, almost the next best thing is to talk about them, once said Charles Nodier.

This is a book about books. Jacques Bonnet writes about his private library, comprised of more than forty thousand volumes, about its origins, contents and organisation.

This is also a book about a life built around reading, about the seductive power of books, the joy of a serendipitous find in a second-hand bookstore.

“The love of books, the possession of them, can be thought of as an extension of one’s self or being” says James Salter, “ not separate from the love of life but rather as an extra dimension of it, and even of what comes after.”

If books and reading is a part of yourself, you would love this small charming book, full of witty and vivacity.

Phantom in French, is a ghost but it is also the card that librarians leave to mark a place where a volume has been removed from a bookcase.

The Missing Shade of Blue or the dangers and the delights of philosophy

It was the title that made me pick up this book off the shelf in the library. The Missing Shade of Blue refers to David Hume’s thesis, or rather objection to his thesis, that simple ideas are derived from corresponding simple impressions. But Hume also argues that under certain conditions it seems possible that an idea can emerge without being caused by an impession.  We can imagine a purple horse without having seen one. As he describes in the ‘missing shade of blue’ thought experiment

Suppose, therefore, a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly acquainted with colours of all kinds except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, and will be sensible that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours than in any other. Now I ask, whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can: and this may serve as a proof that the simple ideas are not always, in every instance, derived from the correspondent impressions; though this instance is so singular, that it is scarcely worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.*

Jennie Erdal’s book , “The Missing Shade of Blue. A philosophical mystery”   refers to our ability to make sense of something that we have not experienced. Happiness, perhaps!

It is a book about the dangers and the delights of philosophy which as Carrie (one of the characters in the story) warns, it can “seriously damage your heart”. It is about love and death “the principal concerns in most people’s lives.” It is also a book a about language and fly-fishing.

A gripping story, beautifully written.

*"An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding", David Hume, 1748

The F – word

Κατά την διάρκεια της φυλάκισής της στο Holloway τον Μάρτιο 1909, η Κόνστανς Λύττον (Constance Lytton) χρησιμοποιώντας ένα κομμάτι σπασμένο σμάλτο από μια φουρκέτα χάραξε στο στήθος της το γράμμα «V» – «Vote for Women”.

Η Κόνστανς Λύττον ήταν φεμινίστρια.

Βρισκόμαστε στο 2015. Ο αγώνας έχει αλλάξει. Οι γυναίκες σήμερα μπορούν να ψηφίσουν, σπουδάζουν σε όποιον τομέα επιθυμούν, εργάζονται, ντύνονται, συμπεριφέρονται και ζουν την ζωή τους όπως τους αρέσει. Τα «μεγάλα θέματα» ισότητας και διακρίσεων φαίνεται να έχουν αντιμετωπιστεί. Είναι πολύ εύκολο να απορριφθεί η ανάγκη του φεμινισμού.

Είναι όμως έτσι;

Continue reading The F – word

The Novitiation ceremony in Myanmar

According to Buddhist tradition in Myanmar the boys over 8 years can enter the Buddhist Order for a small period or for their whole life. Their stay at the monastery it is a blessing for the whole family and it is considered an important duty that parents owe to their sons, to embrace the legacy and become immersed in the teaching of Buddha.


The Novitiation ceremony in Bagan – The parade

A Novitiation ceremony involves a parade around the pagodas on the first day with the boys dressed up as princes before they shave their heads and enter the Order.

Here a parade in Bagan


The Novitiation ceremony in Bagan – The prince.

Leaving Myanmar

Myanmar (Burma) is already past. While waiting in Bangkok airport for my flight to London I am hovering between the past and the present. My thoughts are still in this incredible country, my head is brimming with ideas, I want to describe the feelings, the images, I but I don’t know where to begin and where to end.

The Floating Bamboo Houses in Inle Lake.
The Floating Bamboo Houses in Inle Lake.

My mind is full of memories of tastes and smells of a world that I no longer belong. I am thinking of the people I met, wonderful, smiling, open, humble and so calm. Intelligent, hard-working people in a country that changes fast. The transition to democracy is not smooth, but there is optimism and that helps creating the energy to achieve things.

A Child Monk inside a pagoda/meditation centre in the mountains of Inle Lake.
A child monk inside a pagoda/meditation centre in the mountains of Inle Lake.

Perhaps it is the practice of the Kalama Sutta, one of the most liberated discourses of the Buddha, cited by those of the Theravada tradition of Buddhism that help people acquire the mental well-being through the overcoming of greed, anger and ignorance.