Thank you to everyone for your kind wishes on my last post and other platforms. It’s truly encouraging. 💛
Resurfacing for a moment, I have some quotes to share from the newly published Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything. It’s the first English translation of some lectures by Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, most known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Later I’d like to film a video with my comments, but for now, here are some things he said that—at the risk of waxing dramatic—I’m turning over in my very soul. Some are things that resonate with me immediately, others are profound question marks that nag and challenge. For context: Frankl was writing this in the mid-1940s, while trying to return to “normal” life in the aftermath of unimaginable pain and loss of his loved ones.
This was a great book on North Korea, far more encompassing than I expected. It aggregates many personal accounts into a cohesive but careful picture of life in North Korea today, focused especially on how foreign media is smuggled into the country. The policy and psychological analysis were truly fascinating, and I felt the author tried to present a balanced viewpoint while maintaining her thesis, that new information empowers long-term change. One of my favorite reads of the year so far!
The past couple of weeks have been filled with sunshine and blue skies here in Western Washington. I’ve enjoyed it very much on my daily walks, but I’m also glad to see the return of rain this Saturday morning.
At long last, today I finished Arthur Waley’s translated collection of Chinese poetry. I also read “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (1987) by Wendell Berry (a new author to me), from The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Though these two readings may appear wildly different in nature, I was struck by how both of them are exemplars of the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun.” In fact, both of them are strongly relevant to today.
Love, Simple Joys, and Sorrow
Chinese Poems (1989) spans a mammoth amount of time: from circa 900 BC to the mid-1600s. The anthology begins with selections from the famous Book of Songs and later contains a large portion of works by 8th-century poet and governor Bai Juyi; the remainder of the poems are by various authors, including some anonymous ones. Romance, war, loneliness, and love of nature are all prevalent themes, and the clash of universal values versus traditional barriers creates ongoing tension.
I found this poetry book to be an uneven collection, but now and then there were some gems where the voice of the author cuts through the dense imagery and brings you down to earth. I was moved by “A Peacock Flew” (3rd-5th century AD), a tale of doomed love, even as I was frustrated by what seemed to me needless despair on the part of its characters. In Wang Chien’s “Hearing that His Friend Was Coming Back from the War,” I felt for the narrator who observed sadly, “That a young man should ever come home again / Seemed about as likely as that the sky should fall” (8th century AD). As poignant was this scene from Bai Juyi’s “The Flower Market” (p. 122):
There happened to be an old farm labourer Who came by chance that way. He bowed his head and sighed a deep sigh; But this sigh nobody understood. He was thinking, ‘A cluster of deep-red flowers Would pay the taxes of ten poor houses.’
Nothing could better illustrate the divide between prosperity and poverty, alluded to in A History of East Asia.
Something I’d also learned in that history book is that, as with many other countries, rebellion was not an uncommon occurrence in China’s history. “A Protest in the Sixth Year of Ch’ien Fu” (AD 879) speaks to injustice and discontent simmering under poor leadership (p. 176):
Do not let me hear you talking together About titles and promotions; For a single general’s reputation Is made out of ten thousand corpses
Technology vs. Conservation
Wendell Berry’s brief essay on computers is less about computers specifically and more about the shift from simple, localized living to more interconnected lifestyles enabled by increased automation. Underlying his concerns are its negative impacts on the environment, particularly electricity being fueled by strip-mined coal.
In my copy of the essay, Berry also prints opinions from readers who disagree with him and then offers a rebuttal, mostly cordially but also quite forcefully. These are some thought-provoking quotes:
I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.
I assume from [my reader’s] letter that he must send donations to conservation organizations and letters to officials…at any rate, he has a clear conscience. But this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience. The guilty are always other people, and the wrong is always somewhere else.
Not only are the problems Berry talks about still as prevalent as ever, but today they are at the forefront of concerns for those of us in the U.S.
It is why I have been following Andrew Yang‘s presidential campaign with extra attention. He has made the threats of automation the center of his platform, though he brings different ideas and takeaways than I suspect Berry would agree with. Here I’d lean towards Yang’s outlook—we cannot hope to return to fully simpler times (especially if we intend to continue to compete globally), and a minority of people giving up computers and smartphones is hardly going to stem the tide. That said, we can implement policies and programs that help us adapt to technological advances, so we are guiding them rather than reacting to them.
Either way, I sympathize with Berry and the kind of country he wanted America to be as depicted in this essay. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” is both a warning and a reminder to us that with every new convenience comes a cost and earth’s natural resources are not infinitely renewable.