Symbolic Gestures

Kafka-as-pupil

Young Franz Kafka

Much has changed since my last post here, especially after the U.S. election last November. I’ve been tempted to comment on the many parallels between the daily news and the historical events I’ve been researching (among them terrorism in the early 1890s, anti-immigration and anti-Semitic policies of that day, the looming specter of doomsday devices, and even disputes over Venezuelan sovereignty).

At the same time, I’ve felt a greater urgency to complete the final chapters and not be overly distracted by all the hype and click-bait published in the media, both social and professional. On several occasions I’ve thought about Franz Kafka’s dispassionate and seemingly self-centered journal entry on the outbreak of World War I: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”

(Brief historical aside: Kafka’s spirit haunts me as I write this book, especially after I learned that Bertha von Suttner’s birthplace, the Kinsky Palace in Prague, was later converted into the grammar school that Kafka attended as a child. It now houses the Franz Kafka Bookshop. See http://www.prague.cz/kinsky-palace/ for more details.)

 

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The Kinsky Palace in Prague, birthplace of Bertha von Suttner and, later, the site of a grammar school attended by Franz Kafka

There’s a vast psychological distance between those two sentences in Kafka’s journal, and yet by now many of us are all too familiar with it, perhaps to the point of feeling overwhelmed and completely powerless in the face of current events. What can one single person do in this place and time to create a better future for our world? For some, the answer is to take to the streets with banners and placards, to spend hours arguing with legislators on the telephone, to post and repost fact-based articles detailing the most demanding issues of the day. For others, the answer is to persist and persevere along our chosen paths. “Stay in your lane,” advised the poet and journalist Ted Genoways, urging fellow writers to do what they do best: write. The benefits may not be realized in the short-term, especially for those of us working on epic-length novels, but we maintain faith in the positive, long-term effects.

In the meantime, we should look to our health as individuals and prepare ourselves for what promises to be a long-term challenge. When has this not been the case? Losing sleep, courting depression, indulging addictions: none of these helps with solutions.

The trend toward aggressive militarism in the United States, for example, didn’t begin with the contested election of Donald Trump, nor did the nation’s long-running struggle with racism and xenophobia. When I began writing this book years ago, these ugly and immoral aspects of American life were already deeply ingrained in our culture. Just compare how a 19th-century female pacifist like Bertha von Suttner would have responded to the wildly popular movie “Wonder Woman” and so many viewers’ claims that here, at last, was a positive role model for young women. To use a modern catch-phrase, “I can’t even.”

Today is the International Day of Peace, one of many symbolic annual events such as Earth Day that neatly package a grand idea into twenty four hours of observation. Many (like me, I’ll admit) will post a banner or meme on their Facebook walls before returning relatively unaffected to our daily work. Some, like the real wonder woman, Nobel Peace prize winner Malala Yousafzi, may continue to act on their beliefs in human goodness and progress, perhaps placing one brick atop another to construct a new and sturdy schoolhouse for young women in a war-ravaged nation. (More likely, Malala will be hunkered down in the library doing her homework after classes at Oxford University, continuing to improve herself even as she works to improve the world.)

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 5.02.37 PMSymbolic gestures such as International Peace Day remind us that the work of peace is varied and ongoing. Bertha von Suttner was a firm believer in the power of advertising and propaganda; in fact, these were among the primary goals of the many peace societies she helped to found throughout Europe. Together with other luminaries of the day, she helped craft a pin for society members to wear, something visible to promote the cause in public. “Peace is sought for by Justice,” the emblem read, reminding members of the ideology behind their movement. Today, we carry that idealism forward according to our individual gifts and talents. On days like International Peace Day, it’s worth pausing to consider what our efforts can achieve collectively.

So on this day, remind others that our labors for peace are ongoing and that we must continue to do what we can do. Read a newspaper to stay engaged. Volunteer to help a friend or neighbor in need. Share your hopes for a better world. Purchase a book to stay enlightened. And swim a few laps to stay healthy.

Facts, Fake News, and Fiction

15418395_10154138347379103_2426340092127106366_oThis past weekend, as the 2016 Nobel Prize winners received their awards on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s (actual) death in 1896, the western world continued to grapple with a “post-truth” political landscape that threatens the very foundations of the laureates’ achievements: evidence-based research and discovery. In his introductory remarks, Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, said, “The grim truth is that we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts, and knowledge.”

In my own explorations into the origins of the peace prize, I’ve been surprised at how often historical “facts” have been twisted and manipulated into false narratives, even in supposedly authoritative, academic texts. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s biographical entry on Nobel, which chronicles a bit of “fake news” concerning his (supposed) death in 1888:

The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with (his brother) Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel)

nyt-early-obitI’ve found versions of this story repeated throughout my research, though neither I nor many of the historians who have studied Nobel’s life have been able to document or verify the headline quoted above. I have, however, been able to verify that the false obituary did appear in newspapers around the world, including in The New York Times (see right). In many instances, Nobel biographers draw a direct correlation between the mistaken obituary and his development of the peace prize, despite the fact that eight years (and at least two prior drafts of his last will and testament, neither of which included a peace prize) separate the two events.

Once we have the “merchant of death” story in mind, however, we start looking for other facts and details that support this intriguing (and admittedly entertaining) narrative. This is called confirmation bias: starting with a hypothesis and seeking out evidence that supports it rather than remaining objective and drawing one’s conclusions from the evidence itself. Sadly, we expect to find an abundance of confirmation bias in politics, but it’s doubly distressing to see it infiltrating academic texts. As a false correlation like the one above is referenced and footnoted throughout subsequent works, it becomes harder and harder for us to discern the “fake news” from the facts. Key words such as “perhaps” from the original encyclopedia entry have a way of disappearing in subsequent retellings.

As someone writing a fictionalized account of the origins of the peace prize, I’m tempted by some of the more dramatic and entertaining options available, such as suggestions of a romantic relationship between the two protagonists, Nobel and Bertha von Suttner. Fiction, however, prefers to revel in complexities, not settle for simplistic explanations. By extension, historical fiction insists upon careful research and analysis, with the central narrative(s) supported by both evidence and logic.

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Taken from a plaster cast of his face, Alfred Nobel’s “death mask” rests atop engraved lines from his last will and testament.

This isn’t always possible, especially when theorizing about what drove and distracted major and minor figures in the 19th century. Like a good detective, the historical fiction writer looks for probable cause, not merely plausible cause. The latter may attract a wider readership (by suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, for example), but it borders on being irresponsible. When you consider that the creators of “fake news” are, in fact, peddling this same sort of fiction, you can begin to appreciate the rising anxiety levels of already anxious writers today.

Fiction posing as fact is not a new phenomenon, nor is the eager gullibility of the general public. Literature may invite us as readers to “suspend our disbelief” when entering imagined worlds of the past, but readers should do so sparingly, and then only temporarily. Above all, we should continue to question and explore the topics that interest us and influence our lives beyond the final pages.

Some might protest that homework ends in adulthood, but that’s hardly true in any civilized society. Many farmers continue to research and practice new ways to improve their crop yields just as doctors constantly research and practice new life-saving procedures. Likewise, our civic duty demands a critical attentiveness to the present-day news and, as a kind of “healthy skepticism,” a steadfast desire to verify the truth of that news. This is the ongoing and absolutely vital kind of education promoted by both Nobel and Suttner throughout their lifetimes. Without it, we remain vulnerable to all manner of future horrors and atrocities, as Suttner herself warned right up until her own death—just days before the violent outbreak of World War I.

Response to a Demagogue

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General Georges Boulanger, who served for many years as France’s Minister of War

During this U.S. presidential election cycle, I’ve been working on a section of Peace at Last that features General Georges Boulanger, a handsome and charismatic French demagogue from the late 1800s who rallied the French public to take up arms against Germany in the hopes of avenging the nation’s prior defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. On election night in January of 1889, emboldened mobs took to the streets of Paris and exhorted Boulanger to seize control of the government and establish a new, populist, authoritarian regime. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, Boulanger chose to pass up the opportunity and spend the evening with his mistress.

Perhaps because of his businessman’s knowledge of each country’s military capabilities, Alfred Nobel strongly believed that Germany would have readily defeated France if Boulanger had initiated a second war between the nations. He also clearly understood the dangers of demagoguery and how a man such as Boulanger could incite and inflame the vengeful sentiments of the uneducated masses. A resident of Paris at the time, Nobel noted in a letter, “In former days, governments used to be more narrow-minded and aggressive than their subjects. Nowadays, it seems as though the governments endeavor to appease the idiotic passions of a public roused into hysteria by pernicious newspapers.”

In 1892, shortly after Nobel and Bertha von Suttner had discussed the idea of establishing a global prize for peacemakers, he shared his darkening cynicism about mankind in a letter to the Baroness. “A new tyranny—that from the lower strata—stirs in the darkness,” he wrote, “and one can hear its distant rumble.”

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Just months after the death of his mistress, General Boulanger went to her grave with a pistol in hand and took his own life.

In the United States, that rumble no longer sounds in the distance. Unlike France in the late 19th century, it appears that the demagogue will have his day. Though the origins of Donald Trump’s electoral appeal may differ somewhat from Boulanger’s, the parallels are hard to ignore: a sensationalist press, an ill-informed public, and a list of grievances that have remained unresolved for decades.

Throughout his final years, Nobel found it difficult to overcome the growing sense of despair and depression he felt on reading the daily news. To her credit, Suttner remained an uplifting influence in his life, nursing his wounded idealism despite the mounting evidence of bigotry, prejudice, and nationalism spreading throughout Europe. When he revised his will shortly before his death, Nobel finally followed through on his promise to fund the peace prize that he and Suttner had envisioned.

From a period of turmoil and adversity, then, at least one great and affirming good emerged. I remain hopeful that peace-affirming beliefs such as those embodied by both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner will guide the world in its responses to the unfolding events of our own time.

The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize

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Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Congratulations to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who was named the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize laureate this morning for his efforts to end the long civil war in his country. The award comes shortly after a referendum on the peace agreement in Colombia failed by a slim margin among voters, but the members of the prize committee remained optimistic and expressed their hopes that the peace negotiations would continue toward an agreeable resolution for all parties involved.

Some critics have argued that because such an agreement has not yet been secured and ratified, the Peace Prize award is premature. This same argument has accompanied announcements in many previous years as well. It’s worth recalling that in an 1893 letter, Bertha von Suttner argued with Alfred Nobel over the nature of the yet-to-be-established peace prize after they had discussed the idea together in Zurich. She, too, saw the award not as a contest to be won or as recognition for a particular achievement but as a means of supporting and assisting ongoing efforts to establish a more just and peaceful word. She wrote, “What people who work for peace need most of all is not prizes. They need the means to allow them to work.”

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Outside the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on the morning of the 2016 Peace Prize announcement

In his will, Nobel advised that the peace prize should be awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” President Santos represents the peace-seeking idealism at the heart of Nobel’s bequest, especially as he works toward the dissolution and disarmament of rebel armies within his country.

As Santos and the psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out in an op-ed piece this past summer (see my previous post here), should he and his fellow Colombians succeed in their efforts to secure peace in their country, they will have brought an end to the last remaining armed conflict in the western hemisphere. They wrote, “Progress toward peace moves slowly and uncertainly, but it is propelled by determination, ingenuity and the will of millions — and by the realization that peace is not a utopian ideal but an eminently attainable outcome.”

Here’s hoping that this year’s Peace Prize will guide Colombia and all of the Americas toward that outcome.

Swords into Ploughshares

 

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“Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” a sculpture by Evgeny Vuchetich presented to the United Nations in 1959 and on display at its headquarters in New York City

God shall judge among the nations, and shall decide for many peoples: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
—Isaiah 2:4

 

For decades now I’ve looked to the literary journal Ploughshares as a symbol of the positive influence that writing can have on establishing a more just and peaceful world. Derived from the biblical quote above, the publication’s name refers to the constructive and creative application of the tools crafted to help civilize the world, language and literature among them.

With that clearly in mind, I submitted the first excerpt from Peace at Last, a chapter entitled “Koppargruva,” to the editors in the hopes that it might find a meaningful home there. I’m ever so thankful that it has.

This conflation of good and evil, construction and destruction, haunted Alfred Nobel throughout his life and features prominently in this excerpt. His patented applications of explosives (nitroglycerin, dynamite, and gelignite most notable among them) led to incredible advances in the mining and railway industries and, in so doing, helped to transform the world at an unprecedented rate. However, military applications of the same technology, at first held at arm’s length by Nobel, caused death and destruction at similarly unprecedented levels.

Throughout his life, Nobel considered ways to balance the destructive power of his explosives with more constructive and unifying pursuits. Working together with Bertha von Suttner, he funded pacifist societies throughout Europe and eventually, also at her insistence, endowed the peace prize that now bears his name. For him, this represented one way to establish a more progressive and positive legacy despite society’s depiction of him as a “merchant of death.”

“Cannot swords be turned to ploughshares?” Ronald Reagan asked in his address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City nearly a century later. He continued, “Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war and the threat of war?”

These questions and concerns, debated for centuries, still trouble society today. They can inspire us toward aspiration and optimism just as easily as they can lead us to despair and cynicism. They’re the motivation behind my devotion to Peace at Last, for in Alfred and Bertha I see both sword and ploughshare. They’re also at the core of the moral crisis depicted in “Koppargruva,” one of the early “Nobel” chapters from the book.

The Ploughshares “Solos” version of “Koppargruva” is now available directly from the Ploughshares Web site (https://www.pshares.org/solos/koppargruva-solo-52) and can also be purchased and downloaded via iBooks (Apple iTunes) and Kindle (amazon.com, where it’s a dollar more for some reason).

The title can also be found on kobo.com, where new registrants are frequently treated to an instant $5 credit. Might I suggest adding Bertha von Suttner’s Lay Down Your Arms ($2.99) to your cart along with “Koppargruva”? You’d still have two cents left to put toward another purchase…

“Koppargruva”

koppargruva6The first excerpt from the novel, “Koppargruva,” is now available for download as part of the Ploughshares “Solos” series. Here’s a slightly amended description from the journal’s Web site:

“Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and inspiration for the Nobel Peace Prize, visited the United States twice. ‘Koppargruva,’ from Hugh Coyle’s forthcoming book Peace at Last, is a fictionalized account of one of those excursions. Dubbed a killer by American journalists because of recent accidental nitroglycerin blasts in Panama and San Francisco, Nobel faces his tarnished reputation head on while searching for any sliver of redemption.”

The Solo includes a question and answer section following the excerpt in which I discuss the evolution of this particular chapter as well as the novel itself.

In the days ahead, I’ll be posting more information about “Koppargruva” and explain why it means so much to have it appear in Ploughshares. I’ll also provide links for interested readers to download the book via various digital platforms, such as Amazon and iTunes, once they are available. For now, you can purchase and download a copy (suitable for either Kindle or iBooks) on the journal’s Web site here and/or subscribe to the entire “Solos” series of publications, which features ten titles per year: https://www.pshares.org/solos/koppargruva-solo-52

Feel free to send along any questions you might have about this particular chapter as well. I’d be happy to answer them as much as possible without giving away too many details and surprises from the rest of the book!

 

 

The Path Toward Peace

 

ADNBogotabigThe recipient(s) of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize will soon be announced (October 7), and this week’s news offered strong support for the negotiators who have solidified the Colombian peace treaty, which, if it stands, would mark the end to a war that has lasted nearly half a century. In addition, as Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker noted in a recent co-authored op-ed piece, the western hemisphere will have reached a more far-reaching milestone: “Today, there are no military governments in the Americas. No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies.”

This historic moment barely registered in the lists of most-shared news stories. Instead, countless doom-and-gloom fears and anxieties continued to dominate social media from nearly every point on the political sphere. Some of my most well-intentioned pacifist friends continue to bemoan the “fact” that our world is more violent and war-torn than ever before.

51t3xTY8DQLIn fact, the “facts” don’t support such pessimism and cynicism.

As Steven Pinker pointed out in his well-researched book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Rather than recognize and build on this moment of hope and optimism, many have sought to rebut his claims and focus attention on recent horrific instances of terrorism or the loudest voices of hatred, contempt, and intolerance in our society. Some have also attempted to redefine the word “violence” to include a broader range of complaints and offenses that can justify their own dire perspectives.

I won’t take up those arguments here or attempt an explanation of why they persist in our culture despite evidence to the contrary. Truth be told, I struggle with these same issues every day in my own dark-leaning psyche. Regardless, I won’t allow the lure of negativity to detract from the hopes of a fully peaceful South America, especially not in this end-of-summer moment while the positive glow of the Rio Olympics still shines from Brazil.

I will, however, argue that we need to make such stories of peace more popular and share them more widely when they occur. To explain why, I offer this short yet inspirational excerpt from Pinker’s book: “Peace first became a popular sensation with the publication of two bestsellers. In 1889 the Austrian novelist Bertha von Suttner published a work of fiction called Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a first-person account of the gruesomeness of war. And in 1909 the British journalist Norman Angell published a pamphlet called Europe’s Optical Illusion, later expanded as The Great Illusion, which argued that war was economically futile.”die-waffen-nieder-072396855

I had never heard about Bertha von Suttner upon reading this, but I was greatly intrigued, and so I began doing some research into her life and works. Every book opens another, and this certainly held true here: Pinker’s book led me to seek out and open Suttner’s book, which led me to open up biographies of Alfred Nobel, which led me to begin writing my own historical novel, Peace at Last. This project seemed the most viable path to employ my own talents and interests in the hopes of promoting and perpetuating global peace.

Such a stance doesn’t come without its detractors, and the voices of yesteryear still echo too loudly today. As Pinker wrote, “For all its literary popularity, the antiwar movement seemed too idealistic at the time to be taken seriously by the political mainstream. Suttner was called ‘a gentle perfume of absurdity,’ and her German Peace Society ‘a comical sewing bee composed of sentimental aunts of both sexes.’ Angells’ friends told him to ‘avoid that stuff or you’ll be classed with cranks and faddists, with devotees of Higher Thought who go about in sandals and long beards, and live on nuts.’”1200x630bf

Nay-saying and name-calling is nothing new. The pessimists continue to challenge the idealists; those who seek to profit from war continue to rail against those who continue to point out the proven and vastly greater economic benefits of peace. Luckily for all of us, the trend over time continues toward peace. The news from South America this week supports that momentum, and so we should all celebrate the Colombians’ efforts and work with them toward preserving our newly war-free western hemisphere.