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Oι Ασκήσεις Ελευθερίας του Νίκου Δήμου

Όταν ένας Αθηναίος κατηγόρησε τον Αναχάρση ότι είναι Σκύθης, αυτός απάντησε: «Εγώ ίσως πρέπει να ντρέπομαι για την πατρίδα μου, η δική σου όμως πατρίδα πρέπει να ντρέπεται για σένα».

Τον Νίκο Δήμου τον ανακάλυψα το 1977. ‘Εφηβη, μπερδεμένη, προσπαθούσα να ανακαλύψω τον εαυτό μου και τον κόσμο, μέσα από τα βιβλία. Δεν ήταν και ο καλύτερος  τρόπος, αλλά στην μπερδεμένη Αθήνα της μεταπολίτευσης, δεν είχαμε και πολλούς τρόπους διαθέσιμους. Η γραφόσουν σε καμμιά πολιτική νεολαία (ΔΑΠ-ΝΔΦΚ  και ΚΝΕ ήταν τότε στο φόρτε τους), ή το’ ριχνες στη μουσική και στο διάβασμα. Rock και βιβλία ήταν ο δικός μου τρόπος.   Όχι ότι ήμουν εντελώς απολιτίκ, δεν ήταν δυνατόν να είσαι νέος και απολιτικ στην Αθήνα του 1977, απλά, από τότε είχα μια αντιπάθεια σε οτιδήποτε είχε να κάνει με εξουσίες, εντάξεις κόμματα, παρατάξεις, παρέες, κ.λ.π.

Μια μέρα, ψαχουλεύοντας τα ράφια της  Πρωτοπορίας, βρήκα το Η Δυστυχία του να είσαι Έλληνας. Δεν ήξερα τίποτα για τον Νίκο Δήμου. Άνοιξα το βιβλίο και

Ορίζουμε σαν ευτυχία την (συνήθως προσωρινή) κατάσταση, όπου η πραγματικότητα συμπίπτει με τις επιθυμίες μας

Σε αναλογία, δυστυχία πρέπει να είναι η μη σύμπτωση ανάμεσα σε επιθυμία και πραγματικότητα.

Με άλλα λόγια, δυστυχία μπορούμε να ονομάσουμε την απόσταση ανάμεσα σε επιθυμία και πραγματικότητα.

Όσο μεγαλύτερη η απόσταση, τόσο πιο δυστυχισμένοι είμαστε.

Αξίωμα: Ένας Έλληνας κάνει ότι μπορεί για να μεγαλώσει το άνοιγμα ανάμεσα σε επιθυμία και πραγματικότητα.

Αυτό ήταν, κόλλησα. Αγόρασα το βιβλίο και πέρασα τις επόμενες ώρες χωμένη στις σελίδες του. Άρχισα μάλιστα να γραφω, σε ένα τετράδιο που, ευτυχώς, εχει χαθεί εδώ και δεκαετίες,  τους δικούς μου επαναστατικούς εφηβικούς αφορισμούς

Συνέχισα να διαβάζω το Νίκο Δήμου για αρκετά χρόνια. Κάποια στιγμή τον άφησα, πίστεψα ότι είχα πάρει ότι είχε να προσφέρει. Άρχισα να διαβάζω πιο σύνθετους, παλαιότερους και πιο νεώτερους, στοχαστές. Όταν έφυγα από την Ελλάδα, πήρα μαζί μου ελάχιστα αγαπημένα βιβλία, ένα από αυτά ήταν Η Δυστυχία του να είσαι Έλληνας.

Ο Νίκος Δήμου είναι ξεχωριστή περίπτωση συγγραφέα – στοχαστή. Μακριά από σχολές και ρεύματα, αυτό που χαρακτηρίζει το έργο του είναι η αγάπη για την ελευθερία. Η ελευθερία  για τον Δήμου είναι ανάγκη, είναι ηθική στάση ζωής. “Στη μία και μόνη αξία της ελευθερίας (όλων) εδράζεται κάθε άλλη πολιτική αρετή  – και η δικαιοσύνη.” Mόνο που πρέπει να γίνει κατανοητό ότι «η ελευθερία του άλλου» είναι εξίσου σημαντική με την δική μου.

Άρχισα να ξαναδιαβάζω τον Δήμου όταν ανακάλυψα την ηλεκτρονική ιστοσελίδα του. Και ξανακόλλησα. Κάθε φορά που βρίσκομαι στην Αθήνα ψάχνω να βρω τα βιβλία του. Πολλά είναι πλέον εξαντλημένα.  Πριν ένα-δυο χρόνια, σε ένα από τα ταξίδια μου στην Αθήνα,  βρήκα, σε ένα πάγκο με μεταχειρισμένα βιβλία, το Ασκήσεις Ελευθερίας, μια σειρά κειμένων, από τα μέσα περίπου του 1970ς μέχρι και το 2005. Πρόκειται για μια καταγραφή απόψεων και θέσεων για την Ελευθερία και τον ολοκληρωτισμό,  τον εθνικισμό και το ρατσισμό, τη μισαλλοδοξία και τον ορθολογισμό.

Τους τελευταίους μήνες, το χέρι μου πήγαινε συνεχώς στο ράφι που βρίσκεται τοποθετημένο. Το έβγαζα, το ξεφύλλιζα, το άφηνα, και  άντε πάλι από την αρχή.

Αυτόν τον Αύγουστο όμως δεν το άφησα. Το πήρα και άρχισα να το διαβάζω. Η χρονική περίοδος δεν είναι τυχαία. Η οικονομική κρίση έφερε στο φως,  μια κοινωνία που αν την ξαπλώναμε στο ντιβάνι του ψυχαναλυτή, θα ξεδιπλώναμε μια ασταθή και διχασμένη προσωπικότητα – με κύρια χαρακτηριστικά την  έλλειψη ανοχής, την ανασφάλεια και αρκετές φορές την παράνοια.

Το Ασκήσεις Ελευθερίας είναι μια ανθολογία κειμένων, αναλύσεις, φιλοσοφικά και πολιτικά δοκίμια, ημερολογιακά επίκαιρα, που γράφτηκαν από τα μέσα περίπου του 1970 μέχρι και το 2005. Πρόκειται για μια καταγραφή απόψεων και θέσεων για την Ελευθερία και τον ολοκληρωτισμό,  τον εθνικισμό και το ρατσισμό, τη φενάκη του έθνους και τη βία. τη μισαλλοδοξία και τον ορθολογισμό.  Είναι μια ιδιότυπη ιστορία γεγονότων και ιδεών της μεταπολιτευτικής Ελλάδας.

Το διάβασα, κυρίως, για να θυμηθώ και να καταλάβω.  Γιατί φτάσαμε εδώ που φτάσαμε. Γιατί φερόμαστε σαν κακομαθημένα παιδιά , περιμένοντας ‘ειδική μεταχείριση’ από τους πάντες. Γιατί ψηφίζουμε αυτούς που ψηφίζουμε. Και γιατί σήμερα, έχουμε αυτή την ευτελή κυβέρνηση.

Εκλεισα το βιβλίο και ένα αόρατο ερωτηματικό έμεινε στο τέλος. Αυτό το ερωτηματικό είναι η ελευθερία μου.

“..the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one.” Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz, one of the most prominent literary figures in Egypt, became known with the publication of The Cairo Trilogy in 1957 and acquired international recognition when he awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Through his novels, Mahfouz chronicled the historical and social issues of his own time in Egypt, and in Cairo, his city, in particular.

Midaq Alley, written in 1947, is an extraordinary depiction of the microcosm in a poor alleyway in Cairo during World War II. It is an engaging book that revolves around the people living and working in this old alley.

“Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes, of the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that, but in any case, the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one.”

The inhabitants of the Midaq Alley live in ‘almost complete isolation from the surrounding activity’. But the World War II was a period of social transformation in Egypt. Strong emotions and feelings, poverty and gossip keeps them closely connected and alive, but the political turmoil and the changes brought by the war and the British Army, entice them away, it feeds their aspirations and hopes of material gains and a new comfort life, away from the alley. Their dreams and ambitions make the reality  in the alley all the more difficult.

The emotions, the motivations, the desires and the strangles of the characters make the novel timeless. Among them are the middle-aged, homosexual and hashish-smoking cafe-owner Kirsha, who lives with his fiery wife and  his cynical and materialistic son. There is also the pious mystic Radwan Husseini, and Zaita, a dirty, old beggar whose specialty is creating other beggars.  Salim Alwan, an elderly and rich perfume merchant with a voracious sexual appetite, has an intense lust for the young Hamida, the beautiful daughter of Umm Hamida, a marriage broker in her mid-60s. Hamida, driven by ambition and a desire for beautiful clothes and wealth, falls for a pimp who turns her into a prostitute. Moral depravity is her rebellion against poverty and lower-class life.

Midaq alley is a wonderful and rich novel.  Morality, depravity, class conflict, politics, corruption, and oppression are exposed calmly and with subtle humour. Women are empowered, they have a voice and the capacity to make decisions and fulfill their aspirations. Naguib Mahfouz does not judge the choices his characters are forced to make. Dispassionately, he presents their idiosyncrasies, their desires for money and sensual pleasures and the  consequences of their actions. Despite the tragic events Midaq Alley survives, the next day, and the next. Life must go on.

“We have to become the people we always should have been” – The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

A wonderful, intimate and unsentimental novel about friendship, conscience and love.

The year is 1947, and in the small town of Matzlingen, in Switzerland, Gustav Perle, a five-year-old boy, meets Anton Zwiebel, a little Jewish boy of his own age, and a talented pianist tortured by extreme performance anxiety.  It is the beginning of a beautiful and turbulent friendship that lasts a lifetime.

The nature of responsibly – national and individual – lies at the heart of the novel. Just before World War II, Switzerland let the Jewish refugees, who were attempting to escape from Nazism, in the country. Soon this changed. A directive by the Swiss Justice Minister stated that all Jewish refugees, attempting to get to the safety of Switzerland, would be sent back. It is estimated that Swiss legalism turned away some twenty thousand Jews.

One of the main principles of Switzerland’s foreign policy is neutrality, which dictates that a country is not to be involved in armed conflicts between other states. During the World War II, Switzerland remained intact, despite the few airspace violations and sporadic bombing events.

Rose Tremain shows what the quest of neutrality and shelf-mastery do to a person and a country.  Conscience becomes an uninvited guest; it is this tortured conscience that leads Gustav’s father, a character in the background of the story, but also present all throughout the book, to help as many Jews as possible. He is no longer the man he thought he was, a man who reveres the laws of his country, and for that, he pays heavily. It is an act that will cause Gustav’s mother a lifelong hatred of Jews, and will determine her relationship with her son.

There is also some confusion about Switzerland’s banks handling of gold, paintings and other items that belonged to Holocaust victims. The Swiss banks failed to give a clear accounting of their transactions with Nazi Germany, fuelling, after World War II, a long and angry exchange between Jewish groups and the Swiss authorities. After the war, Switzerland emerged as a darker place, unsure whether there was a guilt to admit, a country that suffered from a moral illness.

Although beauty may give itself to everyone, it does not actually belongs to anybody.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima

On July 2, 1950, to the distress of many Japanese and art -lovers,  the Zen temple of  Kinkakugi in Kyoto, known as the Temple of the Golden pavillion, was burned to the ground by an unhappy and unbalanced novice monk, who “hated anything beautiful”, according to a report of his trial.

The Golden pavilion, a rare masterpiece of Buddhist garden architecture, was built by the Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, in 1398. Fortunately, it turned out that a team of engineers, who have partially dismantled Kinkakugi for repair purposes a few years before the fire, had created detailed drawings and with the support of the Japanese government and contributions of local groups, the temple was restored in 1955.

Yukio Mishima, born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, (Yukio Mishima was his pen name). He was a man of many talents,  the author of 34 novels, numerous plays, essays and books of short stories,  a film actor and director, a singer, a sportsman, a self-styled samurai. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prise in Literature three times. A literary  genius, a nationalist,  an attention seeking man, obsessed, during the last ten years of his life, with bodybuilding to an extreme. A man that glorified death. After a failed coup attempt at Japan’s military headquarters, he committed the act of seppuku – the ritual suicide of a samurai warrior.

Mishima wrote The Temple of the Golden Pavilion when he was only 34. It  is novel about beauty so perfect that it becomes unbearable and it has to be destroyed. It is focuses on the life of a young Zen Buddhist novice named Mizoguchi, a stutter who views himself as ugly and has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavillion,  that he is feeling the urge to destroyed it.

“Beauty, beautiful things, those are now my most deadly enemies.”

The destruction of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion is presented as a decisive act of heroic pleasure of a tortured man. It is a pleasure that derives from “action in its perfection” and seen as such, destruction becomes  an acquired skill and an appropriate type of daily life.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is an engrossing , strange, detailed and complex novel with many layers that could only have written by a Japanese, one with a dark side, such as Yukio Mishima. It is an  impressive work of literary that established Mishima  as one of the outstanding writers of the twentieth century. I am looking forward to take a look at his other works.

Weapons of math destruction by Cathy O’Neil

It was mostly the subtitle that made me interested in Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction.

“How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.”

Weapons of math destruction (WMDs), is the term coined by O’Neil to describe the ways that mathematical models adversely affect a large number of people, especially the poor and disadvantaged.  They are used to generate scores that are used in critical decisions, such as teacher performance scores, criminal recidivism scores, or credit scores that are used in hiring people, approve loans and mortgages, in sentencing criminals, and in influencing how we vote.

The current Big Data craze is not new. During the last 20 years there has been a great interest in storing and analysing large data sets. It is a digital revolution that will transform the way society is organized.

Today, algorithms know almost everything about us. All of our clicks in the Internet are being recorded and evaluated. Algorithms know our profession, where we live, our hobbies, and our shopping activities. They know how we feel; they can even control how we feel. Algorithms can be used to manipulate and influence our attitudes and behaviour, it is called persuasive computing. Does these technologies are threatening our democracy?

Following the housing crash, Cathy O’Neil woke up to the proliferation of WMDs in banking and to the danger they posed to the economy. A Harvard trained mathematician, former academic mathematician, Cathy O’Neil was working until early 2011 for DE Shaw, one of the world’s leading hedge funds. After quitting her job, she rebranded herself as a data scientist and joined an e-commerce start-up. She has been involved in Occupy Wall Street,  she is the author of the blog Mathbabe.org and recently started a company called ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company. Cathy o’Neil is the ideal person to write this book.

In Weapons of Math Destruction, she explores the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. She focuses on the potential or actual harm of powerful, and often secret and unaccountable mathematical models on people’s lives, and how they often reinforce inequality in America, with unfair discrimination against minorities, particularly African-Americans, and the poor.

“.. fairness isn’t calculated into WMDs. And the result is massive, industrial production of unfairness. If you think of WMD as a factory, unfairness in the black stuff belching out of the smoke stacks. It’s an emission a toxic one.”

Don’t expect to find mathematical formulas in the book. There is none. This is not a book about math at all – “it’s a book about power masquerading as neutral technology.” Its purpose is to demystify algorithms, and equip the reader with the knowledge to question the authority of the most influential and opaque algorithms that govern our lives.

The Weapons of Math Destruction is a very thought-provoking book and Kathy O’Niel’s writing is clear, concise and direct. In the last chapter, she calls on modelers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and shares a few ideas about how we can use big data for good. She advocates an ethics of data science and she proposes a Hippocratic Oath for data scientists.

The book focusses only on US case studies. It would be useful to see if there are similar examples or cases in Europe or elsewhere and how policy makers regulate the use of WMDs.

“What is happening in this country? That’s the most important question” – The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

James Baldwin was one of the most captivating speakers, one of the most important voices of the civil rights era.  He died 30 years ago, in December 1987 but he remains one of the most powerful and insightful writers in American history.

The Fire Next Time is an astounding autobiographical account written as a letter from Baldwin to his nephew, James. It goes back to Baldwin’s teenage years as Christian minister and his departure from the church and the church culture. He recounts a dinner/meeting he had with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, an African American political and religious movement which supported the creation of a separate state for African- Americans. He pictures America as seen through the eyes of the black people, the difficulties of black life in a white dominant country.

“What is happening in this country? That’s the most important question”, he says.

“I have always been struck in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This failure of the private life has always the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black –white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private shelf, they won’t never become so dependent on what they call “The Negro Problem”. This problem which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters and it is destroying them.”

Is James Baldwin still relevant today?

During his speech in the famous 1965 Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley, Baldwin mentioned Robert Kennedy’s statement that “it is conceivable in the next forty years a Negro to achieve the same position that my brother has.”

“It sounded like a very emancipated statement”, said Baldwin, but the real question, he added, is not when there will be the first black president in America. The crucial question is what country he is going to be president of.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States. How did this change things for African Americans?

In a beautiful and emotional letter to his son, 50 years after Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives.

 “The Story of the Negro in America, is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

Baldwin is lively and bold, passionate and deeply humane. He does not mince words. He condemns the American dream as a nightmare. He points out the contradiction of the United States as the leader of the free world while the battle for racial justice continued at home.

“If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”


Take yourself to see Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary  I Am Not Your Negro,  a portrait of James Baldwin. It is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and the words are from Remember This House, Baldwin’s unfinished book about the three freedom-campaign activists, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers.  Very highly recommended.

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