Archive for December 9th, 2009


Wednesday, December 9th, 2009


One wouldn’t expect a discussion of guilt to be entertaining. But it was.

In a talk this week to several hundred people, psychiatrist Herant Katchadourian noted that guilt has been getting a bad name since Nietszche wrote that morality is slavery and offered instead the alternative of the Übermensch — however, Katchadourian noted, these are “not the kind of people you’d like to have dinner with, so it looks like a dead end.”

Katchadourian, author of Guilt: The Bite of Conscience,  is not against guilt — quite the contrary. He thinks it is “hardwired into us through evolution” and one of the ways of “maintaining ties with other people”:  “Excessive guilt is abnormal, but inadequate guilt makes you into a psychopath,” he said. “You shouldn’t overdo it, but there has to be an internal policeman.”

He called guilt “a weapon of the weak.”  “Genghis Khan does not need to make you feel guilty — he cuts off your head.”  He speculated that that’s why, throughout history, it’s been the ready tool of mums everywhere.

“Ultimately, it drives people away — you can only milk a cow so much,” he said.

Guilt is an equal opportunity employer:  it exists in all six major religions.  “This is not a monopoly — nobody has cornered the market.”0804763615

If Buddhists appear sometimes to be against guilt, he said, it’s because “they’re very sensitive to the fact that wallowing in guilt is of no use,” he said. “Just feeling guilty doesn’t help anybody.”

He dismissed a question about Jewish guilt, noting that “Armenian mothers are exactly the same,” and also that “there are no Jewish mothers in Israel — only in the diaspora.”

“This is the short of it,” he said at end of his talk.  “For the long of it, see my book.”  Then he invited questions:  “There’s no such thing as a stupid question, only a stupid answer — and I will provide those myself.”

During a book signing, Katchadourian remarked on his confused origins:  his Armenian family is from southwestern Turkey, but he was born in French-occupied Syria and educated in Lebanon.  Now he’s here, and several listeners appeared to be grateful:

“I feel surprisingly upbeat now,” said the man next to me, getting up to leave after the applause had died down.

(Katchadourian speaks for himself in guest spot last month on the Washington Post “Short Stack” blog here.)

The visionary behind the Library of Alexandria

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009
Serageldin (Photo courtesy Sadat Museum)

Serageldin (Photo courtesy Sadat Museum)

“The most intelligent man in Egypt.”

That’s the way Stanford librarian Michael Keller introduced Ismail Serageldin, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  Keller reassured us that he’s not the first to say so.


Photo: Ibrahim Nafie, Courtesy Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Within a few minutes, the audience of about 150 last week at Stanford didn’t need any reassurance:  Serageldin began to prove the title.  (Keller mentioned that Serageldin had 22 honorary degrees — Serageldin corrected him: as of this week, it’s 26.)  It’s hard not to warm to a man who says, like Borges, “I think paradise is some kind of library.”

For those who don’t know, the ancient Library of Alexandria was a legend – certainly the largest and most remarkable in the ancient world.  The Ptolemaic center for learning was launched sometime after the death in 323 B.C. of that “megalomaniac young man” who was a student of Aristotle – Alexander the Great.  Serageldin emphasizes that it was destroyed in successive stages, finally succumbing sometime after the murder of Hypatia in 415 A.D. and the final Arab sacking in 642 A.D.  Then the current revival.

A huge statue of one of its founders, Ptolemy II, was fished out of the Nile, and now presides over the entrance of library, stressing continuity between new and old – but how much continuity is there, really?  As Serageldin himself admitted:  “The library of the future will not be a replication of the library of the past.”


Photo: Ibrahim Nafie, Courtesy Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Today’s avant-garde library must accommodate “new forms, of knowledge, new forms of storage.”

The plans, in short, are staggering, and my meager attempt to take notes fell behind the pace of the slides, and my ability to believe what I had written.  Here’s the easy part:  The library already receives 1.2 million visitors and sponsors 700 events annually, including concerts, conferences, book fairs.  The website gets 300 million hits a year.  A list of some of its goings-ons is here.


Photo: Ibrahim Nafie, Courtesy Bibliotheca Alexandrina

He began to speak of a “world digital library.”  He said that, through the library’s technology, no book will ever go out of print.   The library will be a venue for eminent intellectuals – already has been, for the likes of Umberto Eco and Nobel laureates.  It will sponsor research.  It will reissue “the classics of humanistic Islam.”

The goal is “access to all the information, for all people, at all times.”  Serageldin showed a dizzying succession of maps, diagrams, charts, bullet points, acronyms and spoke of  a “universal networking language.”

The library itself – stunning, modern – reminded me a bit of the sets of alien ships for the television series V.

“Visionary” is a label thrown about too quickly, too easily, perhaps —but for Serageldin, it’s another title that fits.  The superlatives rolled over me:  Bigger.  Fastest.  First.  Universal. Better – no, best.

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Photo: Ibrahim Nafie, Courtesy Bibliotheca Alexandrina

It’s a cliché to note that man’s technological achievements have not been matched by changes in human greed, avarice, and cowardice.  But the tables occasionally tip toward spiritual attainment, too. My mind began to turn to another story I was writing, one about a 28-year-old writer who faced death by firing squad, who nevertheless went on, after a Siberian sentence, to write The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot.

Both the technical achievements of man’s ingenuity and the ambiguous fruits of human suffering were with me as I left Dinkelspiel Auditorium and stumbled into the unrelenting California sunshine.