A letter to my daughter

All my life I have been thinking about life and our mission in it. My thinking was always clear, although understandably insufficient at every given age: growing experience always added nuances and falsified inaccurate concepts. That is why I firmly believe that, for the clear-minded (svetal um), life’s meaning, whose silhouette is roughly sketched sometime in the teenage, simply becomes fuller and bolder with the years. Age does not make it different. It makes it wholesome. However, as a clear-minded person, I have demonstrated a great weakness: I believed that the other people think like me. I still do.

I often put caveats to the effect that I may become suspicious about other people’s motives, but open expression of ideas and vision is unalterably my first and principal impulse. The very few I met who thought like me became and still are my closest friends. All the others rather muddled the meaning I have always tried to define and explain to them. Early on I came to the conclusion that people misread me not because I was not clear, but because I was too clear. For only few are capable of standing under the light of the clearly voiced truth, especially, since more often than not this light pulled them out of the shadows that hid their flaws. Driven by the passions of young age, I got angry and impatient, and certainly offended many people. I didn’t want to accept that people prefer to never reach the truth.

All the above is not about a search for objectivity. Objectivity is a lame notion. It is about the human condition and the method to get it. And about values. My friends, my teachers, and my peers do not necessarily share my vision of the world. We differ in the ways we define the meaning of life. But we have a common ground that reconciles the differences–not because they are trivial, but because they are inevitable. This common ground is the belief that the meaning of life is in its evolution: an evolution driven by very fundamental values. The meaning is in the process, that is, in living with open eyes and humility.

The largest-scale evolution is no doubt how nations and cultures have evolved through history. The smallest-scale evolution is that of the person, from birth to death. Both are tied together, however, as every person’s evolution contributes to the national or supranational evolution. Some, like Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Bismarck, Churchill, … make mega-contributions in the socio-political arena; others like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Proust, Einstein, Bach, Mozart, … contribute to the sense of eternity of life through their art; and then, there are those, like us, who are the carriers of life’s meaning and contribute to it on a smaller scale. But the essence of the human condition is that everyone’s life should be spent in a productive way. At the beginning, each one of us is just a promise; by the end, we are measured by what we have done.

Therefore, the earlier a young person peels off from his persona the navel-gazing and the insecurities associated with the period of mental growth, the more productive his or her life will be. The earlier a person gets the awareness: a) about the ultimate uncertainty of life; b) about the sublime role of fine arts and belles lettres in it; c) about the irreversible process of completion their philosophy of life is bound to go through; d)that all that matters in life is the connection with others; and e) that their destiny is to evolve through productive existence … so, the earlier a person got the awareness of all these essential elements of the human condition, the better they are going to fit to the purpose they have set for their life. Evolution is movement, in the deepest sense. The earlier we realize that we deal with moving targets, the faster we will set out to find a firm ground. Millions of people pass away without reaching the Promised Land of this spiritual stability. Their life is judged as poor, in spiritual but also in material sense. Why is this so? For two reasons, basically. One is that they are provided with the image of God as a substitute for their inaptitude–and this brings peace to their muddled minds at the face of injustice. The other reason is that human worth has been tacitly assigned a pecuniary equivalent: those who better manipulate values and understand the improbability of justice have a greater worth in cash than those who don’t.

But then, why is justice (or equality, for that matter) improbable? It is because the means of subsistence–one of the moving targets of humanity including both material and spiritual aspects–have always been short. Moreover, the means of subsistence themselves are not equal. Both the lion and the antelope have equal rights to live under the sun, but there has never been the case when the antelope would outrun let alone kill and devour the lion, has it? On the other hand, there is plenty of prairie grass for the lion, like there is plenty of opportunities in a democracy, but the lion cannot help it but go for the antelope. Antelopes die believing in God and the providence. The human species turned this natural law of survival of the fittest into relations of power. Power became the face-off to injustice: it was defined as God’s justice. Yet, in an actual social context, there appear to be tons of instruments of power, of various caliber and efficiency. Again, the earlier one assumes control over one’s personal instruments of power—basically, recognizing one’s talents and refining them—the faster one will feel empowered to position oneself in life and achieve one’s goals. A crucial moral point here is that a power derived from talent and clarity of mind is not oppressive. It is never perceived as immoral. Such power is accepted as an authority.

As you can see, Agliche, a great deal of your life depends on how and how early you demonstrate to the others who you are. You have a core that does not change—like the computer chip: you may load a great number of operating systems and programs to your computer, but they are only functional because the chip has capacity enough to process them with a reasonable speed. However, isn’t the art of living in curtailing the number of programs available for loading to your core? Like many wonderful features of social life, choice is a bittersweet thing. It has got to be used responsibly. Choice is especially harmful when used to reinvent the wheel. One of the errors of growth committed by people from a new generation, who rightly assume the role of generators of change and progress, is their tendency to cross out the experience of the older generations instead of building it in their own structures. In their enthusiasm, they throw the baby with the water. In some cases, it takes a life to correct the errors. In most cases, life is spent carelessly without ever finding where the error was. In this regard, my impression is that arts, music, and literature are a neglected value, which however belongs in our core. Here is an analogy: Bush says that God is on our side, whereas Lincoln said that we better be on God’s side—likewise, the majority of people say that those three are just a commodity (dispensable), whereas I believe that we belong in them (indispensable).

Everything we need to know about the spiritual can be found in music. Human vulnerability, the moral conundrums that cause human tragedy, and the faith in the prevalence of human spirit is condensed in the written texts. And our un-extinguishable instinct of esthetical self-reflection is embodied in the fine arts. If we regard these three as means of subsistence of the highest order, they have never been of short supply. What has been short is our drive to get out and reach to them. Living with art and understanding it as a source of supreme spiritual knowledge requires work. Art is a creation of people instead of of God. I believe that with his art man defied the concept of God, although most of it was created in His name. So, art is an intermediary and an inexhaustible source of self-knowledge and confidence. The creators or interpreters of art are beyond humility. And I can see only one reason why one who was endowed by nature to be such a creator or interpreter would back off this superior privilege: the social contexts in which one lives belittle the value of art and literature in life and, worse, discount them as a top value in one’s value system. Maybe it’s all about harnessing one’s energy in productivity vs. letting it be spilled in passive observation? In either case, or given the complexity of one’s behavior, it bears the components of a tragedy. It lends itself to study by art or literature.

As you may have already guessed, I left love and intelligence out of this analysis. I wanted to talk about values and principles, not about the determinants of our personalities. I see life as a continuum in which every next generation is smarter than the precedent and has a better life overall. However, the worth of individuals from different generations does not follow this trend; it is commensurate to one’s contribution, that is, to the level of one’s productivity. It is gauged by the resistance of a person to the social contexts whose usual tendency is to blur personal contribution to life. We only remember those in the past who have done so with determination. Who in our family will never, in my mind, be forgotten? Tante Lucy who has created the portraits of her family. In some degree, myself as I have already a book published, and trust that I will publish at least another one. But hang on, I am not taking the standpoint of vanity as gauge here. I am just reinforcing the notion of productivity as a deep value, as human instinct, if you will. If you agreed that all that matters in life is the connection with others, you would also agree that creativity is a superior way of establishing and maintaining human connections. Accepting uncertainty and creating to the best of your talents in spite of uncertainty is another.

Thank you for listening to me. With all my love,




Why is Larry Summers an impossible Harvard President? 

I, like James Traub (School of Hard Knocks, Slate, posted Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006, at 4:45 PM ET), have a soft spot for Larry Summers. He looks too much like me: a visionary, a person abiding by common sense in his claims and actions, and a bold, provocative interlocutor. A friend of mine, who is a professor at Harvard, finds a difference, though: “What I hear at those faculty meetings,” he said, “is that Summers displayed little interest in exchange, that he did not take other people’s ideas seriously and tried to use his power to impose his views on others. In thinking of this over the last couple of days, I actually thought of you as an illuminating point of contrast. Like him, you say provocative things. But you say them because you are interested in hearing what other people think and learning from them, and then, you are more than willing to revise your view. The picture I have of Summers, by contrast, is that he makes provocative statements but has little interest in learning from others or willingness to revise his views. Those are radically different positions; one is supportive of the best of intellectual inquiry, the other is not—particularly if someone uses institutional power to effectively censure those who make provocative statements, with which he does not agree. For all these reasons, I get annoyed with the defenses that portray Summers as a martyr for open academic inquiry.

Well, that is what an insider with a moderate interest in the current debate believes. But I keep thinking that the insiders more often than not are unable to see the forest, because their sight is obstructed by the trees. And I cannot be fuller of regrets that Larry Summers—all his flaws considered—could not survive the radical mill of comfortably positioned and self-aggrandized left-than-thou professors. Whether they are high-minded or just suppressing their weaknesses and vulnerabilities behind high-minded faces is hard to tell. In any event, they do not look sympathetic to me.

The big and disturbing issue here is that we do not try to understand and criticize the forces at Harvard who oppose change of any sort. The issue of a ‘deviant,’ hardheaded President overshadows their permanent, malignant, and, unfortunately, for most of the time very powerful existence. These are the forces of MEDIOCRITY that creep up behind the righteousness and political correctness. I do not have in mind intellectual mediocrity. What I am talking about is social mediocrity. Driven by petit-minded agendas, these people do not take the long view. Who is triumphing now? Dr. Summers. Who is the loser? Harvard. No matter what the nuances of our personal opinions are, we must agree on those two points.

Moreover, we should keep things up to scale. Rare are the people who can be presidents of Harvard, and comparing their style and views with the style and views of those, who cannot be presidents but insist on having a say over how Harvard should be run, is comparing apples with oranges. Presidency is about vision and managerial skills to promote this vision into the fabric and evolution of the institution. It is about letting someone run the institution for a sufficiently long period of time and enduring his personal flaws along the way, since there will be such flaws in any one of those who deserve this highly responsible job. At the end of the day, it is about the big picture vs. the local agenda.

A point in favor of the (questionable) purity of the intentions that have led to the current impossible situation at Harvard would be to consider the view that humility should guide intellectual inquiry. According to this view, intellectual curiosity has to be central to the purpose of an institution of learning. But such curiosity presupposes a humility born of feeling you have much more to learn. That does not preclude a certain provocative edge in your encounters with others, but humility—even if only the humility to be willing to listen to others with the presumption you have something to learn and to be willing to change your view—has an integral, if not primordial, place in academic inquiry.

But shall we also not ask for this type of humility the scholars who, professing tolerance in areas remote from their little lives, are intolerant to things that affect them personally, such as career, money, perks, and quiet life devoid of unemployment fears? I’m reminded of the merciless satire of American academic life in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Leadership is also something inherent to an institution of education where intellectual inquiry is paramount. Should we not keep humble in matters of leadership and social responsibility with the presumption that we have something to learn? To the outsiders—for whom any partiality can clearly be ruled out—things look more black and white than how they are internally perceived and presented. The public outcry will elevate Summers on pedestal, and the good causes for which the ultra-liberal professors fight will again sustain a blow.

The government of Harvard is an issue that affects us all–directly or indirectly–and I keep feeling that, although everything the insiders say is true and reasonable, it lacks the societal perspective. That the university was messy under Summers is not a surprise, simply because he was at the beginning of a rather big transformation that needed decades to be properly implemented and judged. However, the mess his resignation caused is unbearable and delays everything positive he tried to accomplish. At the same time, the old flaws persist. That is why I call the victory of Summers’ foes a Pyrrhic victory. The extent of people’s self-centeredness and, thus, shortsightedness does not end to surprise me. There are fewer and fewer people I do find at once intelligent and moral, which also means capable of telling the social from the personal interest. We will certainly remember Bush’s years as a gigantic step backward forAmerica in almost all walks of intellectual and social life. But does it mean that we have always to excuse the reasons for this with system imperfections?

I do think people at Harvard who oppose change of any sort have used Summers’ style to derail someone who supports change; that’s unfortunate, because Harvard has needed some shaking up. And I have no doubt that Summers has done many good things for Harvard. In April, it looks like my daughter may be admitted at Harvard. Quite frankly, after all that has happened, I am now reluctant to advise her to choose Harvard before Stanford from where she already heard the good news in December.



Essay written on February 19 of this year

Today is my youngest daughter’s B-day—she is in Berkeley—and my wife and I are reminded of how we and the town she was born in, Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria), looked on the day of her birth 18 years ago. It was a time when we did not have the faintest idea that our life will take such a dramatic turn. This fact is evidence that we, human beings, pass ignorant through life and so much of what happens with us happens out of our control. We are reactive systems, no matter how strongly we delude ourselves in thinking that we rule over our destinies. I do not believe there is a blueprint for our lives. Or, at least, we do not know what this blueprint is. The only sign of our intelligence (and thus, of self-respect) is perhaps our ability to extract knowledge from past events, if and when we have survived those events with our morality untainted. In this context, I see our decision-making capacity as framed in moral choices rather than as rational assessment of variances.

Economists want to think of us as maximizers. But how can an instinct that is contingent upon chance define our true nature? Our nature is moral. Sadly, the knowledge I have learned throughout my 60 years of observation of people draws a picture of moral ambiguity. People’s choices follow social forces more or less according to a principle of the least immoral behavior. Standing by the so-called high moral ground is even not regarded as a virtue, given that we all abide by the notion of errare humanum est. To accept that humans are morally inept (or inferior) is a philosophy of convenience. But, after all, it is us who created the image of a morally superior (or supreme) standard that resides high above our heads. We have constructed religion as the most powerful social institution, and religion has given us a lower rank.

Well, certainly we deserve it. We deserve it because we have surrendered to the belief that we have a maker. In that and only that sense tragedy pervades our lives. If human morality stemmed from the premise of equality between us and nature with its elements, evolutionary laws, and perceived ubiquitous might, happiness and the value of the individual human being would find their true meaning in human life. You see, my friends, I have always tried to make sense of my existence, and now this imperative is even stronger than before. In addition to that, I love order: social order as well as order in my mind. Maybe finding peace in such order (which would be the consequence of making sense of my life) is an impossible, naive task. But I’m aware of my naivety and yet I cannot give up. I’m also aware of the contradictions that defy the very notion of order and sense. And yet, my drive toward happiness gets no weaker.

The pivot of all this is accountability. To whom and what am I accountable for? And to whom have I to report my deeds? Moreover, to what extent is my personal accountability associated with the history of the group I belong to? It occurred to me recently, for example, that the Anglo (puritanical, pleasure-denying?) work ethics has to do with group guilt. Undoubtedly, by accepted moral standards that is a high moral reason for putting the social interest before your self-interest. But if this causes unhappiness on your individual level, would it be what your fellows Englishmen want for you? I, of course, assume, that morality is a system aiming at our common wellbeing (I am well when the others around me are also well), not at punishing us. And I strongly suspect that here is where you, my Anglo friends, and I differ fundamentally. I have never felt that guilt may be a factor in setting my system of values. Furthermore, happiness is my goal in life: happiness achieved for me AND the others–at least, conditions of happiness achieved for all of those I can feel close enough to account for. And finally, I report to myself only. The ancient saying I embrace almost entirely is “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, who am I? If not now, when?”



Redeeming the real victimizers … an old opinion I expressed about Martin Amis’ book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million

Martin Amis’ excellently crafted book is about two things: 1) It builds a strong clinical case of a dictator; and 2) It rightfully equalizes Bolshevik terror to the horrors of Nazism, thus reinforcing the case of guilt Western intellectuals failing to recognize the above must experience. The reviews so far posted here justify his latter point: none of them are able to grasp the non-personal, truly historic message of Amis: unless the Western world does not recognize Bolshevism and the following Eastern European socialism as evil equal to, if not greater than, the Holocaust, the lessons of the horrible 20th century will never be learned properly.

Amis misses the history point in one key aspect. Had he been able to see it and understand it, he would have written a different book. The history of Bolshevik/Soviet-style communism was not the exclusive deed of the dictator; he only made it look more unbelievable, more horrifying, and more brutal. It is an error of judgment to explain this regime solely with the father, the boss, the usurper, the psychopath, the chieftain. This regime was made possible and durable by the Russians (in the hundred millions) who complied with it. There are undeniable proofs of that: 1) All checkists were Russians, brothers of the tormented and murdered innocent victims. Without their voluntary participation, the death machine couldn’t have worked as it did; 2) All Russians were able to believe in Stalin’s innocence, including intellectuals such as Erenburg and Pasternak (as pointed out by Amis himself). Why? Because they believed in the ideology. Thus, they supported the regime; 3) After Stalin’s death Russians did not condemn his regime and did not turn their backs to the idea of socialism. So, we had the lukewarm Khrushchev period and the stagnant Brezhnev times. All this under the highly elevated banner of the construction of communism; … and many more, among them a personal one: I knew personally Janucz Bardach–even after he had survived Kolyma, he lived his life as a member of the communist party, and in his eighties, as a U.S. citizen, he did not condemn communism as an ideology.

Amis’ error is an error of paradigm. He fell prey to the widely held belief that, in contrast to democracy, dictatorial regimes are possible because of the maniacal will of a person. Those who have lived under the communist regimes know all too well that their compliance, usually due to commitment to the regime’s ideological goals and to fear, was what kept the dictators afloat. The truth is that responsibility is shared between the dictator and his nation (even in the case of a small dictator like Milosevic). However, no nation can incriminate and punish itself, thus, the dictator becomes the scapegoat both for the justice system and for the commentators of history.



Irresponsible use of talent: a brief reflection on “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith

What a waste of talent! Feeling like a rising star, Zadie Smith obviously wanted to score high points fast. That she is an aspirant for glory is the lesser sin, though. Those who short-listed her book for the 2005 Booker prize are the true sinners. A book so short of cultural depth and so devoid of structure, not to mention of full-fledged characters, cannot–and should not–be elevated to a standard for good literature.

There is no doubt that Zadie Smith has a very talented pen. But at her early age, there also is no doubt that she lacks life experience and a mature concept of the literature’s mission: to educate emotions, to reflect on sublimity and tragedy, to explore the human condition in its evolving dimensions. A book should be judged relative to its author’s aspirations. Smith’s ambitious project, with its 443 pages, leaves no ambiguity as to her desire to match the great novels of the past.

The classic elements are there: family saga (not one but two families), generational conflict, class opposition, love and betrayal, etc. But all this is amorphous, without a solid composition, logorrheic, and, at the end of the day, meaningless. It even smacks of snobbery. People like me who are life-long insiders in academia can only have a jovial laughter at the tasteless treatment of professors and students offered by this writer. Her characters are entangled in sex–and adultery, of course!, old-fashioned sholarly leftism, teenage rebellion, and confusion about the value of art. I even cannot say what Smith thinks about family values. All her characters, except perhaps Kiki, are flawed without awareness of the roots of their flaws. Their lives suck without us knowing why. Maybe because their creator wanted them to look stupid and ridiculous?

So, is this book a condemnation of academia? Or a laudation of artistic freedom incompatible with academia? Or maybe it is a statement about dealing with racism on both sides of the Atlantic? No message, if there is any, of this book is clear but that this author, brought up in the conflicting values of today’s Anglo world, is unable to outdo her own limitations.



Is Didion’s snobbery a defining sign of American intelligentsia?

I was hugely disappointed by The Year of Magical Thinking. And on several levels. First, with regard to emotions, it was shallow. Second, the language was pompous and pretentious, a mix of poetic and scientific segments that were meant to convey deep sorrow and pain, but actually only conveyed pity and the snobbery of a pathetic personality (little monogrammed notes she leaves all over her apartment…come on! MONOGRAMMED). All this name-dropping and name-branding: among others, she lets you know her husband bought his clothes at Dick Carroll, the most expensive store for men’s clothes in Beverly Hills. Didion talks mostly about herself instead of giving an idea of who her husband was and why she so much suffered because of the loss. I was in vain looking throughout the whole book to understand what was the real content of her relationship with John Dunne, but other than money and success, I couldn’t find any.

The stiff and rigid female Hemingway style reduces every single thing in life to exactly the same scale so that Didion never has to be caught at a loss. She never has to confront mystery or sublimity; she never has to deal with an emotion she hasn’t falsely persuaded us and perhaps herself she struggles with heroically and then masters. It is really hard to believe in her grief and I don’t believe in any of her responses, which are familiar and rehearsed and repetitive and incredibly monotonous.

Then, about her daughter: why should we care that she lost her daughter? And that is actually the level that disappointed me most, and that made me think of the shallowness of a certain type of intellectuals in America who live in luxury, are utterly successful, become star-ified, and obviously are deluded in thinking that their lives, emotions, and sensibilities have universal meanings.

Certainly, I’m shocked by so many positive reviews of the book. As a European, I cannot interpret this other than as fundamental confusion by many Americans between sentiments and the depth and spiritual sublimity of human emotions, one of which is grief. Well, and for more than three months already, Didion’s book is a top seller at



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