Understanding is the next step beyond acknowledging another’s humanity and a step short of appreciation. I have found that when I understand someone better, usually, I can more readily get along with that person. There are fewer disagreements, and whatever disagreements we have will be tempered by my understanding, especially if the other person reciprocates.
Understanding is a key element in diplomacy. One of recent history’s great diplomats is Henry Kissinger.
- Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
- Henry Kissinger, On China (Penguin Press, 2011): how the diplomat contributed to peace by understanding adversary nations.
- Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon & Schuster, 1994).
- Henry Kissinger
- Mohamed ElBaradei, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times (Henry Holt & Company, 2011): “ElBaradei passionately advocates diplomacy as the main recourse against nuclear proliferation.”
- Ben Ryder Howe, My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store (Henry Holt & Company, 2011): “a portrait of two people Howe comes to understand much better through his own travails.”
- Christopher de Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason: 1798 to Modern Times (Liveright Publishing, 2017). “A book like this can only point to the sheer complexity of Mediterranean identities, loyalties and accommodations in the modern world . . . Far from spurning or avoiding modernity, Muslims are ‘drenched in it’ . . . and in tracking the sinews of enlightenment through the last two centuries of Islamic thinking, this brilliant and lively history deserves nothing but praise.”
- Joshua Rivkin, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombley (Melville House, 2018), on trying to understand an artist who remained purposefully secretive throughout his life: “Rivkin travels in Twombly’s footsteps. He conducts scenic interviews with Twombly’s son and peripheral characters (the artist’s estate did not cooperate with the book). He scrapes up what he can, but very little is new, or surprising.”
- Azadeh Moaveni, Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS (Random House, 2019): “The book provides an illuminating, much-needed corrective to stock narratives, not only about the group that deliberately and deftly terrified officials and publics across the world, but also about the larger ‘war on terror’ and the often ineffective, even counterproductive policies of Western and Middle Eastern governments.”
Understanding Jane Austen:
- Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). This is a book about how and where Austen lived, and died.
- Paula Byrne, The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood (Harper Perennial Paper, 2017). “Byrne’s investigation into Austen’s enjoyment of plays during a period when theatre was both popular and lucrative and when playwrights and actors were questioning and mocking social norms (especially those dictating male/female relationships) gives real insight into how Austen learned to focus her material, make amusing and give it critical punch.”
- Helena Kelly, Jane Austen: The Secret Radical (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017). This biography portrays Austen as a social critic. a
Other narratives on understanding:
- Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide (Penguin Press, 2019): “He wanted not only to describe the region (he succeeded in portraying both physical and cultural settings almost as well as Audubon painted birds) but also to understand the great divide in the country, hoping that understanding Southern views on slavery would allow men of good will to find common ground and a path to abolition.”
- Marie Arana, Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story (Simon & Schuster, 2019): “ . . . ‘silver,’ evoking the dependence on extractive economies focused on precious metals; ‘sword,’ referring to the tendency to embrace political power predicated on military might and the threat of violence — or the iron fist; and ‘stone,’ a multifaceted religious fervor that is only superficially similar to Catholic orthodoxy.”
- Corey Robin, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas (Metropolitan Books, 2019): “The remarkable achievement of Robin’s thoroughly researched, cogently argued work is that it makes a compelling case for what is, initially, a startling argument. Thomas, it is well known, was a black nationalist and disciple of Malcolm X during his college years: He rejected integration and strongly believed that race and racism were immutable, that liberalism and white benevolence were emasculating forms of patronage that led to dependency, the denial of black pride and any assurance in blacks’ own achievements. All that they needed was to be left alone and guaranteed their right to be armed for self-defense.”
- Melvin Konner, Believers: Faith in Human Nature (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019): “Konner refrains from offering a simple answer, which people asking questions about religion often expect. Instead, like Charles Darwin, he notes that ‘such a huge dimension of life must serve many functions.’”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Seven Up, 7 Plus Seven, 28Up, 35Up, 42Up, 49Up: this series follows British children into adulthood.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery/Penguin Random House, 2015): a “sweeping history” of autism
- Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf, 2010), a fictional account of Alexis de Tocqueville's efforts at understanding American culture.
- Antonya Nelson, Bound: A Novel (Bloomsbury USA, 2010).
- John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun (McSweeney’s Books, 2011): “a distant mirror of contemporary history”.
- Daniel Mason, The Winter Soldier: A Novel (Little, Brown and Company, 2018): “Lucius’ ‘dream of being able to see another person’s thinking’ is . . . the controlling metaphor . . .”
- Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2019): “ . . . . jarring, funny, surprising, unsettling, disorienting and rewarding. It requires the reader to be quick-footed and alert. And by the end, it is clear what has grounded the story from the start — the tender and troubling humanity of its characters.”
- Norman Rockwell, Forgotten Facts about Washington (1932)
Film and Stage
- The 400 Blows (Le Quatre Cents Coups), a film about resilience to be sure but also a study in understanding the mind, motivations and actions of a young boy who runs away from home and tries to survive after being neglected at home. As the film is said to be autobiographical, it also offers us a chance to understand its creator.
- Twelve O’Clock High, a military tale about understanding the limits of bravery and endurance
- Stolen Kisses (Baisers Volés), about the young man returned from military service
- Mother of Mine, about a young boy who is sent to live in Switzerland after his father is killed in World War II and his native Finland is attacked; the story is about the understanding that develops between him and his surrogate mother, the failure of understanding with his natural mother and his concluding understanding of himself and them
- Close-Up, “a film that looks into the heart of a man accused of a crime and, instead of evil, discovers only sweetness, longing and a sad confusion”
- The Judge and the Assassin (Le Juge et L’Assassin): tracing the route each takes to understand himself and the other
- The Man Who Loved Women: “mixes sharp, witty comedy with scenes of gentle poignancy; Truffaut uses the tale to make some deep and tremendously profound comments about love, sex, fidelity, and the underlying differences between men and women.” (Review)
- Gangs of New York: “the real achievement of the movie is in the way it brings history to life — not merely by meticulously recreating its details, but by offering a troubling and timely interpretation of how the violence and iniquity of the past continues to ramify into the present”; seethese reviews
- L’Eclisse, a dark-romantic taleabout two people who “just cannot seem to communicate with each other”
- After Dark, My Sweet: “a brisk, entertaining contemporary melodrama about the kind of sleazy characters who populated California crime literature” in the mid 1950s; “what makes the story fascinating is the subterranean way Collie understands everything that is going wrong, understands Mrs. Fay Anderson is a good person and needs to be protected. . .”
- a brief exploration of misunderstanding by the Smothers Brothers
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Brooding and introspective, and composed in 1914 when Freud was in his heyday and Europe was heading toward war, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63, is sometimes called the “Psychoanalytical” symphony. Here are links to performances conducted by Sanderling, Maazel and Karajan.
To sing a song properly, a singer must understand it; then he can phrase it. No other singer phrased American popular songs as well as Sinatra.
- The Way You Look Tonight
- Summer Wind
- The Girl from Ipanema
- For Once In My Life
- The Lady Is a Tramp
- Nice and Easy
- That’s Life
- Glinka, Rouslan et Ludmila (1842): “. . . the search for the authentic soul of a people . . .” through its folk music and tales [Vladimir Hofmann]
- Wayne, String Quartet No. 6: 1. Animato; 2. Larghetto; 3. Animato; 4. Vivace.
- Wayne, String Quartet No. 7: 1. Vivace; 2. Animato con brio; 3. Sustento; 4. Animato.
I understand the large hearts of heroes, / The courage of present times and all times, / How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steamship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm, / How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights, / And chalk'd in large letters on a board, / Be of good cheer, we will not desert you; / How he follow'd with them and tack'd with them three days and would not give it up, / How he saved the drifting company at last, / How the lank loose-gown'd women look'd when boated from the side of their prepared graves, / How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp'd unshaved men; / All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine, / I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there.
The disdain and calmness of martyrs, / The mother of old, condemn'd for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her children gazing on, / The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover'd with sweat, / The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets, / All these I feel or am.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs, / Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen, / I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the ooze of my skin, / I fall on the weeds and stones, / The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close, / Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments, / I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person, / My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
I am the mash'd fireman with breast-bone broken, / Tumbling walls buried me in their debris, / Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades, / I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels, / They have clear'd the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.
. . . .
I take part, I see and hear the whole, / The cries, curses, roar, the plaudits for well-aim'd shots, / The ambulanza slowly passing trailing its red drip, / Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs, / The fall of grenades through the rent roof, the fan-shaped explosion, / The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air.
Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand, / He gasps through the clot Mind not me--mind--the entrenchments.