Talking with Fiammetta about Hannibal & Me

Fiammetta Rocco

Here is an 8-minute podcast of a chat between Fiammetta Rocco, our Books & Arts editor at The Economist, and me, about Hannibal and Me.

We were all over the place in our actual conversation, but our colleague Lucy Rohr did a Herculean job of editing it down to 8 minutes.

Topics covered: Tiger Woods and Eleanor Roosevelt, in particular, plus some Meriwether Lewis and the rest of the gang. 😉

(And if you want an amusing visual of how I tape these interviews with London, go back to this old post.)

Ruined by success

Syd Barret

Syd Barret

Thanks to Abhishek for pointing out a life story that fits the theme of my book, which is that success and failure can be impostors, as Kipling would say. Abhishek emailed that

The other day, I downloaded a documentary on Syd Barret [the co-founder of the band Pink Floyd] from You tube. This is a classic story of Hannibal of the 1970’s. A 22 year old Barret was at his peak as the lead singer of Pink Floyd and then he lost it all to LSD. During concerts, he stood on the stage stoned and out of sorts strumming his guitar playing all the wrong notes. His colleagues would somehow cover it up, but one fine day they had to pick up their bags and leave him behind…

Now, this actually not a “story of Hannibal,” because Hannibal’s life trajectory had more twists and turns and was more perplexing. But I do have a chapter where I explore this–ie, Barret’s–sort of life trajectory, which we might call “premature success.”

Contemplating his premature success

Contemplating his success

Contemplating Barret, I think of people like Diego Maradona, who soar to fame, success or some other kind of triumph in their field, but apparently too early in life to be able to cope with it. Then they fall apart. Drugs, alcohol, or less obvious but equally insidious lapses of personal discipline. They become wrecks.

The book in my bibliography in this regard, which I recommend, is Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Meriwether Lewis, you recall, is the first half of the Lewis & Clark expedition that explored the North American continent west of the Mississippi and to the Pacific after Thomas Jefferson bought those lands from Napoleon. Lewis is, in many ways, an American Hannibal: a young, dashing hero who did what many thought was impossible.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis

But what came next? Whereas his friend William Clark, upon their return, married and lived happily, Lewis fell apart. He couldn’t handle the fame. No luck with women. Booze, later even morphine. He did not publish his famous Journals. Jefferson made him governor of the territory he had explored, but he failed in every respect, defaulting on his debts and drinking himself into oblivion. In his mere thirties, only a few years after his breathtaking success, he killed himself in a dingy Tennessee tavern (although the event remains a bit of a mystery).

Impostor triumph indeed. To me, this sort of tale is not the end of a story but the beginning of one. What happens to these people?

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Backlash moment

I’ve been flying a lot this week, on a route that GoGo now covers (see map). Each time at the gate, a male-female pair of hip, young marketers (the woman in each case being smarter, hipper, attractive and Indian) offered me and the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types in the boarding queue a promotion to get connected via WiFi on the flight.

My reaction progressed in two steps:

Step 1) This is great! I will get on the flight, log on, snap a photo or two of the airplane aisle and then blog it right from my seat so that you all can see what a connected urban nomad I am. En passant, I would be corroborating my own thesis in my special report in The Economist on that topic (ie, “nomadism”).

Step 2) What utter nonsense! Have you lost it, Andreas? This is the last redoubt you have for reading. For the next few hours it is you and your biography of Meriwether Lewis, which is 500 pages and must be read and absorbed for you to make progress in one particular chapter of your own book. For once, no kids tugging on you, no phone ringing, no email alerts. Instead, deep, linear immersion. And you are thinking of giving that up just because… you can?

So you had no posts from me while I was in the air. And I’m guessing that you’re no worse off for it.

Incidentally, I noticed that the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types also passed on this opportunity for uninterrupted mid-air connectivity, after the same moment of initial temptation. Have we reached the point of backlash? A civilizing counter-trend?

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