Reason can not coexist with inscrutability

coelho

The main theme of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (transl. Alan R. Clarke; HarperOne, 2014, first ed. 1988) can be summed up in the following sentence: To attain your dreams, you need money. In other words, this fable-like, deceptively simple narration hides a complex web of philosophical assumptions, historical knowledge, religious and traditional beliefs. All of these, however, are by-products of one aspect of the modernist grand narrative: that of money.

The plot follows the journey of an unusual shepherd “boy” (his age is never given – maybe for a purpose), Santiago, who dreams the same dream twice. This dream urges him to go to the Egyptian pyramids to find a treasure. He consults a gypsy and Melchizedek (both for a fee) who simply tell him to follow his heart’s desires, which become his Personal Legend.  From his native Andalusia he travels to Tangier where he is robbed so he has to earn money to be able to join a caravan headed for the pyramids. The desert gives him a chance to meditate on his life and learn about alchemy (which does not make an impression on him). In a forced rest on account of tribal wars the caravan has to stop at the Al Fayoum oasis where he falls in love with Fatima, meets a real alchemist, and almost becomes the oasis counselor. This is thanks to this reading of two hawks as an omen of war. Despite the war, the alchemist takes him close to the pyramids where is is robbed again; but the  alchemist makes gold and gives some to Santiago. He then returns to Andalusia, and digs under a tree where he once rested with his sheep. There he finds a treasure and heads back to Al Fayoum to Fatima.

Coelho, through his artistic skill,  has the reader fall for the fairy-tale atmospheres, mythical Arab wisdom, pyramids, do-what-your-heart-tells-you attitude, so that the protagonist’s “Personal Legend” (dream? purpose in life?), the Universal Language of the World Spirit, and the accoutrements of the mystery of life are prominently foregrounded. The messages are clear: listen to your heart, fulfill your childhood desires, interpret your dreams as omens,  follow the ancient traditions and religions, travel, don’t rock the boat, keep making money.  Under this surface patina, so attractive to countless readers, there are, however,  troubling undertones which make these feel-good concepts look incomplete. Here is just a sample of these bothersome undercurrents, contradictions, and not fully-exploited themes.

1. The novel is set during an undefined era, in a sort of rarefied atmosphere. The protagonist never feels hunger, and although he’s robbed twice, the first time he earns money by working in a crystal shop and the second time the alchemist provides him with gold. His father gives him enough money to buy sheep, in order that he can embark on the occupation of shepherd.  So the message here seems to be “believe your lottery ticket is the winning one”, and if you are middle class, so much the better. And therefore, the underlying message often exemplified in the novel says that the universe conspires to help you to achieve your Personal Legend. The fact that giving oneself up to occult and hidden forces is not the reasonable answer is never considered in the novel. Reason is defeated and inscrutability takes charge.

2. The name of the protagonist, Santiago, is highly interesting.  Santiago (Saint James, also called Santiago Matamoros) is now the patron saint of Spain (and Portugal and many other nations). One of the legends narrates of his miraculous apparition and help given the Spaniards in their battle against the Moors (battle of Clavijo, 844). When Santiago meets the alchemist for the first time,  he “was reminded of the image of Santiago Matamoros, mounted on his white horse, with the infidels beneath his hooves. This man looked exactly the same, except that now the roles were reversed.” (p. 113) Now he is the infidel who waits for the blow of the sword, but it does not come. In the book, Santiago is asked to become the counselor of the group that governs the oasis, an offer which he declines. Clearly, Christian-Muslim relations are one of the latent themes of the book, but never exploited in full. For example, the concept of Maktub (it is written) is mentioned a few times, and reason does not prevail: Tradition is taken as the measuring stick, inscrutability wins again.

3.   One of the most prominent conceits in the novel is expressed by the alchemist when Santiago is supposed to perform his metamorphosis and become the wind that sweeps the oasis to show the Arabs that he has mysterious powers (so that they would fear him and let him and the alchemist go). Santiago is doubting that he can perform this miracle, and the alchemist says: “Then you’ll die in the midst of trying to realize your Personal Legend. That’s a lot better than dying like millions of other people, who never even knew what their Personal Legends were.” (p. 146) This statement, smug as it is, contradicts something stated before: children (presumably all children) know what their heart wants, so everyone know their Personal Legend is.

4. Accepting armed conflict as the inevitable result of keeping tradition alive means not challenging the status quo. When the oasis is attacked by a group of Arabs (which is against the Tradition – oases should not be violated in this way), the attackers are killed, their leader hanged from a dead palm tree (death without honor). But the whole battle rests on the reason for the fight: the invading group was starving and thirsty. There seems to be a contradiction here: all religions urge believers to engage in acts of generosity towards those who are less fortunate – but the episode says just the opposite, kill the unfortunate ones, never mind sharing food with them. So Maktub (it is written) makes for contradictory behaviour. Reasoning was not even considered before the conflict started.

5. In the fight between reason and emotion, emotion wins. This is clearly seen from the way verbal language is devalued and disregarded. According to the alchemist, “people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World.” (p. 90) The word language is used often, but with the meaning of non-linguistic communication, especially that of omens, dreams, such as “true language of the universe” (68) ,  “language of enthusiasm” (64), “language that doesn’t depend on words” (46), even the caravan and desert “speak the same language” (81). The novel does not attempt to build a bridge between reason and emotion, intuition, mystification. On the other hand, it is ironic that novels are written using verbal language, a means that is devalued in this book.

6. Omens form the backbone of the plot, and the Englishman who wants to become an alchemist goes so far as to say that “Everything in life is an omen. … There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten.” (74) The camel driver “knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things.”  (104)  The interpretation of omens, though, is mostly the purview of “specialists” (gypsies, old Testament characters, alchemists). Santiago has to rely on Urim and Tummim to give him answers. He is not urged to think on his own, abandoning reason to mystery, intuition, and feeling.

7. Last but not least, the plot of the novel would not exist without the necessary monetary support for the protagonist. There is nothing that happens without money: dreams of traveling, Personal Legend of finding a treasure, looking for help in interpreting his dream, joining a caravan, all depend on his ability to pay. Money is the conduit to the protagonist’s happiness. Although the meaning of the word treasure  can be metaphorical, it is the gold and money treasure he finds at last under the tree in Andalusia that allows him to go back to the desert to join his love, Fatima. The only two characters  who give him money without asking, in fact, are his father and the alchemist.

In conclusion, The Alchemist is a nice fable, a respite from violence and gore and other unpleasantness. But it is also a great example of the unseen power of the pull of money. Dreams can be fulfilled, but this fulfillment depends on one’s ability to pay. Trusting one’s intuition and heart is not sufficient. The beauty of a fable is that even here there is one dissenting voice, that of the crystal salesman, who tells “the boy”: “I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.” (60) In other words, to each his/her/its own Personal Legend.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Ancient India

basham

It is impossible to give an account of the content of an informative book of 676 pages; one can only touch upon some memorable details. What can be said with certainty, though, about this great historical account is that the author’s love, admiration, and tenderness toward his subject shine through every page. A.L. Basham’s tome, The Wonder That Was India. A survey of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims (Picador, 3rd edition, 1967, first published in 1954), is to be savoured slowly. It is an interesting companion to Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering (also reviewed here).

The volume’s Foreword is penned by Thomas Trautman, and the book itself is divided into ten chapters and ends with 10 appendices, a Bibliography and References, as well as with an Index and Glossary. It contains a chronology of pre-Muslim India, and  89 plates (illustrations, photos in black and white and in color) as well as line drawings. The historical account touches ancient India from the prehistoric period (3000 BC Baluchistan, and 2500-1550 Harappa Culture) through to the 16th century (Northern and Peninsular medieval dynasties). The author tackles this vast subject geographically (North to South and West to East) according to where chronological developments in culture, economy, social and religious contacts lead. The amount of information receives a logical treatment, so reading flows very easily. No historical outline, however, is complete without touching upon the present. And Basham’s Chapter X, Epilogue: The Heritage of India contains not only those elements which the world received from India, but also an optimistic view of the future: “…the whole face of India is altering, but the cultural tradition continues, and it will never be lost”. (p. 496) This statement, seen from a distance of more than 60 years, and from cynicism due to all postmodernist thought, brings heartfelt positive feeling, only to be undone by recent cultural clashes (in Sri Lanka) and by the rapid leveling of all cultures in the world into one technological maelstrom.

What follows are outlines of each chapter.

From the Introduction (Chapter I), we learn that the name India comes from the name of one of the two most important rivers, Sindhu (Indus), which the Persians pronounced as Hindu. It is noteworthy that, according to the author, the effects of the northern mountains (Himalayas) on the social, economic, and cultural development of India has been overrated, but of course their importance as sources of the two most important rivers (the Indus and Ganga) is paramount. The history of India is unique (similar to that of China) in that some of the most ancient traditions have been preserved until the present day – a situation which is not mirrored in Egypt or Greece. The continuous traditions came to be studied, from the European perspective, in the 18th century: among the first scholars who delved deeply into India’s history were Jesuit fathers who mastered Sanskrit (for ex., Father Hanxleden who worked in Kerala from 1699 to 1722), but the pre-eminence of research falls into the English hands starting with Sir William Jones (who came to Calcutta as a judge of the supreme court, 1746-94), a linguistic genius, to whom we owe a scientific proof of the idea that Persian and European languages originate from a common ancestor which is not Hebrew (as had been believed). Under the English administration, India’s ancient literature was translated, and the Asiatic Society of Bengal was established (1784), existing to this day. Archaeology received a boost, too, but most excavations on a large scale began only in the 20th century. Native scholars did and continue to do work as Sanskritists, epigraphists, archaeologists. Basham’s perspective and admiration is clear from this excerpt:

At most periods of her history India, though a cultural unit, has been torn by internecine war. In statecraft her rulers were cunning and unscrupulous. Famine, flood and plague visited her from time to time, and killed millions of her people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number, and in no other ancient lawbook are their rights so well protected as in the Arthaśāstra. No other ancient lawgiver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as did Manu. … To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity.... India was a cheerful land whose people, each finding a niche in a complex and slowly evolving system, reached a higher level of kindliness and gentleness in their mutual relationships than any other nation in antiquity. For this, as well as for her great achievements in religion, literature, art and mathematics, one European student at least would record his admiration of India’s ancient culture.  (pp. 8-9)

This paragraph not only clearly states Basham’s esteem, but also touches upon a number of strands that fill the loom of Indian history, but whose interpretation by no means receives a universal acceptance. These are as follows: India was a cultural unit in antiquity; social relations were humane; laws protected the humble classes.

Chapter II deals with Prehistory: The Harappa culture and The Aryans. Stone tools (hand axes, arrowheads, etc.) were found both in northern and southern India and could be dated to about 100 000 years ago.* Agricultural settlements were excavated in Baluchistan and lower Sind, dating from the end of the 4th millennium, when the climate was very different. Various cultures thrived, separated by the manner in which they produced pottery (in the North red, in the South buff), but they were united in worshiping a Mother Goddess, of whom small statuettes were found. The civilization of the Indus, now called the Harappa culture (2500-1550 BC), known from excavation in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and other cities, was apparently based on oligarchic commercial republic system, since no remains could be identified as places of worship nor weapons were found there. Harappa had a thriving agricultural economy and exported produce and cotton, metal and semi-precious stones which found their way to Mesopotamia; numerous family seals with emblems and inscriptions were found. Waves of invaders destroyed the existing villages and replaced the existing culture. These invaders were probably Vedic Aryans, and called themselves Aryas (anglicized into Aryans; the form survives as Iran, cognate with Eire).  These migrated from the North-West; the invasions to India covered centuries and various tribes. One tribe, the Bharatas, included priests who perfected advanced poetic technique, and the hymns were passed down by word of mouth only through careful memorization. This great collection of hymns is the Rg Veda, still the most sacred text of the Hindus, and it, as well as the Brahmanas, and Upanisads, form the basis of our knowledge about the ancient Aryans. It is probable that the hymns of the Rg Veda were composed between1500 and 1000 BC.  The Aryans were organized in tribes led by chiefs (raja) and they were fighting not only the natives (Dāsa) but also among themselves. Apparently, the retroflex consonants existing in Sanskrit and other modern vernaculars are due to the influence of  the natives’ languages while learning Sanskrit. Aryans seem to have had class divisions in place: ksatra (the nobility), vis’ (ordinary people), brāhmana (priest), sudra (serf); these divisions deepened as the Aryans laid great stress on purity of blood, so children born of  intermarriage with natives and non-assimilated natives were considered low class. The Sanskrit word used for these divisions is varna (color), and not caste, term which is generally accepted today. The Aryans engaged in a mixed pastoral and agricultural economy, the horse and the cow were utilized greatly; inebriating drinks (sama and sura)  were very popular – used in sacrifices and during festivities. They were warlike and kept pressing on to the eastern parts, setting up kingdoms in Kosala and Kasi and later Videha. Consolidated kingdoms of the later ages were still ruled by kings, but their power was much limited by the power of the Brahmans and that of the public opinion. “Political divisions based on kingship were giving place to those based on geography, and in many parts of India the tribes were rapidly breaking up. This, and the strong feeling of insecurity which it caused, may have been an important factor in the growth of asceticism and of a pessimistic outlook on the world, which is evident throughout this period.” (pp. 42-43).

Chapter III focuses on History: Ancient and Medieval Empires.  From the 6th century BC on, the historian can rely on more numerous written sources: this time brought great ferment not only in the spiritual domain (ascetics, mystics, the Buddha, etc.), but also advancement in commerce and politics. The old order of brahmanic culture slowly disappeared and new kingdoms arose in the east: Magadha, Vatsa and Avanti. The policy of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru (both kings of Magadha) seemed to aim at the control of as much of the course of the Ganga as possible – conceivably the idea of a far-flung Indian empire in the making. The Greeks’ permanence in India was short – about 80 years. Alexander crossed the Indus in 326; Megasthenes, as ambassador (305 BC), traveled and saw the Mauryan court and greatly admired its emperor Candragupta, a precursor of Asoka, the greatest and noblest ruler India has known. Then come various invasions from Central Asia as well as Iran.  In the 4th century of our era, Candra Gupta rose to power, ruling over Northern India, and his imperial advancements were continued by other rulers establishing the Gupta empire. Further raids occurred between the 7th and the 10th century (invaders from Central Asia, and the Huna, Arabs, Turks). All the while dynastic wars continued.

Chapter IV discusses The State: Political Life and Thought. The main sources of information are textbooks on statecraft, the administration of force, the conduct of kings.  Kautiliya Arthasastra gives detailed instructions on control of the state, organization of the national economy, and conduct of war. The great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana also contain sections which provide information on statecraft as it existed in the early centuries of our era. Kingship, royal function, oligarchies and republics, councillors and officials, local administration are described in this chapter. Legal literature, elucidating the obscure sacrificial instructions of the Brahmanas, was written in the form of brief aphorisms (sutras) and they were later versified. These Smrti (remembered) writings are distinct from the earlier Vedic literature Sruti (heard). The king’s duty was to uphold the Dharma (“the divinely ordained norm of good conduct, varying according to class and caste, “the Sacred Law”, p. 114) by means of Danda (coercion/punishment/justice). Militarism was one constant aspect of any kingdom, but “The intense militarism of ancient India did not lead to the building of a permanent empire over the whole sub-continent.  … numerous factors prevented the unification of the recognized cultural unit… the size of the land … the martial tradition itself.” (p. 124) In India, “Hinduism, which had no all-embracing super-national organization, rather encouraged inter-state anarchy by incorporating many martial traditions into the Sacred Law.” (p. 129)

Chapter V describes Society: Class, Family and Individual. In social conduct, there is a common Dharma, i.e. rules of conduct, but there exist also Dharma rules which are intended for different distintions by class, age, gender, etc. The biggest distinction was between the twice-born and those who could not be initiated into the Aryan status.

The Brahman was thought of as a divinity in human form, and he was accorded precedence, honor and worship. He was responsible for carrying out the sacrifices to ensure prosperity, and some were great teachers of the Vedas. There were various classes and types of professional priests; but all were feared and maintained by the king and the population at large. The ksatriya (ruling class) was responsible for protection, i.e. fighting in war and governing in peace. The vaisya (mercantile class) was made of farmers, keepers of cattle and petty merchants; although they were a distant third group, – they could be oppressed at will by the upper two classes – ,  some achieved great wealth. The sudras were not twice-born, and these were of two kinds: “pure” or “not-excluded” and “excluded”.  Their duty was to wait on the other three classes; they had few rights; and were not allowed to hear or repeat the Vedas. Below the sudras there are the untouchables, outcastes, depressed classes (the candala group).  Slavery is also discussed. The four stages of life, which together with the idea of class are the bulwarks of Hindu society, are described in detail:   after receiving the sacred thread (i.e. the second birth), youth were to lead an austere life as students at the home of their teachers; having mastered the Vedas, they returned home to marry and become householders; once they have seen their children and grandchildren, they left their homes and lived in the forest as hermits. Clearly, these rules pertain to boys. Women were always minors at law. They could hold specified amounts of property, could become nuns but not officiate. But the role of women was to marry and take care of their menfolk and children. The wife’s fidelity was sacrosanct.

Chapter VI focuses on Everyday Life: The daily round in city and village – among the most important sources for the life of a well-to-do young Indian is the Kamasutra. Dice, chess, boxing and other games are described.

Chapter VII takes on Religion: cults, doctrines and metaphysics, describing the religion of the Vedas (the main gods are compared to the Greek divinities), following the ascetics, analyzing the rise of ascetic and mystical doctrines out of some opposition to brahmanic pretensions and deep feeling of uncertainty during momentous societal transformations. Topics treated in detail are Ethics of the Upanisads, Buddhism, the Lesser and the Great Vehicle, Jainism and other unorthodox sects, Hinduism, all illustrated with significant excerpts from the sacred writings. Christians, Jews, and Muslims were not antagonized: “This capacity of toleration contributed to the characteristic resiliency of Hinduism, and helped to assure its survival” (347).

Chapter VIII concentrates on The Arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music and the dance. Stupas (burial mounds) underwent transformations and became centres of religious life. Temples are described in detail, as well as sculpture , engraving, terracotta products and paintings receive meticulous treatment. The Indian musical scale is illustrated.

Chapter IX deals with Language and Literature. The role of Sanskrit, the language of the sacred books,  for historical linguistics is recognized; Indian grammarians and some of their ideas are described. Prakrits, the language of everyday speech is also preserved in Asoka’s edicts, for example, or in the speech of women characters in Indian drama. It is simpler than Sanskrit both in sound and in grammar. One early dialect of Prakrit was  Pali, still the language of Buddhism in Ceylon, Burma and South-East Asia.. Dravidian languages (Tamil, Canarese, Telegu and Malayālam) also enjoyed literary uses. The earliest important written documents are Asokan inscriptions, written in a well-developed script, pointing to a long previous development. Between the 6th century BC and 5th century of our era scripts underwent modifications: the Devanagari script is used to write Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi and Marathi, but there are local variations, for ex., in the Panjab, Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat and elsewhere. Parts of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanisads receive high praise for their literary merit. The two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana,  being martial epics interpolated with passages on theology, moral and statecraft, are also prime sources for our knowledge of early Indian civilizations. European aesthetic standards do not appreciate the ornate Sanskrit poetry and its rigid canons of literary convention appreciative of verbal ingenuity. Plays are also described (for ex., “The Little Clay Cart”), as well as Sanskrit prose.

The Appendices deal with Cosmology and Geography, Astronomy, The Calendar, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, Logic and Epistemology, Weights and Measures, Coinage, The Alphabet and Its Pronunciation, Prosody, The Gypsies.

__________

* This dating has now been corrected to much earlier: see Michael Greshko, “These Tools Upend Our View of Stone-Age Humans in Asia”, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/india-stone-tools-human-evolution-archaeology-science/

Siddhartha

siddharthaHow could a young man, around 450 BCE, look for answers to life’s enigmas, especially the feeling of unhappiness? What was it like to meet Gautama Buddha? Are there answers that the Buddha does not provide? What does it mean to abandon life’s pleasures? How does one deal with the pain inflicted by others, especially by the behaviour of one’s children? These are some of the questions dealt with in the novel by Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (transl. by Hilda Rosner, A New Directions Book, 1951).

The novel’s plot is deceivingly simple: a good-looking young man, Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin, lives in relative wealth, listens to his father’s preaching, feels the love of his mother and his  friend, Govinda. He is aware of the admiration of the Brahmins’ daughters, he is delighting everyone as well as making everyone happy. But there is no joy in Siddhartha’s heart, so he embarks on the life of the Samanas (wandering ascetics), even though this is against his father’s wishes. Thirst, rain, hunger, self-denial, meditation accompany his learning, but he keeps asking whether these are the right ways to approach salvation. On the urge of Govinda they decide to hear the teachings of Gautama Buddha (in the translation, Gotama) on the origin of suffering, and the way to release the soul from suffering. Govinda is convinced that the Illustrious One is the way to salvation, but Siddhartha is convinced that nobody finds salvation through teachings, that teachings do not show the character and nature of the Self. He is sure that by following others he was afraid of himself, he was fleeing from himself and this is his awakening. He finally looks at the world differently: the sun, moon, river, forest, all beckon him. Attempting to enter the world as a man, he wonders into the grove of the beautiful Kamala, the well-known courtesan. Her courteous manner enchants him and he is ready to become her disciple and her friend. But her teachings are not for free, so he becomes a rich merchant, lives among the townsfolk, but still, for a while, clings to his three principles: “think, wait, fast”. He learns about goodness  but also about the evil ways of the world. He is Kamala’s best lover, but he does not love her. She promises to him that when she is older, she will have a child with him. Meanwhile Siddhartha learns to conduct himself in the world, and the world catches him: possessions, riches, dice, idleness, acquisitiveness trap him. One night, in his forties, he has a dream which indicates to him his lost time, and he is overwhelmed with great sadness. He has spent long years without any lofty goal. Abandoning the town, he falls asleep in a grove when Govinda shows up. He wakes up refreshed and loving everything around him. He comes to a river and meets the same ferry boatman he met on arrival, so many years before. This ferryman, Vasudeva, is poor, but wise. He offers shelter and food to Siddhartha, who works for him. Vasudeva teaches Siddhartha to learn to listen to the river. They both ferry people and animals over the river,  they both smile radiantly, in the evenings they both listen silently to the river. One day streams of people need to cross the river as Gautama Buddha is dying; one of these travelers is Kamala with her son. Kamala dies having been bitten by a poisonous snake, and the eleven-year old boy, Siddhartha’s son, stays with them. But he was accustomed to riches, fine food, soft bed, and accommodating servants. Siddhartha asks him to help out, do chores, but his son rebels. Siddhartha is out of his wits: when he is strict and punishes him, his son reacts violently. But the worst reaction is to Siddhartha’s kindness and love: his son does not want to be like Siddhartha and he runs away, taking away with him all the money Vasudeva and Siddhartha have collected for their work. Siddhartha longs for his son and follows him, even though he is wounded by his son’s flight, Siddhartha realizes that he cannot be with him, so he comes back to the ferryman’s hut. Once, while he crosses the river, he remembers his father’s pain when he himself left his paternal house, and he notes that his pain and his father’s pain are eternal repetitions in a fateful circle. Listening to the river, he no longer hears laughter or sorrow or pleasure – all feelings are interwoven into one word: Om – perfection. Siddhartha ceases to fight against his destiny and radiantly decides to go to the forest where he meets Govinda and they have a long talk. Govinda achieves understanding on Siddhartha’s death.

This plot is accompanied by a psychological search for understanding of how we think, how we feel, why we feel as we do, and whether the search for answers really leads us to salvation, i.e. to break the circle of transmigration of souls, to be free finally of the repetitions of the soul’s suffering. Siddhartha is not satisfied with the teachings of others until he comes to terms with the fact that experience teaches everyone to think differently and more humanely. The biggest realization that he achieves brings him to see everyone else as equal – because everyone else suffers for the same reasons and on account of the same things. Before, he was the son of a Brahmin, put on a pedestal, adored, loved; now he is a suffering father, just like all fathers. “He now regarded people in a different light than he had previously: not very clever, not very proud and therefore all the more warm, curious and sympathetic.” (p. 105)

The following analysis picks and chooses elements of the novel which question the Buddhist thought in general (there are various off-shoots of this belief; see for ex. the explanations in my preceding review).  Of course, Siddhartha’s life brings to the open the questions philosophers have been musing about for many centuries, for example, the active and the contemplative life; living outside of society and living in/contributing to society; taking advantage of someone and being taken advantage of; pleasure and pain, and a host of others. In a sort of rarefied setting, Siddhartha, however, is able to avoid thinking about society and his place in it. Specifically, the focus on the individual path to salvation really avoids to consider simple questions like “If we all become beggars for food, who will actually produce it?”, or “Why do we feel sad and upset if things do not go our way, even though we know that we should not cling to things?”, or “If it is not right to be violent, but if someone else kills the animal, why can I eat it without remorse?”. The strategy for Siddhartha in a way resembles that of Oblomov (the protagonist of  Ivan Goncharov’s eponymous novel): do nothing. Sleep is a common activity shared by the two characters, although the awakening is starkly different. In other words (and, clearly, for different reasons), nihilism seems to be a way out. Siddhartha rationalizes, at the beginning of the novel, this disentanglement from life of learning like this:

There is, so I believe, in the essence of  everything, something that we cannot call learning. There is … only a knowledge – that is everywhere, that is Atman, that is in me and you and in every creature, and I am beginning to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning. (p. 15)

This is a slap in the face of all the Brahmins and Samanas and their desire to teach the right path towards salvation. So introspection is a means to understanding:

…to recognize causes, it seemed to him, is to think, and through thought alone feelings become knowledge and are not lost, but become real and begin to mature. (p. 30)

But there are feelings which hide deficiencies:

Siddhartha began to play dice for money and jewels with increasing fervor… . …He loved that anxiety, that terrible game of dice, during the suspense of high stakes. He loved this feeling and continually sought to renew it, to increase it, to stimulate it, for in this feeling alone did he experience some heightened living in the midst of his satiated, tepid, insipid existence. (pp. 63-64)

Then he has a dream that Kamala’s bird died and he threw it away, “he was horrified and his heart ached as if he had thrown away with this dead bird all that was good and of value in himself.”  (p. 66) He now must abandon this reckless, useless life of making money and losing it, and must disappear from that life. But his disappearance does not end in ennui or in horror vacui; the previous dissolute life is replaced by calm activities of the boatman, by meditation beside the river which discloses the depth of thought leading to the revelation that conquering time means conquering all evil. “Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence” (p. 87), i.e. mindfulness,  and impermanence – the realization that panta rei, everything changes. Despite this, Siddhartha cannot shake his despair when his son does not obey him: the pages which describe Siddhartha’s suffering, frustration, anger when dealing with the insubordination of his son are full of heartfelt truth and wrenching feelings. Once the goal to reach his son’s soul is gone, he feels emptiness and despair, but reminded by the river’s eternal flow, he falls back to waiting, listening, and having patience. Is it his upbringing among Brahmins and experience with the Samanas which helps him not to be destructive at this stage? Where does his strength to fall back onto his own self come from? Why is he not apathetic? Buddhist thought is not clear where to look for strength at these crucial moments when ceasing fighting against one’s destiny is called for.

Siddhartha finds great relief in the perfection of the sacred syllable – Om. It is troubling, for a linguist, to know that although the Brahmins insist on keeping the ancient tradition and  pronunciation intact, the sacred syllable transformed from AUM to OM through time. Although this is a regular sound change exemplified by lots of languages (for ex., Latin TAURU > Italian toro “bull”, or Latin AURU > Spanish oro “gold”), it is inconceivable that the syllable’s sacredness remains intact when such a phonetic change occurs. Does it mean that the sacredness of the Brahmin language is also impermanent? What are the consequences of this dramatic change for spiritual yearning and the understanding of the sacred?

In conclusion, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha opens the mind to a universe of ideas that differ greatly from the received truths of modernity. It also, however, sits on the fence with regards to the individual’s role in society: personal salvation is seen as the utmost good – this is perhaps why Buddhism so easily takes root in North America – but societal troubles are not even mentioned. Moreover, it is not clear where exactly personal  strength comes from when the individual is suffering. Such a fascinating life story as Siddhartha’s makes us question our own innermost feelings about ourselves. And for this reason, rereading the novel means always finding new aspects of the self.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missing the mark

 

mountain

A missing-the-mark,  feel-good book. This is, in a nutshell, this reader’s reaction to Cindy Myers’ The Mountain Between Us (New York: Kensington Publishing, 2014).

The feel-good aspect of the book means that at the end, every young woman gets her man (the older women remain alone), every natural obstacle is removed, everyone’s life,  (despite some previous upheaval) settles into a routine, victims get their revenge, and Christmas cheer is everywhere. The novel is about two women’s quest for a lasting relationship. Maggie Stephens is a divorced 40-year old, newly arrived in Eureka, Colorado, pregnant by a younger man from Eureka, Jameso, whom she has known for a few months. Her preoccupation stems from his carefree lifestyle: will he want to stay with her and be a good father? Olivia Theriot, also an arrival to Eureka, is a single mother of a 13 year old boy whose father, D. J.,  left her to make some money during the Iraq conflict; but he comes back to Eureka to attempt a reconciliation which she obstinately refuses to entertain. The tiny town’s inhabitants have a role to play: there is an experienced ex-miner (Bob Prescott),  the town’s mayor (Lucille), the town’s old maid (Cassie). The mountain town itself, with its economic need for tourists, natural beauty and resources, paints an interesting setting. The town’s council was defrauded of all its money, some of which which they got back using not-so-legal means. This whole episode hangs on the willingness of the bank to cash all of the town’s investments, rather than just the sum the town agreed on with the new “investor”, really a swindler.

The author attempts to give authentic voices to the characters when she narrates their innermost feelings. This is done in a conversational style, perhaps mirroring the linguistic usage of a small town. For es., “familiar in the way only someone with whom you’d shared the deepest intimacy” (p. 10). This is perhaps also the reason for using trite and tired stock phrases, such as “life was full of surprises” (p. 144),  “picture-postcard perfections” (p. 164),  “the world around them was a frosted wedding cake” (p. 165),  “People fall in love and they just know they can get through anything together” (p. 189), etc. It is quite sad, then, that the world of these small-town characters is circumscribed by such rudimentary vocabulary.

There is an underlying tension between independence and rules (similar to the one in Glass Castle – see the review below). “Craziness” is admired; Bob’s words underline this: “If crazy is not wanting to play by the rest of the world’s rules, then maybe you’re right.” (p. 175); or Olivia’s claim that people bragged about living on their own terms (p. 239). It could be that echoes of the idea of rugged individualism must appear in all American writing.

The title does not really reflect the content: who is really the “us”? Is it the inhabitants of Eureka? And who then is “them” – between “us” and “them”? Is the “mountain between” a good thing, i.e. some distance to ponder the events? Or is it something insurmountable?

However, the novel fails to take advantage of the signposts that are already in the narration and could have become much more than asides, such as the consequences for soldiers and para-military personnel as well as their loved ones of their involvement in war (in this case, in Iraq); the question of a Christmas tradition without religious bases; not-so-ethical business practices; the unattainable goals of women, especially if they involve the arts;  trite romantic dreams of middle class women; definition of community. These signposts revolve around social consciousness, i.e. the idea that the actions in the novel are embedded in a wider political, social, economic contexts all of which bring problems to individuals. The lack of knowledge about social consciousness among many authors today stems from their lack of reading: many authors jump into writing as if it were something like walking, which seems innate. Writing, on the other hand, is not innate, but many work with ignorance of  models (even to destroy), and without any need for awareness of linguistic creativity.  Attentiveness to the world beyond one’s navel is based on familiarity with a wealth of other writing which requires time and effort and study. Long gone are the times when authors were conscious of the fact that if they wanted to reach future readers, they had to write using excellent language and superior content. Nowadays, publishing at all costs and immediately is the goal, so the results clearly miss the mark.

According to Pankaj Mishra, to be a writer is “to concern oneself particularly with the fate of the individual in society” (p. 149 in An End to Suffering, Picador, 2004). But to do this, one has to study, read widely and incessantly, think deeply and edit constantly: all of these activities are time-consuming, lengthy, profound, ill-suited to the modern hasty superficial obsession with a two-minute fame.

 

A tug of war between independence/originality and dependence/conventionality

glasscastle

What is one reviewing when the subject of the book is a memoir? Here is one answer, offered by Beth Kephart: “Reviewing becomes a warscape of its own when the reviewer of memoir chooses to forget that it is not the life itself we are asked to judge, but how that life has been swept up into words.”  (1)

From the perspective of language and narrative technique, then,  Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005) first-person narrative reads well, it is fast-paced, the style is unadorned, the structure well-thought out, there is not one word out of place. It is a matter-of fact, emotionless rundown of one daughter’s life with her family from when she was 3 to when she reached her early twenties. Hence, the book’s continuing popularity on this basis is deserved and understandable.  If one had to quibble with the chronology, Part I, “A Woman on the Street” already gives many of the forthcoming events away, so its place in the life account is questionable, as it discloses crucial character traits of the daughter-author and her mother, preventing the reader from  discovering these facts on her/his own.

However, a memoir is not simply a “life that has been swept up into words”. Words carry meanings, but these are both denotative and connotative, they create sentences, similes, metaphors, they build allegories, parallels, links, comparisons to other lives. Why write a memoir if you do not react emotionally and intellectually to what happened to you, either at that particular moment, or many years afterwards? Therefore, this review asks for what reasons the author keeps her emotional gut reactions and intellectual musings in a straitjacket throughout the account by using a sort of documentary narration (clearly, in any documentary, certain images are foregrounded, just like in this memoir). Given the tremendous impact on the author’s life stemming from her parents’ choices, one would expect some emotional and intellectual response/feedback/closure by means of a charged, metaphor-laden description. In other words, writing as re-living in order to make sense of what happened.  If this emotionless narration happens by design, then the result is significant, because it forces the reader to come up with the emotional and intellectual reckoning for herself/himself. If this cold narration just happened, then it leaves unanswered the questions about the author’s stance on child raising, values of self-reliance and originality, and, above all, on love between parents and children.

The Walls family’s life can be summarized in one sentence, although there are countless other themes which are not dealt with here (religion and superstition, sexual abuse, alcoholism, theft, family falling apart).  The memoir describes the upbringing of children in a conscious homeless and nomadic existence by an alcoholic father/dreamer and incompetent mother/visual artist. The parents are complex figures: the mother is depicted as willfully inept care-giver.  Rose Mary Walls sees “adventure” in every obstacle that life places before the family; she is an “excitement addict”.  She paints, sculpts, and is not interested in cooking or cleaning. Her motto is “What does not kill you makes you stronger”. Granted, the children brace for and face any eventuality with resolve, because complaining would not stop the roof from leaking or bring food to the table;but this resolve is often inadequate for the task. The shocking fact revealed later on in the book is that the mother seems to own a pretty valuable plot of land in Texas, which she is unwilling to sell, since according to her, it’s not hard times yet. She expresses constant frustration at not being able to devote all her time to her art. Also, she wants to act unconventionally apparently because her mother forced her to follow all kinds of rules and guidelines. She believes that everyone has redeeming qualities. The father is described as a dreamer and his constant promises of a better life are thwarted by his alcoholism. He makes up for his lack of funds by giving children poetic “gifts”, such as letting them choose a star/planet to be their own. Rex Walls has one compulsion: to build a glass house for the family, and when he is sober, he works on the plans with his children. Needless to say, this construction never materializes. Rex instills his children with love of nature and animals. Both parents are avid readers and insist that their children have access to books wherever they live, and that they attend school. The mother and the father abhor conformity, conventionality, uniformity, dependence, rules. They value individuality, self-reliance, self-confidence, non-compliance, originality, independence.

Clearly, it would be too easy to criticize Rose Mary’s and Rex’s parenting. The children lived through some pretty traumatic events which could have been avoided, and at least three of the four of them have seemingly stable lives now. Nevertheless, the reader does not know whether they are happy and what, in their opinion, constitutes love and family.

The Glass Castle raises at least two thought-provoking problems: one deals with the question of teaching “value” to children, and the other with having self-reliance.  If there is “value” in a clear starry night in Arizona, how does one reconcile it with the fact that in New York one cannot see such sky? What is the consequence of this for the child who chooses a star as a gift from her father? Or, what is the “value” of a plot of land full of underground oil deposits, if this plot is not sold, keeping children hungry and cold? In other words, “values” have significance beyond the strictly pragmatic implication: they carry psychological and emotional baggage, perhaps for the rest of one’s life.

The other concern, that of self-reliance, is a much more complicated matter, deeply ingrained in the American culture and politics. The belief in the individual’s strength to live a life of self-reliance and personal independence runs deep in the American psyche. In the memoir, though, self-reliance borders at times on selfishness. The mother believes that letting her 3-year old cook on her own strengthens her character and self-reliance. On this particular occasion, cooking leads to a fire and then terrible burns. Not only there are scars but also there is a possible pyromania developing in the child (stealing matches, starting fires, etc.). Undoubtedly, no parent is omniscient, and the consequences of events are truly unpredictable. So the question remains: what does “taking care of” mean and does not taking care of someone teach them independence? At what cost? Does suffering really lead to self-reliance and does it really teach abnegation and strength? What effects does telling children that they are special have on their individuality? Is not following sewing rules and then abandon the disastrous product a truly learning experience?

From another perspective, how do you help a person who does not want help, who thinks self-reliance is what keeps them going? Being homeless and unemployed: is this a lifestyle of dreamers or social and psychological misfits (sometimes bordering on mentally unstable)? The Wells use public libraries, hospitals, schools (but they are never on food stamps nor receive unemployment benefits, they don’t “accept handouts from anyone”): theirs is a half-hearted independence from services which society offers. Yes, Jeannette is ashamed of her parents in front of other people, but not when directly facing them. All in all, the memoir underscores the fact that there are no definitive wrong and right answers to raising children, but it also illustrates that love between parents and children is a very tender flower, easily bruised and repaired with difficulty, if ever.

In conclusion, these are some of the ideas raised by the book. If memoir writing is a cathartic undertaking, the author did not let us know how successfully she cleansed herself from her previous life, of the traumas and inadequacies which populated her development. Above all, how will she raise her children, if she has any?

___________

(1) Beth Kephart, “What does it mean to review a memoir?” http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-memoir-reviews-20151112-story.html

Millennials and beyond: born to satisfy the “needs of the market economy”

dream

Youth (un)employment can be analyzed from various perspectives. Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison chose the university and college systems as their focus in Dream Factories. Why Universities Won’t Solve the Youth Job Crisis (Toronto: TAP Books, 2016,  231 pages). The book is a collaborative effort of two university professors who together have been in higher education for almost 100 years, and they have researched colleges and universities for almost that long, so their academic credentials seem to stand on a solid ground.

The book is a well-developed indictment against the inability of today’s degree-granting institutions of higher learning to provide support, instruction, and preparation for young people to find and land a job. Although concentrating on the Canadian and US higher learning systems, the book makes it clear that world-wide, the situation is woefully similar (examples are given from the universities in China, Brazil, and various European and North African countries).  According to the authors, there are three reasons for the existing enthusiasm for higher education, which, however, are not reflected in the realities of the world of work: 1) sustained evidence that a university degree produces highly beneficial results, if not for everyone, at least on average, 2) major shifts in the industrial workforce, 3) changing attitudes towards work/physical labor (pp. 41-42). Not every graduate, however, enjoys the realization of the dream: specifically, arts majors earn less than unionized heavy-duty mechanics, graduates from lesser-known or non-elite universities struggle to find jobs even if their field is finance, law, or economics, or the tech sector. Many graduates work part-time without benefits. The following reasons underpin the tragic ineffectiveness of universities and colleges:

  1. they are reticent to change their mission, which, expressed in various ways, usually means to expand the mind, improve public discourse, celebrate the world of ideas (p. 16), i.e. they are not job factories,
  2. they are very expensive businesses which rely on government funding per student, so they are forced to accept candidates irrespective of their preparation, stamina, competitiveness, and willingness to study,
  3. their status is vastly overrated by the parents’ and society’s  interpretation of the no-longer valid equation Education = Employment (or learning = earning),
  4. they were seen as the only way to riches during the post-WW2 era, especially the 1960s, but this dream no longer holds true, since “knowledge economy” replaced natural resources and industry as the foundation for national and personal prosperity (pp. 20-21),
  5. they mass-produce graduates in a way that is disconnected from the needs of the modern economy (21), so they are not responsive to the job market,
  6. they (often for-profit universities) employ unscrupulous recruitment procedures and do not inform the prospective students truthfully,
  7. they have to follow the governmental push for accessibility, so they make the point that admission is not a guarantee of graduation (admit everyone and then cull the number to a manageable level in the first year),
  8. they accept foreign students (whose tuition fees are double or more than the regular ones) who may or may not stay in the country they studied in and therefore may not contribute to that country’s prosperity,
  9. they allow credentialism to be rampant,
  10. they do not appear to correct “the serious problems with the students’ basic skills, limited curiosity, lack of commitment to studies, and disengagement from learning as a whole” (64),
  11. they pave the way for those faculty members who engage in research and publish; university administrators emphasize political correctness and sensitivity to issues of gender, class, etc.: “The struggle to reassert the primacy of college teaching is shaping up as one of the epic professional battles of the twenty-first century” (64),
  12. the “dream factories” make parents save relentlessly, force students to get into horrible amounts of debt, without any specific, concrete return on this “investment”. “This is gambling of the highest order.” (p. 79).

There are numerous other reasons for the inefficiencies and out-of-synch status of higher education, including the demise of the American Dream, the rampant inequalities, the obvious lack of drive and interest on the part of students to learn for learning’s sake, the change in the job market, off-shoring, globalization, excessive naiveté of parents, shirking of responsibilities of governments, nonexistence of the desire of excellence, and many others. Of course, a number of caveats are discussed. Firstly, there is the fact that most “elite” universities do choose the caliber of the student (for ex., Harvard accepts fewer than 7% of applicants; p. 50), and these institutions attempt to go with the market flow and support studies in technology. Secondly, the statement that graduates do eventually find jobs is misleading, since this may involve driving taxis or serve hamburgers, so statistics are not a reliable measure to support the old adage learning=earning. Thirdly, data about those who drop out with debt burdens do not appear in the glossy universities brochures.

What suggestions do Coates and Morrison offer in order to bridge the gap between the universities and job market?

The situation, though grim in general, certainly is not without hope for the individuals. Thus, as a response to the realities of twenty-first century education and work, we offer the following ideas. First, parental and youth expectations need to be reined in – not everyone is going to be a rich professional. Second, the fixation on colleges and universities as the focus for youth aspirations must be drastically reduced. Third, these institutions must be reformed to make them more responsive to public needs. And fourth, the debate about the future of youth must be reoriented away from colleges and universities toward a more realistic view of twenty-first century job creation. (p. 138)

“Responding to the needs of the economy” and “relying on market forces to reshape programs” (pp. 146-147), needing “to be responsive to job market conditions” (149) are suggestions which dramatically underscore the seemingly desired  pragmatic purpose of higher education, according to the authors. Technical education (polytechnics) is likely the one to embark on, as well as education which provides highly skilled workers.

Moreover, there are routes to avoid university education, such as applying to companies which offer ad hoc skill training, i.e. firm-specific job training, on-line accredited short courses, open to everyone irrespective of their educational level, thus by-passing university education altogether: “companies do not need colleges and universities to identify, hire, and train top-flight employees.” (160) From this perspective,then,  it behooves the modern universities to focus on the career-readiness of their graduates. The authors suggest that “it is vital that families, with young people fully engaged, pay more attention … to the evolving North American and global economy” (180). They give the example of the fact that five years ago, a career in petroleum engineering was the best way to prepare for the future; however, the prices and demand for oil collapsed, the good jobs disappeared, so that career path is not the right one for today. The same path was followed by the financial sector. “Given all this, parents and young adults have to do the best that they can to prepare themselves for future uncertainty” (182). Possible creation of job openings from today’s perspective is in the care of the elderly, blue-collar work including the trades, technology, digitalization. However,  the future is uncertain, and “the promises of degrees seemingly perfectly aligned with the modern economy often prove illusory” (186).  Words for parents:  “Prepare your children for uncertainty. … Prepare them to be future makers, not future takers” (214).

The book is of course much more comprehensive as to the woes of the higher education system and to the possibilities of making it right than can be detailed here. What follows is my critique of some of the content as well as certain assumptions which I found problematic. The whole book is built on the premise that overall, things will go on as they have been for the past 10-15 years  now: there will be governments which will function as they have been, there will be the job market which will dictate the fate of billions of people, and there will be amazing entrepreneurs who will model their behavior for young people. It is therefore understandable that Coates and Morrison can state openly that higher education institutions should provide young adults with the means to satisfy the needs of the economy. This is a troubling statement for two reasons: it assumes that humans are born to fill the needs of the market economy (!) and it does not take into account that whatever job one may hold, that job is surely to be filled sooner or later by an AI, since it is cheaper for companies to employ robots rather than humans. If the only mission of universities and colleges is to  successfully  prepare young people for a job in the market economy, this process will certainly be taken over by a smart AI which will produce robots who can fill those jobs cheaper and faster. This is, after all, at the heart of the question of the universities’ existence: what do they have to provide, to whom, and at what cost? The answers offered in the book are deceptively simple: provide a set of skills (that the market requires), provide this not to everyone, and have governments and employers pay for it. Unfortunately, the authors do not  delve into the nitty-gritty details of the manner in which this is to be achieved.

In many instances, reliable data is not quoted in order to make certain claims: it is disturbing that some notions expressed in the book lack a clear source of information. Specifically, these notions revolve around 1) the arts programs, 2)  i. children and language as well as  ii. children and averages, 3) students from wealthy backgrounds, 4) students accepted to the university but not suitable for it.

As for 1), it  is disconcerting that arts programs are seen as offering a lower quality of instruction: “Smart applicants realize that they can often apply for a low-demand program, sadly, in the arts at most institutions, and wrangle a transfer later into a high-demand offering, like business”  (51). Anyone working in the faculty of arts can vouch for the fact that certain arts disciplines are not only rigorous but also provide a measuring stick by which excellence is easily demonstrated: it’s enough to mention foreign languages, literatures and cultures in this instance.

2) i. The authors state that children of professionals “hear thirty-two million more  words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare” (70), but they never cite the source of this information. 2) ii.  It may be true that we live in an age of egregiously spoiled children (54), but to claim that “By definition, half of all children are below average ; not all of them achieve great things” (173) without citing the source of the number does not add to our understanding of the meaning of the term “average”.

3) The authors claim that “Students from wealthy backgrounds end up wealthy themselves” (70); again there is no indication of the meaning of “wealthy” or in fact how  this bears on the woes of the university.

4)  I personally have said on many occasions that 3/4 of my students should not have been accepted to the university, and my fraction is just an impressionistic figure due to my experience, so I was struck that  the authors state that  75% of enrolled students do not belong to the university. I would have loved to see who came up with this statistics and what criteria they used to come up with it. In any case, the number can simply show that not everyone is or can be made a university candidate.

The volume does not clearly state the responsibilities of the government, parents, job market for the education and future employment of young people.  Governments (partially) fund universities, but they “have surrendered educational decisions to the collective choices of high school graduates and their parents” (194), allowing these choices to be costly,  and haphazard. Parents tend to cling to the traditional idea that universities will provide a great paying job. Job markets work in unison with some elite universities but that touches only a small fraction of university students.

In conclusion, this book will surely make all readers think seriously not only about the role and value of the modern university, but also about the significance and purpose of the job market. There is no definition of “public needs” in this volume, so it is hoped that this will spark a serious and substantial discussion about whether, in fact, universities should exist. If institutions are to prepare young people for jobs, these institutions exist already, and they are the trade schools, 2-year colleges, ad hoc training schools for specific companies, various on-line degree granting courses, etc. As it is now – and this is my strong belief – students do not need to attend university to become pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, or AI researchers – they could learn all these things in less time, cheaper, and in a more focused manner. Workers in all of these jobs, however, can be and will be replaced by robots. The university should exist, but its study length should be two years, and the academic work should be devoted to those activities which humans, to keep being humans, ought to find pleasure in: access to and thinking deeply about ideas, and a fertile ground for unbridled imagination about numerous subjects and for no particular purpose. In case  the students have a job,  no job market will offer these to them, and in case they will be out of a job, they will have these to fall back onto.

 

Superficial wounds that run deep

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (Random House, 2008) is a fast-moving, smooth-reading, deceptively happy-ending narration. Taking cues from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, medieval Italian, Japanese, and Icelandic  tales of love, Davidson spins a post-modern tale set in unspecified contemporary North American city, interweaving episodes of gothic and romance literature with present-day scientific knowledge about the effects of burns, schizophrenia, as well as background histories of the major characters.

The novel offers numerous thematic elements whose prominence clearly emerges from the narration: everlasting true love even beyond the unexpected and bitter end, search for encyclopedic knowledge, life with cocaine and morphine dependency (the “snake”), artistic raptures, questions about actions and their earthly and after-life consequences, metempsychosis, need for continuity of human affairs through talismans and special objects. All of these add something particular to the plot.  Having grown up with drug-addicted foster parents, taking advantage of the library to quench his thirst for knowledge, and, later, on account of his good looks and lack of other skills, becoming a porn actor and director: all of these suddenly turn inconsequential thanks to one fateful Good Friday when he is about thirty years old (obvious echoes of Dante). He has a near-fatal car accident in which he is horribly burned (the gory details are spelled out in full) and deprived of his work tool, so to speak. Ending up in a hospital, he contemplates committing suicide as soon as he is released: his disfigurement, his lack of sexual organ, the loss of his livelihood and his film company mean that there is nothing left for him to do but end it all. The narration follows him in his hospital bed; he is taken care of conscientious doctors and nurses, and one uninvited character, Marianne Engel, the anchor which steadies the path of the narration.  She claims to have met the protagonist before (about 700 years before) and to have loved him then. At that time she worked in the Engelthal monastery as a scribe; he was a condottiero brought to the sisters since he was horribly burned. Marianne cures him now as she did then, and she keeps being in love with him through the centuries and now. At the hospital, Marianne’s tales of medieval romantic love, her artistic energy, kind disposition, nutritious food, make him abandon his desire to die. Once he is discharged, she takes him into her gothic-looking house, keeps taking care of him, and secures his future. She sculpts for a living: her grotesque stone sculptures resemble the strange medieval decorations on churches: gargoyles. She also starts to sculpt the protagonist.  Her artistic pursuit is spurred on by three special characters from her medieval life who assure her that she only has 27 more “hearts” to sculpt and then her last heart is to be given to her true love and let free. Having finished these “hearts”, she walks off into the sea never to be found again. Our protagonist passes his life writing his story.

The word “inferno” conjures images of raging fire burning the damned who deserve to be punished, because, in the Catholic tradition, they transgressed specific interdictions and rules.  Our nameless protagonist is not a believer and therefore he does not explain his predicament as a just retribution for his previous drug-filled debauched life.  In the novel, the role of Dante’s voyage through hell is only superficial: the protagonist has entered a hellish type of life, and he tries to understand it.  He too has a Virgil: it is Marianne who leads him – through narration of love stories –  to forget about his disfigured existence. There is no Beatrice, though, to lead him to God. Our protagonist lives his new post-burned life simply as a spectator:  unlike Dante who cries and is moved by the fate of the damned, he is not stirred by what happens around him, he does not seem to feel any gratitude to Marianne, or in fact even love. He is simply with her.              His pre-accident life was full of sex but devoid of love, full of drugs and alcohol but no moral signposts, no ethical concerns, no real friends, no real parents. He did not have healthy feelings of self-love or self-worth, but he demonstrated lots of vanity. The novel is a loud yearning cry for something to hold on to, something that would explain the consequences of one’s actions much like the deserved punishments of the damned in Dante’s Inferno. Alighieri’s epic poem, for a non-believer like the protagonist, is simply an imaginative tale, full of gory details; the connection between the literary work and the society that created it and the human stories underpinned by biblical teachings, philosophical works, scientific observations is totally lost. This is perhaps the significance of The Gargoyle: the protagonist’s cynical attitude of detached observer allows him the only activity that has a semblance of pleasure, that of reading anything and everything. However, this does not make him a wise man.

Every author inevitably toys with his/her readers. It is disconcerting, however, when the protagonist/author is cynically flippant about his readers, as is the case in The Gargoyle. This talking down to the reader happens also at special moments in the story, and it completely destroys the rich imagery that the reader was about to construct. Here are two examples:

“I have no idea whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I’ve never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story.  You’re still reading, so it seems to have worked”. (p. 5)

In the middle of a long list of food items, he says “…guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading)” (p. 167.)

This meta-narrative ploy is not new, moreover, it too accentuates the novel’s postmodern construction.

In conclusion, the muddle created by juxtaposing  the past and the present, religious and secular images, imaginative tales and scientific descriptions of medical conditions perfectly illustrates the post-modern emptiness which underlies the result of the attitude “anything goes”. However, the nihilistic condition seems to drain out the protagonist  completely, and he stands out as a disfigured empty shell whose only real companion is a dog and whose only activity is writing. The sole effigies with a “heart” remain the heavy stone gargoyles, creations of an exalted artist.

*The top-right illustration comes from the 1487 edition of the  Commedia; printer: Boninus de Boninis (https://www.frizzifrizzi.it/2017/11/10/tesori-darchivio-alcune-le-prime-edizioni-illustrate-della-divina-commedia-state-digitalizzate/).