Millennia of collective dreams shattered

pilgrim

Timothy Findley’s novel Pilgrim (Harper Perennial Canada, 1999) has all the characteristics of a grand gesture, encompassing historical and fictional characters, psychology and art history, sexuality and sainthood, all in the direction of questions rather than answers.  The narration follows Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist, while he deals with Mr. Pilgrim, a patient at the clinic for mentally ill patients. Pilgrim claims not only that he has lived numerous previous lives, but that he cannot die, having unsuccessfully attempted suicide a number of times. Pilgrim’s letters, interviews, diaries give us glimpses of Jung’s work with this patient who was an art historian by profession. Jung’s own growing demons of depression, his insight into collective unconscious, his attempts to help the inmates of the hospital by trying to understand their fixations and going along with their obsessions weave together a complex and heavy blanket of pessimism which covers human history. The novel’s multifaceted narration gives many characters a full treatment on account of their relationship to Jung and/or to Pilgrim, and  they receive detailed descriptions of their past, their amusements and dislikes, substantially enriching the plot. In what follows, three themes have been chosen to illustrate Findley’s craftsmanship: 1) the role of art in human experience; 2) the nature of relationship; 3) the meaning of madness. These exemplify some of the novel’s preoccupations, but, above all, they shed light on the most perplexing, contradictory and unexplainable characteristics of human behaviour, violence.

  1. The role of art in human experience

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the stained-glass window Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere of the Chartres Cathedral play a crucial role in the construction of  Pilgrim’s past lives: in fact, he asserts that one of his previous lives he lived as Elisabetta Gherardini (Madonna Elisabetta del Giocondo), whose first encounter with Da Vinci ended with her being raped by him. The other meetings resulted in her portrait being painted (the painting which is now known as Mona Lisa). Findley’s description of Pilgrim’s experiences as a strong and decisive woman and Vinci’s violence add to Pilgrim’s sense of doom. In another life (the word incarnation is not preferred), Pilgrim lived as the stain-glass worker who actually put together the stained glass Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, with its beautiful blue hues. According to Pilgrim, this life was one of the most satisfying, as he remembers the hard work with his hands but also the gratification received from the final work. This particular area of the Cathedral was the only one which survived the great fire of 1194. Clearly, these two examples (Mona Lisa and the stained-glass work) show that there are hidden complexities behind any artistic product. But that is not all: Pilgrim questions whether art is really useful in transforming human experience and behaviour, which for him are full of injustices, violence, and abuse. In a letter, Pilgrim writes:

Looking back, I am sorry I was ever the advocate of any form of art – but music is the worst of them. … Bach and Mozart indeed! Bach inevitably makes me think of fish in a barrel! Round and round and round they go and nothing ever happens. Nothing! … As for Mozart, his emotions did not mature beyond the age of twelve. He never even achieved  adolescence, let alone puberty. … Beethoven – pompous; Chopin – sickly sweet and given to tantrums… And Wagner – a self-centered bore.  And this young Turk Stravinsky – the name says it all: discordant, rude and blows his music through his nose!                                                      There.                                                                                                                                                 Shall I go on?                                                                                                                          Literature. Will it put an end to war? War and Peace itself is nothing better than enticement to create new battlefields. […] Tolstoy himself was a soldier at Sevastopol and gloried in it – then he pretends to hate it – after which he ends his life as a mad proponent of world peace, for God’s sake, while he drives his wife away from his death bed. And I am crazy? Me?                                                                                                                                           Yes. So they tell me. (p. 437-438)

The question, then, is whether art is capable of putting an end to war. The answer is evident. And yet, Pilgrim insists on certain upper-class style of the good life, and he is not adverse to enjoying beautiful views. All is not gloom, perhaps only up to the very end when it is Pilgrim’s desire to destroy the painting and the stained-glass window.

2. The nature of relationships: human to human, human to god(s)

In one of the previous lives, Pilgrim was admitted into to circle of Oscar Wild’s lovers and admirers, taking a stance against those who would vilify Wild’s homosexuality, such as Whistler.

Jung’s relationship with his wife Emma comes to a sour point after Emma discovers his infidelity to her with an ex-patient of his, Toni (the second one Emma is aware of). The important consideration is that Emma has a different take on marriage from the opinion Jung expresses about it. She saw herself as his companion, researcher, mother of his children, and he was the light of her life. After her discovery, she still loves him, but does not like him any longer; they do not share the matrimonial bed and they do not spend time with their children together. To Freud, Carl Gustav expresses his idea that extra-marital relationships are crucial for a good marriage. Jung continues his relationship with Toni without regard to Emma’s feelings.

Doctor/nurse to patient rapport in the clinic clearly reflects the superiority of the medical staff who hold the keys to the mental patients’ real and metaphorical cages.

But the most intriguing liaison is between humans and their god(s): according to Pilgrim, humans, having abandoned their gods, cling to the one who does not see.

3. The meaning of madness

Pilgrim believes that he cannot die, that his previous lives are real and that he can account for them: he was in Troy during the war, at Chartres during the construction of the Cathedral, in Florence with Da Vinci, in Avila with Teresa (not yet saint),  in London with Oscar Wilde; he lived as a man and as a woman; as a beautiful rich woman (Madonna del Giocondo), and as a poor cripple shepherd Manolo, as a dandy in London. He does not remember any of his lives before the age of 18 (i.e. childhood is not accounted for). At the outset, Jung does not believe that anyone can have such detailed recollections of particular previous lives, a belief which inches him closer to elaborating his idea of collective unconscious.

Teresa of Avila, as all saints, showed abnormal behaviour, and surely her acting would have made her end up in an asylum in the early 1900s. Findley’s description of her quest is thought-provoking:

This was the pattern of Teresa’s beliefs. To find the Holy Grail, to sail with the great explorers to America and the Orient, to climb through the sky to find the Almighty or to dig through the earth and drag the Devil into the light of day.  She read poetry. She read novels. She dressed as Queen Isabella.  She affected the robes of the Carmelites. She experimented with theatrical, even whorish cosmetics – and had once dyed her hair with henna. But the discovery of self had not so much to do with one’s destination as with one’s capacity to achieve it. Clearly, for Teresa de Cepeda, God was at the far end of all these dreamings – but could one reach Him? (p. 340)

So what is madness exactly? Luigi Pirandello’s dictum and the title of one of his plays, Così è, se vi pare (“It is so if you think so/ Right you are if you think so”) gives an indication of the complexity of human psychological networks which the novel describes in such detail: each character has certain beliefs about herself/himself which are rarely reflected in the opinions of others. Jung’s strategy is to “indulge” in the beliefs of his patients by attempting to understand their view of themselves. But this is a vicious circle, since even he makes a cage for himself (he is right if he believes in his convictions) and he lives in it accordingly, all the more so when he persists in his own certainties. Findley’s philosophical stance in this novel, therefore, can be described as Pirandellian, since the characters do not believe each other’s certainties. Granted, Pilgrim is condemned on account of his sacrilege having seen the mating of the Sacred Serpents (yet another imaginary human invention).

In conclusion, at the core of all of Findley’s naturalistic descriptions of various settings and the in-depth treatment of each character is the quest for the value of literature in human lives. This art form does not prevent humans from unthinkable violence, but it points to another, more profound direction, that of imagination. If we invented our god(s), the invention itself is not enough. We have to abide by this creation. In Pilgrim’s words,

No wonder the gods are departing, he thought. We have driven them away. Once, every tree out there was holy – every tree and every strand of grass and clod of earth. The very stones were holy and everything that lived, no matter how small or large…every elephant and every ant – every man and every woman. All were holy. Everything – the sea – the sky – the sun – the moon – the wind – the rain – the fairest and the worst of days. … All of it gone and only one deaf God, who cannot see, remains – claiming all of creation as His own. If people would invest one hundredth of their devotion to this God on the living brothers and sisters amongst whom they stand, we might have a chance of surviving one another. As it is…       (p. 479.)

Both Pilgrim and Jung had dream premonitions of the coming of the Great War. This is where Findley’s novel’s ends: in pessimism.

It could be argued that perhaps it is time to work on a different creation by our psyche, one that for sure will not allow the atrocities that continue those of the 20th century. Alternatively, we are condemned to the cage of our collective unconscious, yet knowing this does not alter our behaviour.

 

Against learner-centered pedagogy

learning

Although the learner-centered bandwagon has been with us for quite a while, there are three main reasons why this teaching strategy should undergo a reanalysis and re-thinking, providing the future will still entertain the idea of human-to-human formal teaching and learning.

  1. Learner-centered approaches do not let learners get out of their comfort zones both from the perspective of content and that of learning styles.
  2. Learner-centered approaches do not let learners stretch their imagination and do not open their eyes to what’s beyond their horizon.
  3. Learner-centered approaches end up with learners who are reaffirmed in their world view without an ability to pose probing questions about their own perspective.

It is instructive to view learner-centered pedagogy as a stepping-stone to machine teaching, big data algorithms, and a sedate, hedonistic citizenry. One of the fall-outs of learner-centered teaching has been the unceasing lack of abilities to ask probing questions about even the most frequent and matter-of-fact developments. Students who major in sciences are dashing headlong to innovate, technologize everything, seemingly without thinking about the real reasons for innovations, and technological breakthroughs. Distractions, rather than focus, tend to be created: “immersive computing” is a perfect illustration of this tendency. Why do we need immersive  gadgets? What will be they good for? Are they just another means to create trash (both real and metaphorical)?  These questions do not even touch the surface of the technological developments written about in “Google has a new favorite phrase” .

Media algorithms are another result of the drive to a “learner-centered” world. My computer informs me of newly-published articles about topics which according to the algorithm, I was interested in previously. But my interests are not circumscribed to those topics, far from it! The algorithm’s limiting abilities to really find out where all my interests reside is appallingly myopic. Since the digital technology satisfies the supposedly personal interest, it may be more useful for schools to actually bring previously unseen topics to the classrooms. It may be important for the machine-learning computer designers to know that learning is subconscious: Is Language Learning A Subconscious Process?.

In conclusion, if the world needs engaged and concerned citizenry, learner-centered pedagogy is not the way to proceed. Computers can deliver massive amounts of data on any given topic of personal interest, but human teachers can do much more than that: they can expand learners’ interests to where they have not even imagined to wonder/wander and nudge them to comparison, analyses, syntheses of topics hereto not encountered.

 

Second Call for Academic Articles for a Special Issue of “Ethics and Social Welfare”

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SECOND CALL FOR ACADEMIC PAPERS: Ethics and Social Welfare  Special Issue on

Technology-driven unemployment:

dilemmas for ethics and social welfare

Guest editors:  Antonio Marturano (University of Rome, Tor Vergata, Italy)     and                                   Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (York University, Canada)

Rationale: In Praise for Idleness (1935), Bertrand Russell claimed that “We have the technology and infrastructure to greatly reduce the forced workload of the average human, and that should be our goal—to liberate people from excessive work so that they can freely pursue the things that bring them intrinsic joy and happiness.” Russell’s optimistic vision regarding the role of technology advocates for work reduction which would increase human welfare and liberate people to be able to devote their time to culture and leisure. His optimism does not seem to be justified in light of recent economic and technological developments which lead to serious unemployment rather than cheerful work reduction. The loss of jobs due to technological innovations is starting to reach crisis proportions as many scholars (such as David F. Noble, Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, Between the Lines, 1995) and popular press warn (for ex., Eduardo Porter, “Jobs Threatened by Machines: A Once ‘Stupid’ Concern Gains Respect”, The New York Times, June 7, 2016).   There are indeed many voices which decry the unemployment situation exasperated by the replacement of humans by machines, and apparently no job is likely to be immune. The World Technology Network forecasts that “Accelerating technological unemployment will likely be one of the most challenging societal issues in the 21st Century”. Although the scholarly work published on the topic focuses mainly on the technical, technological, and market side, assessments which consider the ethical and social welfare implications of technological unemployment are still to be addressed in detail. The submissions to the special issue will contribute to setting the agenda for this serious and timely discussion. Topics to be explored from theoretical as well as practical perspectives include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • The role of governmental institutions in technological unemployment
  • Jobless future: is unconditional basic/universal income the answer?
  • Social, political, and economic approaches to welfare in a jobless future
  • New ethical dimensions of work originating from the technological unemployment crisis
  • Political and social inequality created by a jobless future
  • Strategic plans for skills, education, re-deployment for the technologically jobless
  • The political control of technological unemployment
  • Welfare, leadership and jobless future
  • Technological displacement vs technological innovation from the perspective of social welfare
  • Historical visions on the ethical impacts of workload reduction
  • Creating new values for a jobless future
  • Political values in welfare and technological disruption in the job market
  • Work as human value
  • Conflicting values in a jobless world (for ex., the refugees crisis in the EU)
  • Religious values and technological unemployment

Brief for contributors: In line with the editorial aims of the journal, this call for papers focuses specifically on the relationship between ethics, welfare, and values implicated in the policies and political strategies on the one hand and technologically-driven unemployment on the other. The editors welcome academic papers which are interdisciplinary in character. Contributions may combine wider ethical and theoretical questions concerning technology-driven unemployment with practical considerations leading to social policies and professional practices (especially the existing and future policies of local/national governments and international institutions, such as EU, UN, WTO to cope with the problems of technological joblessness). The special issue, as with other issues of the journal, welcomes material in a variety of formats, including high quality peer-reviewed academic papers, reflections, debates and commentaries on policy and practice, book reviews and review articles. Academic papers should be between 4-7,000 words long, and practice papers should be between 750-2,500 words long. Please consult the style rules laid-out on the journal’s website: http://www.tandfonline.com/resw. All academic papers will be double-blind peer- reviewed in the normal way.  Practice papers will be considered for publication by the editors. 

Procedure and timelines

  • Call for Papers and invitations disseminated starting from the 1st of October 2016.
  • Completed first drafts of papers are due by the 23rd of July 2017 and must be submitted to https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/resw. Author’s instructions for academic and practice papers can be found on the journal website at: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/resw20 .
  • Final (revised) versions must be submitted by the 18th of June 2018.
  • Final confirmation of paper acceptance by the 30th September 2018.
  • Papers published in the first issue of Volume 13, 2019.

 

“Good Omens”: sublime and trite?

god omens

Good Omens is a novel which braids together a number of separate developing strands  whose ends meet one Saturday, the chosen day for the Apocalypse. One strand narrates why the end of the world does not happen,  since both the devil (Crawley – yes, there is nomen in omen!) and the angel (Aziraphale), having fallen in love with life on earth and wanting to appear to honor their respective duties, conspire to raise the Antichrist child (Adam) so that he does not obey what he was destined for. The trouble is that they raise the wrong child (Warlock), Adam having been exchanged in the hospital with another boy. The second strand forms the consequences of a book, of which only one copy exists, entitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,  Witch.  Agnes Nutter’s progeny, Anathema Nutter, possesses the detailed explanations of each prophesy written by the witch’s descendants through three hundred years of history. The third strand deals with the vicissitudes of witch-hunting by a descendant of the man who actually was responsible for Agnes Nutter’s  burning at the stake. Yet another strand brings us to the small village of Tadfield and the gang of four young children headed by Adam and including a converted Hell-hound.  The fifth strand follows the four symbols of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence, Pollution)  embodied in four Bikers (Hell’s Angels, so to speak) who wreak havoc on London’s traffic and do not really destroy the world completely. Each of them is followed on their duties (for ex., War, embodied as a read-head, is involved in arms contraband).  The endearing parts of the book are surely the comical manner in which technology is made to exasperate humans (initially Crawley’s doing, but later perfected by humans); fun with Crawley and Aziraphale having lunch at the Ritz, both giving financial support to the Witch-finders Army, etc. There are the appealing traits of Crawley (for ex., he loves his Bentley); the ironic look at dieters (Famine has a hand in that), and many more unforgettable images which make reading this book so much fun.

Any book which attempts to come to terms with the Apocalypse/Revelation of St. John has to be both sublime and trite. Sublime since it must face/describe/conquer/critique the future as prophesied; trite since the end is really unknowable, so anything goes. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett collaborated to give the end of the world a different spin, a spin which makes us laugh, forces us to define good and evil, leads us to consider human beings for all they are: capable of evil which no devil can ever conjure up. However, the book is lacking in the parallel thought giving humans “goodness which not even an angel can construct”. In other words, as usual, evil is more interesting than good.  On the surface, there seems to be only evil and good. To make things more complex, the devil sometimes acts for the good, and the angel now and then does evil. Moreover, as Crawley’s internal monologue indicates (p. 93), matters are not so clear:

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm.  It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

And, further on,

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

So, if humans are humans, what about concepts such as God, the divine plan, faith, belief in heaven and hell? Crawley’s answer is that he has to follow the plan and obey it (he is scared of remaining in hell for all eternity, as it is a boring place, as boring as heaven).  If pressed, Aziraphale has only one answer: “ineffable”. That is, whatever God is and wills, is ineffable, i.e. unutterable, as well as forbidden to be uttered. In other words, unknowable because humans don’t and can’t express it in words. Without language, we cannot know; with language, we create our conceptual toolbox. The trouble is that this toolbox is being modified constantly. The subtitle of the book is The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. The word “nice” used to mean “foolish, stupid, senseless” (13c to 16c), then it meant “precise, careful”, then “agreeable, delightful” (18c); and now it means “kind, thoughtful” (1830 -today). Depending on your reading, then, Agnes’ prophecies may be foolish, or precise, or agreeable, or kind: you take your pick.

In Good Omens, Armageddon is nowhere near: the disaster has been averted by four children and a few adults, as well as by a devil and an angel. The four Bikers of the Apocalypse, however, did not perish, offering the possibility that the Revelation may as yet come true. As Aziraphale would have it, “it was all in the plan”, that is, if you believe in the ineffable plan. But how can you believe something that is ineffable? There is no answer to this question in the book, but the attempt at an answer is enjoyable.

 

One thing the book club taught me (so far)

reading

Thanks to our book club (Literary Ladies), my reading selection has expanded dramatically, because I read books which I would have never come into contact otherwise. Our discussions also prompt many thoughts regarding reading which I have been interested in throughout my life. What follows presents the results of thinking about our two meetings and the conversations we had about the two books chosen.

As far as readers are concerned, there seem to be two main perspectives underlying the act of reading (fiction, but perhaps other genres can be included here too). These perspectives underpin the interpretation of themes, settings, actions, descriptions, and allow for very different types of enjoyment/disappointment/expectations of the book which all contribute to delightful discussions. The two perspectives are mutually exclusive but neither is “better” than the other. Each, however, lets us understand the world differently, although often without any possibility of rapprochement.

  1. Some readers identify themselves with a character. This is reading and thinking/feeling with one’s own mind: the reader looks for validation of her/his own ideas through a character’s language, race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, education, familial status, etc. (Pace Steven Pinker and other psychologists). Clearly, affection for a character of identical background reaffirms one’s situation and makes one exclaim: “I am not the only one that is experiencing these troubles/joys”. Women who went or are undergoing separation from a partner read The Love Warrior and find the “memoir” meaningful as they feel their life experience is reaffirmed since they can identify with Glennon. The book’s content, then, is part of the real world of suffering/joy. It is almost a given that this type of reading makes it much less probable that the readers would actually criticize the character with whom they identify. Conversely, if the readers do not identify (but would very much like to ) with a character (usually a protagonist), they are more likely to criticize the character’s  choices and lifestyle. Those readers who “could not” identify with Leo Gursky in The History of Love were more likely to find his quirks and life choices not understandable.
  2. Some readers suspend their way of thinking and stand back, so to speak, which makes them read and think/feel using the author’s mind. In other words, for them, “reading is thinking with someone else’s brain”, as Schopenhauer apparently claimed. This perspective does not seek to validate any aspect of the reader’s personality through an identification with a character. The characters are perceived purely on the strengths or weaknesses of the artistry of their description and on the intrinsic web of relationships they form with other characters. Readers who did not identify with Glennon of The Love Warrior and who read the “memoir” purely on the strengths of the description were more likely to detect the fact that the author was not entirely honest. This type of reading made it therefore possible to find faults, for example,  with Glennon’s abandoning her family and going off to expensive yoga sessions. As for The History of Love, those readers who found Leo Gursky’s life interesting or poetic, were more likely to find enjoyment and appreciation of the description of his quirks and life choices. This perspective interprets the book’s contents as an enrichment of one’s real life, rather than a confirmation of it; and therefore the farther the book’s content is from the reader’s experiences, the more chance it has to mold critical skills.

These two types of reading, however, leave various questions unanswered. For example, what are the criteria for constructing the countless book classifications, suggestions, lists? Do they measure the contents from the perspective of identity or from the perspective of detachment? Moreover, and, more significantly, the algorithms which are forced on us by the digital technology surely support our “preferred” type of reading and therefore the destruction of the boundaries (identity vs detachment) we as readers fall prey to becomes ever more impossible. Also, do the genres themselves force us to read from one perspective or another, as Edgar Alan Poe suggests? What do you think? You are welcome to leave your reactions by clicking on the “Comment” button below.

Love, lose, live (not necessarily in that order)

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, 2006) offers all that an entertaining, thought-provoking, and richly-styled fiction should contain. Unlike other cases, its inclusion on The New York Times 2005 bestseller list is well deserved.

krauss

There is no doubt that the novel is entertaining and deceptively uplifting: the backbone of these positive reactions is created by the protagonist of one of the three main distinct but intertwined sections of the novel: the lovable, witty, imaginative, sensitive octogenarian, Leopold Gursky.  Despite all the adversities history tests him with (fleeing from the SS, leaving his family behind, disappearing from his Yiddish Polish hometown, living an immigrant’s life in New York, losing his one and only love to another man by coming to her too late, shadowing his son who never knew him, giving up one book he authored and losing the authorship of another he wrote), Leopold Gursky attempts to survive these painfully traumatic events and go on living as best as he knows.  His coping strategies are varied. For example, he is “trying to make a point of being seen”, such as dropping his change all over the floor in a crowded store. Clearly, this plan of action not only covers up his present loneliness but also balances out the times he was utterly alone while hiding in the forests.The act of appearing and disappearing,  being a leitmotif of the novel,  is also true of other people and things. He often imagines his death which in his opinion should happen on a day when he was seen. His witty comments open up different sides to him (for ex., “Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza”, p. 5; “I consider it a small victory that he [the husband of his love] kicked the bucket first”, p. 85).   After ending up in New York, he became a very competent locksmith and the only time he is tempted to and actually does open a locked door was to get inside of a Broadway theatre where he could imagine his love Alma play her violin to a full house. Significantly, he writes one book to Alma, when in his twenties, then life gets in the way, and he starts writing again after his heart attack in his fifties.

The sections of the book devoted to his life are expressed in the first person narrative and labeled with an anatomical heart. Needless to say, Leo Gursky’s personality is made more complex by his use of the adversative conjunction which he is fond of in a phrase like “And yet.” which he ends with a full stop. This stylistic device, stopping the narration and seemingly adding a contradicting value to what was stated previously, illustrates Leo Gursky’s  humanity, fallibility, insecurity, and in the final analysis makes the reader question everything he narrates. This attitude is similar to that of the Italian author Leonardo Sciascia who is often referred to by the phrase Disse e si contraddisse (which, loosely translated, means “He stated something and then he contradicted himself”).

The thought-provoking aspect of the novel leaves the reader with numerous questions relating, for example, to the title, the meaning and force of words, the inspiration for and the function of writing. The title (not only of the novel but also of the first Leo Gursky’s book) is interesting: The = the definite article points to one definitive explanation; History = process of modification through time; of  = belonging to; Love = feeling of tenderness and affection. And yet, the novel contains many personal histories of the feeling of tenderness and affection, not  the definitive one. The three narratives of Leo Gursky, Alma, and Emanuel/Bird) all deal with the meaning and force of words.  Leo Gursky’s second novel is entitled Words for Everything, underlying the cognitive importance of language for the possibility of explaining and understanding our place in the world. The girl Alma’s narration is devoted to the search for her father’s past in order to comprehend the force that binds her mother to her father. This can only happen through Alma’s deciphering  of the contents of the book her father gave to her mother: The History of Love. Alma, as it happens, is the name of all the women in the book, and, importantly, means “soul” in Spanish.  The book is indeed the virtual meeting place between the teenager Alma and Leo Gursky who do not know about each other until the end and whose destinies intertwine on a number of levels.  The meaning and function of writing is dealt with both openly and also less so. When Leo Gursky, in his youth, offers to Alma, his love, his first written piece which deals with their village Slonim and the people who live there, “she shrugged and said she liked  it better when I made things up”. Then he gives her his second piece of writing, which contained all made-up things,  she reacts by saying that maybe he “shouldn’t make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything” (p. 8). His third attempt becomes his final version of The History of Love, which destiny did not let her read.

Stylistically, this novel proposes a complex, rich, and varied narration. Each character (Gursky, Alma, Emanuel/Bird) has a special voice, expressive communicative strategies, and particular flights of poetic expression. There is also the unnamed author of the introduction to the Spanish version of The History of Love. Bird’s voice is that of a very young boy who looks for his place in the world by constructing his function as one lamed vovnik,  by engendering mystical, helpful, but also impractical attempts at what others construe as sublimation of the loss of his father. Bird’s love does not have one specific outlet, and it finds its place in mysticism. The teenage Alma’s drive to find out what underlies her parent’s  love for each other propels her to understand her father by learning to do things he used to do: camping, surviving in inhospitable places, knowing which plants are edible. The most intricate voice is that of Leo Gursky because he has two functions in the novel: he is the protagonist of Krauss’s vision and he is the author of his The History of Love, in this way, his voice is both biographical (in the first person narration of Leo Gursky’s life) and authorial (as the one who wrote the first The History of Love). The first person narration offers a number of poetic passages (such as Leo trying to burden his heart as little as possible by taking humiliations, displeasure, hardships to his other organs; p. 10). The most poetic is Leo Gursky’s The History of Love, which we as readers do not get to enjoy in its entirety (a pity), and we have to be satisfied with Alma’s mother’s English translation  of Zvi Litvinoff’s Spanish version of the original Yiddish (which apparently was lost). Gursky’s The History of Love contains poetic, comical, sarcastic gems which intrigue the reader and leave us wondering what else we are missing. The book contains parts dealing with humanity’s (love’s?) growth in stages (reminiscent of Giambattista Vico’s Age of Gods, Age of Heroes, and Age of Humans), such as Chapter 10, which describes The Age of Glass, when

“…everyone believed some part of him or her was extremely fragile. For some, it was a hand, for others a femur, yet others believed it was their noses that were made of glass. The Age of Glass followed the Stone Age as an evolutionary corrective, introducing into human relations a new sense of fragility that fostered compassion. This period lasted a relatively short time in the history of love – about a century – until a doctor named Ignacio da Silva hit on a treatment of inviting people to recline on a couch and giving them a bracing smack  on the body part in question, proving to them the truth. The anatomical illusion that had seemed so real slowly disappeared and … became vestigial. But from time to time, for reasons that can’t always be understood, it surfaces again, suggesting that the Age of Glass, like the Age of Silence, never entirely ended.” (p. 61).

In the final analysis, Krauss wrote about the multifaceted and yet specific meanings of the words love and loss: love of a father (for a son who he did not get to raise), love of a mother for her children, love of the daughter for her mother and father (who passed away), love of a young man for a young woman, love of a young woman for an older man, love for a friend; loss of a loved one on account of political circumstances, loss of a son, loss of hope, loss of a father, loss of a manuscript.  The loves and losses are intertwined and their metaphorical meeting point is the original The History of Love. One can discern echoes of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka. Entertaining and seemingly uplifting, the novels ends with an indirect commentary on loneliness and vastness of the cultural loss suffered by  immigrants. Moreover, the book is also a statement about the various possible but really important  connections among humans of which they do not have any knowledge.  In conclusion,  Krauss succeeded in drawing this reader into her interestingly constructed fictional world.

 

Praising oneself in public and getting accolades for it

I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so my comments on Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. A memoir (Two Roads, 2016) will strictly adhere to an analysis of the book’s language, and an account of the culture it reflects and promotes.

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It is almost given that the last 30 years or so are an era in which it is easy to flaunt shameless and public self-promotion, patting oneself on the back, and self-aggrandizing. The Italian linguist and cultural critic Raffaele Simone has called this “il trionfo del privato” (the triumph of the private life). It is a surprise, though, that a memoir which deals with one woman’s emancipation from her demons (alcoholism, bulimia, unfulfilled life) and a report of what is according to her less-than-perfect marriage would garner the accolades of The New York Times and find a spot on Oprah’s 2016 Selection. Clearly, the publishing world and its mass media machinations can make anything of a piece of writing, no matter how thin.

Without diminishing the real Glennon’s accomplishments, the book is a thorough disappointment. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The language is plain and outright simple, but not in a pleasant way. Certain crucial notions are used without depth. Specifically, the concepts “God”, “warrior”, “love”, and “hero” – the most obviously crucial hooks on which her account hinges –  do not receive even a minimal definition, and yet the phrases  “x is a proof that God loves me” ( “Craig is my proof that God loves me”) , “love warrior” (“I am a love warrior”) and “hero” (“I am my own damn hero”) are repeated a number of times. This attitude of using words without reflection illustrates the superficiality of  the conceptual world view offered. Although Glennon is a victim of the consumer society’s stereotyped image of what a woman should be, she is ecstatic when she self-defines herself as “hero”, using a notion that is masculine in its origin and effects. She does not even attempt to give these notions fuller meanings.
  2. In a memoir, the reader expects some context in which the narrated events are unfolding. Glennon’s recounting is devoid of any clear setting – be it geographical (until the very end), social, political, educational, religious, philosophical. Little is said of her parents’ style of raising their children; Glennon goes through high school and presumably some college without the content of the lectures, classes, classmates or profs ever having had any effect on her. One thing is clear: her higher middle-class standing allows her access to therapists, days in a posh hotel and yoga classes whenever she feels like it. She hints at “those people in the boardrooms” who feed consumers desires they do not need, but there ends her commitment to question consumerist society of which she is a perfect victim.
  3. It seems that Glennon is hiding something: on a number of occasions, she does what she thinks is expected of her or what she is supposed to do  (to be accepted in certain circles of her peers, marriage, belonging to certain church,  find true love, have good sex, etc.), rarely questioning the reasons behind her actions. Glennon sets up a “representative” of herself which she presents to the world and then  demands that the world be sincere with her; and all through this she yearns for acceptance and she is suffering from loneliness. She is playing hide and seek with herself: “There is no way to be as honest in spoken words as I can be in written words.” (p. 115).
  4.  Glennon is a perfect example of a character who follows Luigi Pirandello’s dictum così  è  se vi pare (“it is so if it seems to you so”). She thinks she needs to do certain things to be accepted and when she is not her world collapses. Childishly, she always needs to imitate someone, but above all, she needs someone to tell her what to do (right up until the end: in her 20s she followed the model of her peers, post 35 she needs a therapist). Then she realizes her error, but in a megalomaniac way: “The cage I built to protect myself from the world’s  toxins also stole my oxygen. I didn’t know I needed to be seen  and known like I needed air” (p.225).
  5. Social media exasperate her shallowness since she finds comfort in the number of “likes” on her blog: “My blog community is my sanctuary…” (p.114).
  6. The role reversal in sex seems to satisfy her desire for true love: “I need to be the one to initiate every new step” (p. 241), not realizing that she is simply doing to her husband the same thing  he used to do to her.  After her triumphant proclamation that she is her own hero and her husband is a hero,  they disappear into a cliche beach sunset, forgiving each other all the hurt and grief they caused.
  7. The title (Love Warrior) may be interpreted in two ways: 1. Glennon is a warrior who fights on the side of love (i.e., fighting against forces which do not promote love); 2. Glennon is a warrior who actively fights for love (i.e., on a quest for it). Unfortunately, neither of these expectations is realized in the writing.

The book is an impeccable instance of the unquestioning promotion of limited cultural horizons.  It contains a description of the life of an individual who needs to have her every act approved by others even after she heals herself (she is invited to speaking engagements which she accepts). It reinforces the need for a different definition of a middle-class woman’s life, but does not offer any suggestions, other than promoting more navel gazing. Furthermore, it is a commentary not only on loneliness and desperation of one individual but also on her self-imposed intellectual loneliness and cognitive limitation brought about by the milieu of arid cultural postmodernism.

The book is not a memoir, Glennon is not a hero. The cultural horizons are so limited that any comparison only demeans the work to which Love Warrior can be compared. The most obvious parallel would be St Augustine’s Confessions, but the depth of observation, the wide Weltanschauung, and the universal spiritual struggle the Bishop of Milan describes are light years away from Glennon’s considerations about her life. She describes herself as a hero (i.e. self-definition), he, a sinner (also a self-definition). Clearly, he must attempt to reach higher, whereas she hardly thinks of this possibility.