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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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?

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

Memory loss, memory overdrive, and other concerns of ‘popular’ fiction

 

 

rosieproject

beforeigo

 

It would seem that, at first sight, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (HarperCollins, 2011) and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (HarperCollins, 2013) do not have any threads in common. The first novel describes a woman’s tragic and mysterious consequences of a traumatic memory loss and the second novel is a lighthearted look at an Asperger syndrome sufferer’s attempt to attain a love life. On closer inspection, however, here are some of the elements which allow for an interesting literary comparison:

  1. First person unreliable narrative. Both novels are written from the perspective of the protagonists; Christine Lucas (Before I go to Sleep) and Don Tillman (The Rosie Project). In both cases, they are unreliable narrators: Christine because she suffers from various forms of amnesia so she can narrate only those memories which she writes in her journal every day as she forgets everything while she sleeps and Don because he has Asperger syndrome and therefore his compulsiveness and obsessive logic leave out many normally significant facts. This unreliability, however, creates what could loosely be called a psychological thriller in the first case and  a lighthearted romance in the second case. Both protagonists rely on others to validate what they feel and understand of their own life. Christine has her lover and self-appointed husband as well as Dr. Nash  who supply her with descriptions or photos of past facts and actions which she then attempts to make her own. Towards the end of the novel, Christine’s best friend Claire is instrumental in saving her life.  Don has his two best friends who help him maneuver in social circumstances and who are the bouncing bags for his ideas on how to find a satisfactory partner. The unreliability of Christine’s memory means that the reader does not have steady consistent and trustworthy clues as to who it was that was responsible for her amnesia, but also who it is that is the keeper of her memories: the suspense then leads to continuous reading. The unreliability of Don’s narrative significantly adds to the unpredictable and funny resolutions of his search for a potential partner who is to “provide intellectual stimulation, share activities with, perhaps to breed with”.
  2. The role of memory. Both novels question the extent, utility, and role of memory, but the protagonists find themselves enmeshed with different definitions of what exactly memory does for them. Christine relies on her fragmented, sketchy, constantly recreated memory for the definition of her identity. Don, on the other hand, having exceptional memory, depends on his ability to recall minute details to further his search of or hold on to a possible life partner. Scientific research shows that our memories are never written in stone, but are re-elaborated, re-worked, and transforming continuously. This leaves the question open regarding whose memories are fabricated when an amnesiac is given created memories every single day. As there are almost countless novels whose plot relies on a character’s memory loss (see the list for specific examples in  https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/10996.Amnesia_and_Memory_Loss_Fiction), Christine’s plight has numerous literary precedents. In Don’s case,  his memory is nowhere near as prodigious as that of Funes in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Funes el memorioso, and therefore his situation is not tragic.
  3. Characters’ unethical behaviour. In both narrations, characters behave unethically: in Before I go to sleep, Christine’s lover and self-proclaimed husband  is not only deceitful and dishonest, but also pathologically violent. Although his love for her keeps him busy with taking care of her, this love is possessive and unnatural, as she is shielded from realities of her family life. His character, however, has not received a full treatment, so the motivation behind his violence and unethical behaviour is unexplained. In The Rosie Project, Don not only collects DNA surreptitiously but also has the samples tested without the subjects’ approval, a situation which no self-respecting institute for higher learning would ever allow. This unethical behaviour, however, is needed for the story to proceed in a certain direction.
  4. The Nature of love. Love takes on various forms and definitions in both novels. Christine’s situation is intriguing, since she does not know who she slept with when she wakes up every morning: perhaps sleeping around was her customary activity before her trauma, but that means she kept yearning for love and not being able to get it. That calls into question her marriage and her having a son: clearly, these do not need to be based on love. Her lover and self-appointed husband’s situation is every different: his love is overpowering to the point where he obsesses over her and in fact turns extremely violent against her. It is not clear what Don imagines love to be, and, being very methodical, his search for a partner involves a research project. Ironically, the woman whom he chooses does not make it on the list of prospective partners (for ex., she smokes, and he is against smokers!), indicating not only that opposites attract each other but especially that one cannot simply treat human encounters as academic projects.
  5. Pitfalls in writing the first novel. Both novelists are first-time authors, and as much as their good intentions result in readable stories, there are some stumbling blocks which detract from a thorough enjoyment of reading their creations. Firstly, Before I go to sleep is written from a woman’s perspective (an always contentious choice on the part of a male author),  but the character’s past before her trauma is not fully explained. This lack of  content makes the trauma almost unbearably judgmental: she was punished to the extreme for her marital infidelity. The feminine traits that the author proposes are petty. Even though she wrote a novel, she is an uninteresting, gray character without redeeming features, one who lets herself be controlled like a puppet even by her best friend. Her trauma only underlines these traits.*   The Rosie Project‘s protagonist is a university professor: not an original choice, but writing about academia without being stereotypical seems to be impossible.  Secondly, and more importantly, both authors (as well as countless others who write ‘popular’ novels) set their work in a vacuum: there is no sense of the general social, political, and economic environment to their stories: the protagonists’ issues are of a navel-gazing sort. Giving the characters a middle-class, pretty comfortable life lessens the impact which the narrations could have had. Fiction is not about accuracy, however, but if after having read the novel there is no answer to the question “So what?”, something really profound is missing.

*One member of our book club took it further: Christine is a perfect sex doll, as well as victim of violence. Instead of focusing on the violent man, the book focuses on the victimized woman.  Furthermore, the notoriety/popularity (?!) of the novel and the subsequent film illustrate the perpetuation of the disconnect between the act of violence/abuse and its result (so obviously put to the forefront in the news these days  on account of the abusive Hollywood bully).

“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.

 

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.

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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.