“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.

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.

lovewarrior

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.

 

 

 

Fondness for and frustration with Dr. Pereira

It is a sure sign of a great writer when the reader’s heart is filled with fondness for a character just from the first 15 sentences or so of terse yet rich description. This is precisely what happened to me while reading the first page of Antonio Tabucchi’s  novel Sostiene Pereira (Feltrinelli, 1994; translated into English as either  Pereira Maintans or Pereira Declares – none of which I like, but that’s another story; I would have opted for Pereira’s Testimony). Some examples of Pereira’s being lovable are these: he converses with the photo of his departed wife (and therefore he brings this photo with him when he travels); as a good Catholic, he believes in the soul but does not believe in  the resurrection of the body since he is rather heavy and does not see the need to resurrect the “lard and sweat and all the breathlessness going up the stairs”. Furthermore, he does not create problems for others, he keeps to himself and that makes him lonely – but he never complains of loneliness. Above all,  there is more: as the novel progresses, the fondness for him becomes accompanied by stronger and stronger frustration. Why does he act as he does? What are his unspoken motives?  So at the end,  after closing the last page, I am left with a mountain of unresolved issues which surround the lovable yet aggravating Dr. Pereira.

sostienepereira

There is no doubt that the novel deals with some of the most troublesome problems facing (not only) Portugal in 1938: violence, police brutality, citizen apathy, political upheaval. It is small wonder that Dr. Pereira has death on his mind: but death for him is a philosophical matter, and linked to literature  through the passing of important literary figures. As the editor of the cultural page of a literary magazine, he wants to be prepared for deaths of famous poets, philosophers, novelists and he engages an unknown young man Monteiro Rossi to write obituaries, both in the form of anniversaries of death and of notices of passing.  The hold Monteiro Rossi has on Pereira is inexplicable (is it because if Pereira had had a son, he would have been of the same age?), and in terms of the plot development, the least tangible and most frustrating element. This young man, it turns out, brings complete upheaval into Pereira’s life, as well as a concrete and real presence of death. Pereira ends up doing what he knows how to do best: he writes the account of police brutality which would have surely gotten him arrested, and he leaves Portugal presumably for France.

Three ideas keep surfacing in my mind which Sostiene Pereira forefronts but really does not come to terms with. They are the following:

  1. Who is a hero? What is a hero? It could be surmised that by having his damning testimony of police brutality published, Pereira is a hero of sorts: his words are available for people to read, but his readership is minimal, so his verbal effort surely does not bring down the corrupt and hated political system.
  2. Is the pen mightier than the sword? It could be argued that the repressive political system is dead, but Pereira’s written testimony lives on. However, it is obvious that other repressive systems thrive, other abuses of power come to the surface, other types of violence are born. The final judgment as to the greater mightiness of the pen or the sword is still to be made.
  3. What is fiction good for? I heard some author state that “All fiction is a lie.” This statement is blatantly not true, as you cannot prove that Pereira lied in his testimony, that his life is a lie, that this journal article is a lie, etc. etc. Others say that fiction makes us more in tune with, more caring about our fellow beings, human or not. Still others claim that fiction helps us forget our sorrows and transports us to other realms where we forget our troubles. Rater than closing ourselves within a created world, it is more likely that this imaginary world allows us to open up to other possibilities and other lives, not to make ours more palatable, but to make it richer. I am grateful to Dr. Pereira for doing this for me and to Tabucchi for creatively elaborating a real flesh and blood journalist’s life.

There are many fictional protagonists for whom I feel a strong fondness, and there are others who swell up seas of frustration for me, but very few imaginary characters combine both fondness and frustration in a way that Pereira does.