Controlling Mothers

yaya

It’s almost a cliché now to say that the hardships women had to endure (and often still endure) is sometimes beyond description. Rebecca Wells’ novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Harper Perennial, 1996), illustrates a wealth of these hardships brought on by capitalist culture, Louisiana traditions, alcohol abuse, Catholic church, men’s myopia, and family cruelty. But all can be generally borne on the woman’s shoulders on account of the fact that women have each other – in this case, a sisterhood of four strong, resourceful and imaginative ladies.

The narration forms an intriguing, rich in detail, female American novel. The 40-year old Siddalee Walker attempts to come to terms with her deeply troubled, but loving as well as abusive mother. The actions span the era between the 1930s and 1990s; Louisiana is the prime setting, although New York and Seattle’s environments have a role too.  Sidda’s mother, Vivi Abbott, finds solace, audience, and a confessional in her three bosom friends (the real ones, not like Facebook ‘friends’). They do everything together and they can count on each other unconditionally without hesitation, hence the name “The ya-ya sisterhood”. There is an abyss between Sidda and her mother, exasperated after Sidda, a well-received theatre director, reveals some intimate details about her mother’s not-so-flattering behaviour to a journalist who published the interview in the New York Times. Vivi is appalled and does not want to have anything to do with her daughter. What brings them back together is a box of memorabilia which Vivi collected: photos, letters, cards, newspaper clippings, etc. of events connected in any way with Vivi and  with the ya-ya sisterhood. Sidda requested to see the box and Vivi sends it to her. These mementos reveal as well as hide many aspects of Vivi’s life. The biggest tragic event, the moment of a violent child abuse by Vivi, although perhaps perpetrated in her family for generations, is brought  on by medication, alcohol, and horribly ignorant indoctrination by a Catholic priest. Needless to say, the novel’s happy ending brings mother and daughter ever close together, although Sidda admits that she will never know her mother fully.

The narration provides a rich panorama of Louisiana climate, food, traditions, social conventions, which are both an attraction for Sidda and a source of trepidation. The reader can almost feel the humid heat, the aromas of gumbo  and julip, and the warmth of human interaction. The novel alternates voices (omniscient narrator, Vivi, Sidda, letters, newspapers clippings, etc.), a technique which adds to the wealth of images.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood describes in clear detail how mothers’ behaviour is controlled by societal traditions (be they religious, economic, or social), geographical locations which underpin people’s conduct, and by the extent to which husbands/fathers are involved in raising the family. On the other hand, mothers also control their children and husbands. The femaleness of the novel underscores the network of female relationships women were and are often relegated to for the sake of their sanity. This sisterhood, however, does not remove the psychological problems Vivi faces alone – in a reform school, hotel, sanatorium. It is only thanks to her resourcefulness and stamina that Vivi lives through the traumatic moments in her life. These, nonetheless, bring repercussions for the manner in which she raises her children, especially her first-born Sidda. The paradox is, however, that Sidda wouldn’t be what she is (a successful, thinking, albeit insecure person), if it weren’t for her mother; above all, theatre director and author.

 

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Beyond a thriller

Harris

 

According to Wikipedia, “Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.” All of these are present in the reader’s reaction to the novel Conclave. The power of God, the ambition of men by Robert Harris (Random House, 2016).

How exactly is a Pope elected? Should he be Italian or not, white or not, traditionalist or progressive? What are the traditions and rules the cardinals have to adhere to? What politicking goes on while in conclave (i.e. locked behind closed doors)? What is the balance between God’s will and the cardinals’ intentions? What are the unpredictable elements in such a closed environment? These are the questions answered in this fast-paced, well-researched fictional narrative. The setting is the Sistine Chapel and surrounding buildings in the Vatican, the characters are mostly the cardinals entrusted in the election of the pope, the plot revolves around the actual voting, but there are twists and turns which have to do with the personal characteristics of the cardinals (those most predicted to become the Pope, as well as those least suspected). Political context (manifestations, terrorist bombings) frame the narrative. The time in which the actions take place is perhaps near to our future, maybe just past the current papacy of Pope Francis or the one after him. The omniscient narrator offers his descriptions of the action through the character of Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals: a slow, slightly infirm, but intelligent and honest man who has been in the Vatican for a long time and is quick to avoid scandals and steer the media (in southern Italian dialects, meli  means “honey”).

Clearly, there is suspense and excitement when the election of a new Pope is happening,  by virtue of the expectations, desires, prayers of all Christians and not, and by the weight of the decision put on the shoulders of the 118 men who have to come to a majority agreement. The anxiety is evident in the initial vote cast where any cardinal’s name can be put on the ballot. These common and expected elements could make an interesting thriller. But Harris goes beyond the regular plot. At least two surprising elements turn up which make for a definitely interesting, though-provoking, and above- average narration, because they allow for  flight of the imagination outside of the confines of the conclave thriller.

1) The first surprise element deals with a blemish on the character of a very strong papacy candidate, the Nigerian Cardinal Joshua Adeyemi. While very young, and while already in the clergy, he fathered a son. This news comes as a complete bombshell, brought about by the seemingly chance visit from the mother, a Nigerian nun, a sister with the Daughters of the Charity of St. Vincent De Paul.   Lomeli has to deal with it. Of course, the affair is hushed but Adeyemi has no chance of winning through skillful re-direction of votes. Thus, the chance of the first black pope is lost.

However, the bigger question is whether absolutely no one human being is beyond reproach. And, conversely, if one  is a sinner, one cannot be a great, admired, idolized musician/ politician/ journalist/ actor/ instructor/ etc. etc. etc., and of course, pope. It seems that especially nowadays “sins” such as sexual predation, rape, violence against women and men, lying, cheating, and other illegal behaviours do not constitute grounds for firing presidents, politicians, actors, etc., nor these “fallible” people fall from grace of the general public. Are cardinals then different than other humans?

2) The second surprise has to do with the gender and sex of the pope. While there is the myth of Joanna, seemingly the only female pope in history, clearly the sex and gender of the pope are not matters of choice or discussion. The pope is a male and is a man. And yet, Harris suggests that a woman can rise to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. But there is a physiological circumstance: she has to have a medical condition, a deformity (fusion of the labia majora and minora), and therefore she is not a real, complete woman. The pope then can be a person who is less than a woman. It also helps that Benites (she) is a Philippino, therefore the long-awaited Third World pope.

The novel’s content, with its focus on the election of the pope, has the opportunity to touch upon other topics as well, such as the question of wealth and economic dealings of the Catholic church, the sexual misconduct of its clergy, losing faith in the Church, the “hand of God” in human affairs. Harris also uses striking similes and metaphors to bring the reader into what it must feel like being sequestered from the world. For ex., “…the reporters and photographers started calling out to the cardinals, like tourists at a zoo trying to persuade the animals to come closer” (p. 20); “Behind the thick bulletproof glass, priests and security men moved silently in the yellowish glow like creatures in an aquarium”  (p. 47), “We are an Ark, he thought, surrounded by a rising flood of discord.” (p. 34), etc. Memorable are also depictions of some characters: “Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco was the least clerical-looking cleric Lomeli had ever seen. If you showed a picture to someone who didn’t know him, they would say he was a retired butcher, perhaps, or a bus driver” (p. 45);  a Canadian, Cardinal Tremblay, “looked like a cleric in some Hollywood romantic movie: Spencer Tracy came to mind.” (p. 140).

In conclusion, Harris has created a fast-paced, suspenseful drama, peopled with quirky and interesting characters, unpredictable events, and Catholic pomp and circumstance. He has also highlighted two timely topics with which society is still grappling, giving them, however, still slightly traditional answers. A worth-while read.

An end to suffering

suffering

Travel, philosophy, literature, personal growth, history, the Buddha and his teachings all intertwine in this fascinating journey of an author who attempts to come to terms with his Indian background and his yearning for something which would present to him an acceptable picture of the world and alleviate his feeling of his own shortcomings. Pankaj Mishra (An End To Suffering. The Buddha in the World, Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) presents a balanced view of what the Buddha means in the world: this is not an earnest attempt at proselytizing, nor a high-brow disapproval. Looking at Buddha  “in the world” may seem a most ambitious undertaking, but Mishra is able to lead the reader, in 15 chapters, through the maze of Buddhisms, among a plethora of authors who both knew Buddha’s ideas and admired them, as well as those who were familiar with these ideas and were critical of them. Granted, he is more concerned with the United States (perhaps because it  represents the idea of ‘the West’ more than any other country), but he also includes Russian, French, British, Indian  literary figures and philosophers who may have been attuned to Buddhist ideas.  Furthermore, his account of the Buddha’s life and accomplishments is accompanied by his own growth as an author and by his awareness of his place in the world.

This is a book rich in historical detail, full of parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and the musings by poets (for ex., Hesiod, Jack Kerouac, Osip Mandelstam) and novelists (Proust, Dostoevsky, Borges, etc.)  as well as philosophical ideas (Epicurus, Socrates, Descartes, esp. Nietzsche, Tagore, and others). These comparisons are by no means based only on the actual familiarity of the authors with Buddhism. The comparisons are also made on the similarity of concepts between Buddhism and the intellectuals’ ideas, so they reflect the wide-ranging possibilities of connections that the Buddha’s teachings have in the intellectual realm, even if the individual is not familiar with Buddhism. One of the great merits of this book is a most clear presentation of the Buddha’s life and his teachings. The other value of the book is the non-centre view of modernity: the description of India’s problems stemming from its post-colonial but wannabe ‘Western’, i.e. modern state is devastatingly honest. The sadness felt by the author of so much human pain inflicted on humanity by radicalization and fanaticism for any  movement exudes from each chapter. But the most essential value of the book stems from the author’s questioning his self-worth and his life’s value. Although one has the impression that Buddhism does not provide the antidote to the author’s questioning of his self-worth, and it does not impart value to his life, it does provide some explanations to why human behaviour is as it is.

In conclusion, this is a book to be cherished and read many times. The wealth of ideas and concepts provided will surely keep the mind working for a long time, and the humanity and humility of the author will definitely be a constant reminder of intellectual honesty.

What follows is a general outline of each chapter.

In the chapter “The invention of ‘Buddhism’ ” Mishra makes it clear that

the Buddha (“the enlightened one”) was not God, or His emissary on earth, but the individual who had managed to liberate himself from ordinary human suffering, and then, out of compassion, had shared his insights with others. He had placed no value on prayer or belief in a deity; he had not spoken of creation, original sin or the last judgement. (p. 28)

Thus, the Buddha was “more of a trenchant thinker and psychologist rather than a religious figure” (29); therefore, this thinking,  focused as it was on strengthening (by meditation and other ascetic practices) one’s own will to curb craving and suffering, did not involve the need for a large scale restructuring of state and society, most unlike the thinking of the intellectual fathers of the modern world  (Rousseau, Hobbes, and Marx) (29). Rejecting the religious orthodoxy and abstract speculation of the Brahmin philosophers he shifted his interest to ordinary human experience to  underline the fact that neither the individual self nor the world is stable, and that our desire for things “innately impermanent makes for frustration, turning life into perpetual discontentment” (p. 43). So for the Buddha, the release from suffering was the only worthwhile spiritual aim.

This chapter deals with the history behind the inspiration that Buddha provided for many intellectuals in Europe and America in the nineteenth- and early twentieth century. The sources of this inspiration were gathered in writings of dilettanti in the 17- and 18 hundreds – British invaders (officers, explorers, surveyors, such as Francis Buchanan, manuscript collectors, for ex., Houghton Hodgson,  etc.),  French tourists (for ex., the naturalist Victor Jacquemont and others before him), accounts often clouded by superiority complexes and lack of material remains.

“The World of the Buddha” depicts the ancient Indian history, the Aryan invasion of the Indo-Gangetic plain where other civilizations had thrived, the sacred religious knowledge (Vedas) these invaders elaborated into rituals the correct formulas of which were possessed by the Brahmins and live on even today.  It is assumed that the caste system originated around the 8th century BCE when there were four social groups: kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), brahmins (priests, thinkers, law-givers) vaishyas (landowners, merchants, money lenders) and shudras (darker-skinned aborigines or mixed breed without membership rights to the other groups). From nomadism and tribal bands, this culture evolved into stable agricultural society and towns, threatening the Brahmin-imposed social hierarchy as the merchant class enjoyed unprecedented economic power. But this order was shifting from independent republics towards more centralized monarchies when Buddha came of age. He was born as Gautama Siddhartha (“he who fulfills his purpose”) to a kshatriya clan, the Shakyas, who controlled what are now the borderlands of India and Nepal (the location of the  region’s capital city, Kapilavistu, is still disputed). His father Suddhodhana kept him protected but expected from him a future of tending the family’s farm, and possible chieftainship. Apparently, as a child, the Buddha was very fragile and delicate. He never knew his birth mother, Maya, who passed away while he was only seven days old. Her sister, Mahaprajapati, looked after him from then on. The Buddha was raised in  knowledge of the sacred Vedas, in the belief of ultimate reality (brahman), of the existence of the soul (atman) which is subject to reincarnation and therefore in the final analysis the brahman is identical to the atman. This union was knowable through a rigorous self-discipline (yoga)  and through meditation which controlled emotions and passions. The theory of rebirth went through various elaborations, and was based on human actions (karma) in all human endeavours, and Mishra offers this concrete example:

Sanskrit poetics assume that the individual reading and responding sensitively to a poem brings into play the experiences of his past lives, and that an unresponsive reading on his part can be put down to insufficiently refined previous experience. (p. 105)

The never-ending cycle of action and consequences, taught by the Brahmins, found also detractors: men who rejected the idea of karma and the Brahmin-defined social order. These homeless wanderers and spiritual seekers (sramanas) of which the Buddha was the greatest, unleashed a revolution of ideas in North India. They stressed the renunciation of the active life: this renunciation was the best way to avoid karma and endless life of suffering. They also challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy by establishing sects, prescribing their own mental and spiritual exercises, and stressed that each individual has to realize the truth personally, through long practice of asceticism or meditation. Those who left their home and family became wandering sadhus (mendicants) indifferent to weather, dirt, pain. The general population fed and sheltered them, admiring their dedication and renunciation. These homeless philosophers occasionally met each other, debated in a relaxed and democratic way publicly – among the audience there was also the young Siddhartha.

“The Death of God” focuses first on the philosophical, social, and political underpinnings of the revolution of ideas which the Buddha brought to the ethical level. General unhappiness, dismantling of the old social order, loneliness, widespread social insecurity, all conspired to bolster the momentous tendency of the sramanas to do away with the old teachings of the Brahmins. Clearly, Nietzsche took up the question that sramanas, too, were grappling with and each answered in their own way:

When, finally, all the observances and customs upon which the power of the gods and of the priests and redeemers depends will have been abolished, when, that is to say, morality, in the old sense will have died, then there will come – well, what will come then?              (quoted from Nietzsche, Daybreak; p. 113)

The European answer stays solidly on the foundations of science, but this answer led to the use of knowledge for one’s advantage rather than to the quest for the meaning of the world.

Mishra spends some pages on his reminiscences of his university life in Allahabad, of visits to his friend Vinod’s home town, observing the injustices, seemingly endless,  perpetrated in India not only by the British but also by the Indians. Some people blame Gautama Buddha and Gandhi for the passivity and resignation of the Indian character, and for poverty and weakness. The massive changes that occurred in India (and elsewhere), from petroleum lamps to electricity, from life regulated by the sun to life regulated by the clock, from quiet of the countryside to the roar of the locomotives, were too rapid. How was India to react to this change, which, according to Mishra, was not random, since there seemed to have been a will and a purpose behind it? (p. 136) What was this modern world? How did one get into it? What were its benefits? (p. 138) In Europe, independent nations, based on “relatively homogeneous groups, seemed to reconstitute disparate human beings into citizens of a productive and efficient society” (139). Mishra brings in thinkers such as Marx, Hobbes, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, and other intellectuals to underline that there existed also the recalcitrant posture of non-Western societies to “catch up with the West” (140).  The West became a success story and Asia and Africa must emulate it.  But paradoxically, the West was also a hot-bed of conflicts and ruthless exploiters of their colonies. The Hindu philosopher Vivekananda’s experiences with the West as well as those of the Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala became sources of attitudes for young Indians to debate.

In “The Long Way to the Middle Way” the narration returns to the Buddha’s youth, his questioning of the existence of old age, suffering, death. Later, he married and had a son, still living in luxury. But he was not happy; he was lonely and had self-doubts. Probably with the support of a sramana, he left his family, his palaces, and his life of wealth and began his new life with short hair, no beard,  new yellow robes, an alms-bowl, and freedom. The Buddha meets various sramanas, meets with princes (especially important is his meeting with Bimbisara, king of Magadha), visits gurus (Alara Kalama, Udraka Ramaputra). Once he had learnt whatever there was to learn, he moved on, elaborating on the techniques and ideas he picked up from others. The Buddha reached stages of meditation beyond the first, that of detachment from his surroundings and preoccupations, feeling free of desires or other strong emotions and in which the meditator feels a high degree of comfort. “In the next two stages he stops thinking altogether and also transcends his feeling of comfort before reaching the fourth stage when he is aware only of the object of concentration and indeed has become one with that object.” (167) However, according to the Buddha,”concentration and endurance were important means, but without a corresponding moral and intellectual development, they by themselves did not end suffering.” (168) Having undergone severe ascetic practices, starvation, and withdrawal from society, he  “did not attain the special and wonderful knowledge and insight transcending the affairs of human beings”, and he still wondered if there could be another way to attain enlightenment. He pondered the possibility that seeking too hard was prohibiting him from achieving his purpose.

The chapter entitled  “The Science of the Mind” considers the Buddha’s enlightenment, which according to tradition happened under a pipal tree, one April or May during the full moon. The enlightenment consisted of having learnt “the four noble truths of human experience: suffering, its cause, the possibility of curing it, and its remedy. Knowing this, he felt liberated from ordinary human condition.” (p. 174) It also meant that he would not be born into another existence. His enlightenment was not the result of divine intervention but of nine hours of meditation (so the legend goes) and more probably was due to his six-year long experience as meditator, ascetic and thinker. Later Buddhist philosophers refined and elaborated his enlightenment experiences. Today, psychiatrists and psychologists use mindful meditation in their practices, and neuroscientific research supports some of the Buddha’s observations. Buddhist philosophical contemplations did not elaborate and follow the path of scientific observations and explanations.

This was because Buddhist philosophers had different, more pragmatic, goals. They aimed not so much to transform the external world through science and politics, or to build nuclear bombs, as to help human beings understand the nature of mind and rid themselves of the negative emotions – anger, hatred, malice, jealousy – caused by their attachment to such solid-seeming entities as self and world. (p. 186)

The chapter entitled “Turning the Wheel”, analyzes the consequences of the Buddha’s  enlightenment both for him and for his followers and detractors. He tries to share his insight with others, gurus, ascetics, and sramanas. Most were unreceptive. His first sermon (Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma) illustrates his understanding of the Middle Way, i.e. one ought to follow neither the extreme of giving oneself up to indulgence in sensual pleasures nor the extreme of giving oneself up to self-torment since both are unprofitable. These are his four noble truths (189-190):

  1. Dukha, i.e., “suffering”
  2. Samudaya, i.e., suffering caused by craving (trishna)
  3. Nirodha, i.e., the cessation/cure of suffering
  4. Marga, i.e.the way leading to the cessation of suffering, consisting of an eight-fold path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

According to the Buddha, suffering was universal, felt by almost everyone alive, and he assumed that it was individual misperception or ignorance of the true nature of the self which caused this suffering (190). Suffering is not only old age, sickness, death, mental anguish, physical pain, but also the impermanent and uncontrollable imperfect nature of the phenomenal world. Schopenhauer, Hume, Montaigne, Flaubert, Proust also dwelt on the impermanence of worldly things and of the individual self.

As a grand principle purporting to explain all of human life, trishna doesn’t seem much unlike Hegel’s Spirit of History, Schopenhauer’s Will, or Nietzsche’s Will to Power: something we can’t actually observe or verify, something vaguely metaphysical. The closest western parallel to trishna is Schopenhauer’s will to live, the blind force that lies behind life on earth...(196)

The Buddha traced suffering to actual human experiences of which the mind is a receptacle: experiences of impulses that underpin any individual action (changing posture, daydreaming, taking a break). These impulses are endlessly changing, and are not the result of an active decision by the individual, which is why the individual can’t be the cause of his own suffering. These impulses are the result of a human tendency of “clinging” (upadana), which “flourishes because of man’s profound ignorance (avidya) of the nature of the self and things as they actually are: impermanent, unsatisfactory, essence-less. Clinging produces our typical and renewable desire for status, power, wealth and sexual love. But, as the Buddha never tired of repeating, to desire complete and secure happiness with an elusive self and in an impermanent world is to court frustration and discontentment.” (196) He also redefined karma as “choice or intention” to act since a man acts by body, speech and mind. According to Mishra, the Buddha resembles the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics who claimed that philosophy must expel the suffering of the soul.

After completing his first sermon, the Buddha won his first disciples who became ordained monks – probably the first such monastic sect in the world; soon, other bhikshus joined in the sangha, including women.  The appearance, routine, and rules of the bhikshus changed little over centuries, and their duties to offer themselves to society as a model of virtuous behaviour and self-awareness continue to this day.

The next chapter traces the author’s travels through rural India, stopping at towns reeking of moral and physical squalor. He misses his accommodations in Mashobra, where he spent his time reading and studying,  and his landlord, Mr Sharma.  He notes the unimaginable fall of Bihar from the summit of intellectual and spiritual achievement to utter dereliction. He describes his meeting with Helen, an American student who many years later becomes a Buddhist monk and who he thinks has a greater awareness of the world than him: he saw her political stance and efforts in Nicaragua and Haiti “as another instance of the diverse advantages she enjoyed as an American – the same advantages that now permitted her to make herself into a Buddhist nun.” (258) And he avoids meeting her once he sees her back in India. His stay in London jars his emotions as he sees the city that he knew from literature and pictures come alive. He travels to France and then to America. He visits particular places because he wants to be where Proust had set his characters’ longing for fame, or where Emerson had preached self-reliance, or where Thoreau had translated Buddhist texts. (250) But he realizes his love of western writers and philosophers had been a form of idolatry, and that he has to see them as individuals shaped by circumstances. His observations of the mechanization of modern life, built around the gratification of individual needs, leads to no clarifications but only to more platitudes.

The chapter “Looking for the Self” returns to the life of the Buddha, his sermons, and above all his doctrine of “dependent origination”, which the author did not, at first, understand. According to his own admission, perhaps his understanding was limited by his perception of the Buddha as a thinker like Descartes, Kant, or Hegel – but the Enlightened one was not interested in dismantling or building a philosophical system (as they did), but his aim was therapeutic. The self was for him a process, rather than a substance, a becoming rather than a being. Consciousness, too, was primarily a reaction to stimuli: a visual consciousness, an auditory consciousness, etc. , stimuli which arise and fall constantly. The author claims that David Hume had a view of the self close to that of the Buddha. “The idea of reality as a process, first proposed by Heraclitus, entered the mainstream of western philosophy only with Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, William James and the discoveries of modern physics.” (259) And yet, everything is connected and in a state of change, nor random and chaotic but by a stable process of causation.  The Buddhists offer a twelve-point chain of “dependent origination”:                                Through ignorance,  volitional actions are conditioned;                                                    through volitional actions, consciousness is conditioned;                                                       through consciousness, mental and physical phenomena are conditioned;                  through mental and physical phenomena, the five senses and the mind are conditioned; through the six faculties, mental and sensory contact is conditioned;                           through sensory or mental contact, sensation is conditioned;                                        through sensation, desire is conditioned;                                                                           through desire, clinging is conditioned;                                                                               through clinging, the process of becoming is conditioned;                                                 through the process of becoming, birth is conditioned;                                                   through birth, decay, death, pain, etc.  are conditioned.

In other words, the Buddha posited a world which with its diversity, its structures and capacities had come into being as the result of prior actions of living beings motivated by greed, arrogance, passion and envy – by what he called klesha, afflictions, and their latent counterparts: ignorance, desire for sensual pleasure, thirst for existence, grasping onto identity, etc. Death does not end the causal connectedness: this made rebirth somewhat plausible, and it remains the one part of his teachings that requires a leap into faith. Other Buddhist thinkers elaborated on the notion of dependent origination, such as Nagarjuna, for whom each entity is empty of essence and nothing can be known except in terms of something else.

“The Fire Sermon” documents the slow but steady increase of the Buddha’s followers beginning with  those from the commercial class, i.e., people who were not a part of the Aryan caste system, lived in urban areas, and were open to new ideas. The increase of followers meant that women were asking to be a part of a Buddhist sangha (sect).  The Buddha’s stance was clear: the conditions for women were more severe than for men, and his thought was that he had expected his teachings to last a thousand years, but now that women were accepted, they would last only five hundred years.  This chapter also discusses the radically different view the Buddha held regarding fire – an element so crucial to the Brahmins’ religious worldview. Some enemies of the Buddha’s teachings did not stop at debating: there were attempts at this life and at taking over his sangha.

Although Buddhism is not concerned with political phenomena, as the chapter on “A Spiritual Politics” shows,  the teachings, to reach a wider audience, needed a convert in the king class. The conversion of Bimbisara, the king of Magadha, “appears a crucial event in the history of Buddhism” (p. 280). A further political move brought the Buddha to become a friend and advisor of Prasenajit, the king of Kosala. Furthermore, there was need to set some rules of the sangha, and it was to be structured as a small republic, which required a full assembly for reaching important decisions. If dissension among the sanghas appeared, the dissenters were to remove themselves and form a new group: clearly not a sentiment which puts the majority decision on a pedestal. But this attitude also saved Buddhism from sectarian wars, since its offshoots appeared early (Mahayana and Theravada, for example). But the monks’ duties included responsibilities towards the society that fed them and sheltered them: they were to enter the life of the society and direct everyone to honorable ends. In Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, the monks exercised a lot of influence, even if sporadically. In Tibet, a monastic order ruled the country from the seventeenth century. The Buddha, being opposed to any kind of aggression, warned specifically against arms trade.

After the Buddha’s death, “Empires and Nations” “were coming into fashion” (p. 293), and this chapter deals with Buddhism in these new political circumstances. From the invasion of Alexander the Great (not a great influence on the Indian culture and vice-versa, Greek art laid the grounds for a Buddhist art known as Gandhara), to Ashoka’s first large-scale attempt to apply Buddhist ideas to ruling a state, to the central and south Indian kingdoms  of the Satavahana kings (Nagarjuna’s benefactors, it seems), to the Gupta dynasty (supporting Buddhist philosophers such as Asanga and Vasubhandhu and Dignaga).  After the seventh century there seems to be a decline of Buddhism as a guiding principle for statesmen. Although many rulers embraced the ideas of non-violence, plurality of human beliefs, importance of dialogue, it was impossible to keep within the teachings. More recent examples show Buddhist monks supporting the Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka (1980s violent civil war with Tamil Hindu separatists), Buddhists in Japan supporting militarist and imperialist campaigns in Asia (early twentieth century).  In the West, nationalism comes under severe scrutiny, but imperialist and military interventions become more and more violent. For many reasons, India had a rough time after becoming independent from the British, likely because the system of administration was foreign, and  the centralized state “set itself up as a supreme arbiter in the lives of its citizens”: dissent was dealt with ruthlessly, Kashmir became a hotbed of violence. Indians of all persuasions allowed themselves to use any means in order to prop meaningless abstractions like “national integrity” (p. 318). Can the Buddha enlighten the economic and political preoccupations of the modern world?

The Buddha seems far away from the world-historical events that preoccupied men like Rousseau, smith, Marx and Valéry: the rise of individual in a market society; the scramble for profits by the new individuals created by the break-up of old moralities; the creation of centralized states; the conquest and organized exploitation of peoples and their resources around the world; the violent revolutions based on the seizure of state power and private property.  (329)

Old age, disease, death, desiring and clinging – the most natural processes individuals know – proved to him the fact of suffering. To what extreme diagnoses and prescriptions would he have been provoked had he witnessed the twentieth century, the high intensities of suffering human beings inflicted and continue to inflict on other human beings, the wars, the massacres, the famines, the Holocaust, the Gulag? It was easy to imagine the Buddha from a simpler time who stressed the need for loving-kindness, and who could only be utterly bewildered in a historically more complex age by the enormous ordeals of human beings. But there was plenty of suffering during the Buddha’s time too – and people had fewer distractions with which to dull the pain. … Organized greed, war, genocide – they were not unknown to the Buddha. (330)

But the preoccupation with mental awareness and the acceptance of the fact that everything is connected in the world may lead to nihilism or may become the target of degraded forms of Marxism (Tibet, Vietnam). Some parallels are drawn between the Buddha and Gandhi (who was not a Buddhist), especially the latter’s methods of satyagraha (non-violent persuasion).

“Western Dharmas” is a chapter focusing on the author’s stays in London (as an author, journalist, commentator on international events). History was his guide to London, and he concludes that “the past that was still alive for me was unrecognizable for most English people my age.” (351) In San Francisco he met Helen again, who as a Buddhist nun was involved with a hospice for AIDS patients and worked with homeless people. It reminded him about his early experiences with Buddhist thought through brochures and publications that spanned Buddhism,  Psychoanalysis and Ecology. He was discovering many facts about Buddhism, such as it was the oldest to come about, but latest to become a world religion. He took part in a Zen meditation retreat (“it seemed to be a peculiarly western way of dividing time – like the idea of confirming leisure to weekends.” p. 358), where he wondered about the ethnically-diverse participants’ need to look for alternatives to their ancestral religions. The different types of Buddhism he encountered in America were due to the fact that Buddhism had to”adjust itself to a set of cultural assumptions fundamentally inimical to it” (362), but Buddha himself “was inclined to modulate his teachings for the sake of his audience” (364). Mishra outlines the various ways different types of Buddhism (Zen especially) entered the United States: individual intellectuals, authors (such as Jack Kerouac), as well as middle-class people and workers in the corporate world. Meditation became the central practice, not only because it was emphasized by the Buddha but also because it was a release from the every-day irritating, nervous,  stressful consciousness and it permitted the meditators to engage in their other activities.

The chapter on “Overcoming Nihilism” is focused on Buddhism in ‘America’, its almost mainstream appearance. While meditation was practiced, “Few people explored its metaphysics and epistemology, partly because the key Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation were fraught subjects for people brought up that all human beings are born, or at least should be considered, equal in all respects” (372), Buddhism had to come up against  other deeply intellectualized political ideologies, and psychological and emotional habits. The anecdote about the Dalai Lama is instructive: he heard some students at Harvard confess that they suffered from “self-hatred”. The Dalai Lama, who “was brought up in a tradition much less keen on individualism”, did not know what the expression meant. Mishra explores Nietzsche’s idea of the end of religion as the “most terrible news” because the consequence could be the possibility that other beliefs would lead people to reach a “private reconciliation with the general malaise”. No rapprochement is possible between the nihilistic attitude of Nietzsche and Buddha’s self-overcoming.

“The Last Journey” returns to the Buddha’s last days: he lived to be about eighty,  he had spent the monsoon months at a monastery near Shravasti, had journeyed and preached across North India. He ate a  meal in Pava after which he suffered from bloody dysentery which exhausted him: he knew he was dying. Even in his last moments, the Buddha repeated that “all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other….whatever is born … is subject to decay” (386).

“Committed to Becoming”, the last and the most gloomy chapter, recounts the original idea for this book to trace the teachings and evolution of Buddhism. The author was traveling to Afghanistan after the Taliban defaced the statues of the Buddha and mosque preachers railed against various infidels, with the consequence that there was no memory of Asanga and Vasubhandu, the fourth-century Buddhist philosophers who had  lived in the area; the whole cosmopolitan life of Buddhism vanished from even its greatest centre in the Indian subcontinent (390). He attended an international conference of radical Islamists and he  realized the awful consequences for the radicalized youth who were uprooted from their native villages, whose ancestors created one of the greatest civilizations, but “who had now little to look forward to, except possibly the short career of a suicide bomber. The other kind of future once laid out for them failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, exercise birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car and pay taxes.”(392) The march to modernity became harder and more frustrating. Those who were attempting a change “knew that there remained no unknown lands and peoples for them to conquer, control and exploit. They could only cut down their own forests, pollute their own rivers and lakes, and seek to control and thereby oppress their own people, their women and minorities.” (p. 393) These uprooted individuals dreamed a western dream of revolution, but this only underlined the fact that their rage went against imagined entities such as ‘America’ or the ‘West’, which the grand majority of them did not really know. Interestingly, the author muses on his own situation – by then, he is in his thirties, he had traveled, and had  written books and articles: a kind of achievement given his modest beginnings.

For much of my life, I had been oppressed by the shame of being poor and ignorant and belonging to backward-looking community, of not truly possessing a language, and of not having any clearly defined gift or talentI had in time overcome these fears, partly by learning the ways of the modern world, picking up its primary language, English, and educating myself through the immense literature available in it. I had become  one of the privileged few who had overcome their disadvantages and found a provisional home in the West. In time, all that had initially struck me in England as inscrutable  …  had lost its power to alienate. Yet, this strange journey had also made a strange man of me. When I looked back, I saw many different selves…(395)

He still doubted that his intellectual and spiritual vagrancy was all he had to look forward to, and he could not suppress the  “quiet panic” knowing this.  He came back to Mashobra where many changes had occurred. He realized that his quest for understanding the Buddha had given him some sense of the effort needed to control one’s greed, hatred and delusion. But

I was still uncertain where the Buddha’s teachings stood in relation to the unmanageably large political and economic conflicts that increasingly decided the fates of most human beings. … I couldn’t see how they could be applied to the conduct of modern nations and empires, the clash of ideologies that had shaped much  of the contemporary world, and the globalization that reflected an actual state of economic and political interdependence. What did the Buddha, who had lived in a simpler time, have to offer people fighting political oppression, social and economic injustice, and environmental destruction? It was easier to see what he hadn’t promised. (398-399)

No large-scale social engineering advocated by all creeds, philosophies, religions, and -isms could entertain Buddhism. Mishra learned of the 9/11 attacks in Mashobra and a terrible image arose in his mind: that of the many uprisings in India, murders, suicide attacks on individuals and institutions – these “obscured the fact that the brutality of the world had come to America.” (400) The Buddha’s answer here would seem to be that the mind is the only place where human beings – however helpless – can have full control over their lives: what seems like necessity weakens in the mind’s self-knowledge, since concepts are revealed as fragile and arbitrary constructions, and real freedom becomes tangible. Mishra ends with his vision of the Buddha in this world, now, “amid its great violence and confusion, holding out the possibility of knowledge as well as redemption”. (404)

 

 

 

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).

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.

 

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.