Friday, June 8, 2012

No Exit and The Flies by Sartre

The existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Satre, was a man of letters, writing plays, novels, and screenplays, and of course, philosophy. He was a lot of things in his time, including a political activist (Marxist), and a literary critic. Everything I’ve read of his is supremely intelligent and thoroughly thought out, and it all makes me sense that he really has something valuable to say. And these couple plays only encouraged me to read more from Sartre in the future. They are short vignettes expressive of his philosophy of man’s freedom to choose, and the responsibility to act; and in typical Sartre fashion, they are passionate in expression, and challenging to thought-norms. No Exit wasn’t my favorite, but The Flies was amazing.

No Exit was set in a room which signified the hereafter, and served as a rendezvous for 3 people who were assigned this confined space as their punishment for eternity. What follows is basically mind games between the three in which one of them struggles futilely to love themselves, another is doomed to unrequited love, and another questions his previous life’s level of courage and strength of will. The line from the play which best summarizes it: “Hell is—other people!”

The play was alright as a whole and packed some fun surprises in the dialogue, but I mostly liked the discussion surrounding the man who lacked courage. He wanted to believe that his acts in his previous life pointed towards a greater courage in posse that was never actuated. Through this character, Sartre neatly dismisses any myth we might cherish regarding the potential of one’s life apart from action with these brilliant words: “One always dies too soon—or too late. And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are—your life, and nothing else.”

The Flies was amazing as a declaration of defiance against conventional, social penitence as a salve to conscience; and against obeisance paid to any god that might excuse us from taking personal responsibility. The way Sartre seems to possess his hero, Orestes, to stand in the face of Zeus and scream his threat of defection from a weak, anemic divinity who grows fat on the fears and tears of his worshippers is truly inspiring. When threatened with the lifting of God’s finger to destroy him, Orestes smugly replies in full confidence of moral conviction, “Then do so. Lift a finger, lift your whole hand while you are about it.” Smartass…but I loved it.

The play begins with the murder of a king and the subsequent mourning of the city for standing idly by while it happened. The new king falls into self-abasing remorse as well, and initiates superstitious rites that lead the people into lugubrious public grieving and intense psychological pressure to prostrate themselves before God in life-long repentance. Little known to the new king, the old king’s son, Orestes, was smuggled out of the city, and now returns to see if he can save his sister who is now the mistreated slave of the court. Flies, metaphors for the tormenting furies of guilt—“the goddesses of remorse”—swarm through the dispirited city, burdening the life of drudgery that the residents feel condemned to.

Orestes decides to commit himself to rid the city from the oppressive influence of the current king’s reign, and tries to free his sister from the grip that fear has on her.  In the grand finale, he debates Zeus, mocking him in the spirit of Elijah, though he fully acknowledges that Zeus has the power to cause him anguish. But he has no remorse for doing what he felt was right, and he is committed to the furthest repercussions of his decision despite numerous opportunities to ‘take it back’. He would rather suffer under the hands of a tyrant-god than be his friend, and in doing so, he proved his superiority and power of freedom, rather than pay for the happiness of a slave in demonstrations of grief and cowardice.

Also emphasized in this play is Sartre’s well-known philosophy on the personalized nature of experience—the ‘own-able’ situations that people find themselves in. “Whatever happens to you, happens through you, and moreover, whatever happens to you is yours” (from Being and Nothingness).  In claiming one’s situation and making the best out of it, one is claiming themselves, because every person is in part a product of their time and culture, and is therefore ‘co-author’ of their situation by choosing life instead of suicide or desertion of responsibility. In the play, Orestes, the old king’s son, willingly chooses to accept the role of pariah and hunted rebel, even though he knows he will be killed and will possibly lose his sister. He does this because, by owning a situation—any situation—he is coming to form a true identity through connections to the world and memories which endear life to him. He argues with his mentor throughout the story as his mentor tries to help him choose a safe life, a smart life, a wealthy life. He chooses instead a path that is dangerous and unknown, and declares boldly and proudly, “Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path.” He has come to full possession of himself, and feels at home.

And nothing could have prepared me for the exhilaration I felt in reading Orestes cutting Zeus down to size by—get this—sympathizing with him. “You are God, and I am free; each of us is alone, and our anguish is akin.” He stands to his full height in this passage, feels no pity for himself, and takes on the full responsibility of his freedom and anxiety of existence. The ending is tragic-heroic, and is a challenge for us to realize our potential that often lies wheezing beneath the fat idol of religion or convention. Pushing that fat mother off us requires a willingness to hurt a little for love, and necessitates a real conviction of our worth and value in this universe that won’t be easily shaken when others, unable or unwilling to love themselves, tell us we’re worthless.

I especially admired the way the hero stands firm in the face of a ‘bad’ god, whom he doesn’t even feel the need to dismiss as unreal or powerless. Sartre seems to be implying that each of our gods, whatever name they may have, may very well be the highest power in our life, but if he/she isn’t good, then we have the responsibility to ‘out-moral’ him, and launch a resistance against their power. We may not fare well physically, but spiritually we conquer by our refusal to cower before evil. We win.

Sartre has masterfully demonstrated his philosophy in this play, and it is a perfect specimen to share with others to introduce them to Sartre’s thought and application of his theories.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Art Of Drowning: poems by Billy Collins

Some books you have to sit with for a while after reading for a real appreciation to sink in. This volume of poems by Billy Collins, 2-time United States poet laureate, was one such book for me. As far as reading poems go, it is smooth and cool, paced nicely, and has no ponderous obstacles of personal-life allusions and intentional obscurantism sitting heavy in the path of interpretation. He feels much like someone helping you discover the wonders around your hometown. He’s not trying to be avant guard, pushing the evolving cusp of modern poetry. He’s simply writing from the heart, and he is full of great insights.

That being said, it wasn’t my favorite volume of poetry I have ever read. What? Wasn’t expecting that? While it was engaging, and cleansed my palate so to speak, I wouldn’t call this one of the most enlightening reads. It was a nice ride, but it wasn’t a step forward for me. I recognize Collins’ genius and value as a poet, and later while reading another poet, I appreciated more what it did for me, but it wasn’t something I’d seek out again anytime soon, because I’m not sure I grew as a result from reading it. I wasn’t prodded to think new thoughts or take new action…which is kind of a personal goal of mine when reading. I usually don’t read to simply pass time, or to read a ‘nice’ story. I’m still dipping the “blood of the universe” straight from the sun (Ray Bradbury), and I’ll be the first to admit, my personal standards are set high for the moment with regard to my taste in books.

However, as I said, it was more of a tonic than I realized (at the time it mostly bored me), but I see now it helped me wash down the incredibly dense, immobile molasses that Dylan Thomas’ poetry can become where words are indiscriminately beat together and flung down in jarring closeness and bewildering lack of context. Collin’s writing isn’t academic or experimental poetry; it’s simply good, readable, and uplifting. It’s read-out-loud poetry. It’s thoughtful and spontaneous, profound and playful.

If you’re looking for a book of poems to explore and rekindle your love of poetry, this may help. Collins is a good writer, but it was just okay for me. Don’t hate me for praising the chef but only nibbling his delicacies. I’m still devouring raw meat, yo.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Herman Hesse begins this novel with a preface in which he assures his readers that the intent of this book was not to wallow in despair at life’s dead-ends and interminable suffering, but to celebrate hope in meaning that underlies the material world, time, and the senses. It follows that this book is not a helpless surrender to a yearning for life to end, but rather an honest exploration of the limits of the torments of melancholia, boredom and modern existential angst; and I would say it applies in particular to aging intellectuals in the 20th century. “This book, no doubt, tells of griefs and needs; still it is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.” The road from doubt to hope appears circuitous at times as Hesse’s protagonist experiences it, but it arrives somewhere after all, with some progress made towards an acceptance of the multi-faceted self, a humorous approval of one’s circumstances, and an acknowledgment of one’s need for others.

The story begins with a man, Harry, who is beginning to feel old in body, mind and spirit. He increasingly grows to view himself as alien to a world of narrow scheming and simple joys, and he becomes severely depressed and burdened with his existence. Even more than bodily pain he suffers from the conviction that he has sucked life dry of anything it might offer to him, and now he wanders on the earth curiously observing the happiness and idiosyncrasies of those around him. His zest for life is long gone. He has lived his life with an aim to understand, and finds that knowledge alone does not fill one with joy. His quest for freedom from dependence on others leaves him with nothing when he has finally attained it, and having no need for others, “the world in an uncanny fashion left him in peace...for the air of lonely men surrounded him.” And being alone, breathing only his own stale breath and agonizing over the utter futility of life, he begins to seriously consider suicide, and meditates on it often.

Then, entering a bar right before his plan to discreetly exit his life, he meets a spontaneous and witty girl who seems to know his intentions and is able to disarm him. She becomes his provoker, lover, master, and…god. He feels strangely compelled to do anything she tells him, and she persuades him she knows his type and what will fix him. And fix him she does. She first teaches him to dance and to love jazz music, which opens up a new world of sensation for him. She introduces him to a friend, Pablo, who is a proficient jazz musician (apparently a fetish for Hesse, who reveres jazz as the free spirit of the modern age) and a dealer in herbs and spice and…narcotics. Yum. Pablo eventually offers him an hallucinogen, and through this Harry experiences transformative visions in which he sees his soul splintered into a thousand profound reflections in a hall of mirrors and doors. He explores his thoughts in the form of dream and phantasmagoria—what Pablo calls his ‘Magic Theatre.’ This was my second favorite part of the book, next to the “Treatise” (which I’ll describe shortly), because it was colorful and bizarre stories within the story; and frankly, each mini-story was more interesting than the work as a whole.

Harry battles the emptiness and existential hole left in modern man with the sudden invalidation of traditions and religions. He, like many moderns, has been deflated in the realization that 20th century man is an artifact, a key which doesn’t open any doors. Humanity that no longer needs its long-evolved skills to survive is derelict on a blank sea, free to choose his direction, but unsure if there’ll ever be another place to land. As a result of, and partly a response to, the loss of classic cultural mores, the ethics of Hesse’s characters are fairly ambiguous…accept that physical violence is strongly protested in a couple scenes. The protagonists are both wastrels and erudites, prostitutes and professors; they all learn from each other, dance with each other, and knock each other up. The story themes sweat into a swirling orgy of self-discovery, belief, pleasure, music, drugs, education, dancing and sex. Hesse tries to make sense of our cravings, trying a little too hard, in my opinion, to salvage all pleasure as essentially good. However confused, Hesse’s real goal for his characters slowly manifested itself and remained consistent, which was put straightforward in his better known work, Siddhartha, “[People] no longer seemed alien to him as they once had. He did not understand or share their thoughts and views, but he shared with them life’s urges and desires…he now felt as if these ordinary people were his brothers.” That’s the moral I think: the brotherhood of all man. Happiness and harmony. Pleasure and sex. He seems wholly unconcerned about the categories of right/wrong, good/bad, keeping away from a judgmental attitude towards others which spoils one’s chances of intercourse. ‘Make love not war’, and in this way his characters find salvation by indulging in each other. I understand what he is trying to say about carnal pleasure sometimes being an appropriate response to austere anti-materialism and religious fanaticism, but his solution is too seamless. His hedonism comes across as too pure and harmless a poison, misrepresenting the dazzling allure of sexual ravishment and ignoring the addictive risks of boundless sensual pleasure.

Perhaps the single most important part of the book, an excerpt of which I read in an anthology of existentialist literature, and reading which inspired me to read this book, is the chapter titled, “Treatise On the Steppenwolf.” This short essay, which in the story was a document handed to Harry by a mysterious character, describes the divided soul of man as a carnal-spiritual struggle that is only held together by the utmost struggle and effort to subdue the wolf, and wake the man—a tension alluded to by Hesse as often erroneously resolved by feeding chocolate to the wolf, and blood to the man.

This tension between the animal-god poles, or natures, warring within the human breast, is often confused to be a tension between two selves. Hesse writes that “it appears to be an innate need of every person to regard the self as a unit”, but this complicates the problem of the ego more than resolves it, and “however often and however grievously this illusion [of ontic duality] is shattered, it always mends again.” Our self is a “manifold world, a constellated heaven” with thousands of facets, a “chaos of forms, stages and states; of inheritances and potentialities.” Later in the book, Harry, the protagonist, is taught how to organize these facets, these selves, into different combinations that might better meet the demands of his daily experiences which are as diverse and convoluted as his own inner world. The image of a chessboard with a myriad possible pieces to play a myriad possibly ways is given to him in a vision of how to better utilize the endless options inherent in being. This ‘schitzophrenic’ multiplication of one’s personas to create a fuller repertoire of faces to handle different situations that may arise is considered by Hesse to be ‘genius’, and not sociopathic. The difference between a healthy throng of standby-selves, and an unhealthy battering of personas trying to push to the front, may be the conscious choice and control over the manifest actors—a leading director of the many actors.

Some of this book was dull, and bohemian, and way overcooked. The parts I liked, I really liked; while the other 90% devolved into tale-chasing and an attempt to value all opposites of being. It is true, as Hesse infers that we too often prefer to treat our infinitely complex world and our view of it with a black-and-white objectivism, and we need to acknowledge the overlap between contrasts (grays) and the interrelatedness of all things. He isn’t interested in dismissing paradoxes by translating them into a plain contrast of right and wrong, as this kills the real subtle and finely nuanced nature of being.

But spend too much time in vagueness and even the concept of vagueness grows vague. Huh? It is true that man is not so easily categorized, pinned, and labeled as we sometimes like to think; but neither is man an amorphous ‘becoming’ with no definable progress or outline to differentiate him from his world and the unconscious chaos from which he has risen. Man is infinitely complex in his constitution and evolution, but he is also a phenomenon, an appearance, a form.  His challenge is fitting and proper: “[To live] you will have to multiply many times your two-fold being and complicate your complexities still further. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will at last take the whole world into your soul, cost what it may, before you are through and come to rest.” But his story illustrates a man whose concept of self was fractured to hell with no discernible center for concrete thoughts or directed action. Jung was right when he said that consciousness implies direction, and therefore exclusion. We are complex beings whose goal is to harmonize and simplify that complexity into discrete actions, and centered and continuous consciousness. Swinging too far to either extreme risks on one hand the loss of identity, and on the other hand the loss of expansion. Hesse may have expanded so far he popped.  

The ending in which Harry wakes up from the drug-induced hallucination in which he kills his lover and discovers that he has a lot to learn, is a bit too sudden a stop with no follow-through, but I was just glad to get out of Hesse’s fun house. A little longer and I would have started contemplating suicide myselves [sic]. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking

This work is lauded as theoretical physics for the layman, but it is no Dummies version. Hawking quickly exhausted any common language and ideas that he and I might have shared, strapped me to the back of his wheelchair, and warped to light speed.  And yet, it really was an enlightening read, and I feel better informed regarding the frontiers of science, at least as it stood 20 years ago. It was especially nice to learn from Stephen Hawking, the late 20th century’s Einstein, and the fact that Hawking overcame so much in his lifetime (a quadriplegic suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease) gives his ideas a courageous flavor. It also helps that the cover art of the 1990 edition totally looks like Hawking is the Emperor in his throne at the last duel between Luke and Darth Vader in The Return Of the Jedi. “Take your weapon. Strike me down! Your journey towards the dark side will be complete!” And I trust this man to escort me “From the Big Bang To Black Holes”? Enough.

I really did appreciate the leap to being able to understand, partially at least, the beginning and end of the horizons of the empirically known universe in 182 pages. To be sure, some parts of the book were…shall we say…a black hole sucking all light of the understanding into the fathomless abyss where Hawking sits alone with the key to the origins and ends of it all. Or maybe he doesn’t. It was intriguing to learn that some of Hawking’s “Eureka!” moments weren’t always the byproduct of complex mathematical procedures, but some occurred spontaneously in rather mundane places and times, such as a conversation with one of his students, or during a bedtime routine. In other words, he fortuitously stumbled upon some of his best ideas like any normal bloke, not always painstakingly exhuming them from the deep, ponderous vaults of trigo-calcu-bra. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and I definitely see good ole’ fashioned creativity and wonder at work in Hawking as he discovered new worlds (and anti-worlds) for his brain to roll around in. I find it hilarious that at one point he found himself so immersed in ‘imaginative physics’ that when he finally reached irreconcilable contrarities, he had to be reminded by one of his students that he was using imaginary time in some of his formulas, which didn’t always work in real time scenarios. And I feel smart again for a couple seconds.

Let it be known, I love having my mind blown. Hawking takes us on the journey of basic physics, but then reaches to the furthest applications of those fundamentals without all the mind-cramping math. He includes only one equation in the book: E = mc (squared), and this is simple enough to understand as he explains the implications of Einstein’s Theory Of Relativity on energy (E), mass (m), and the speed of light (c). The beauty of the whole thing is this: it is beyond me. I had to try to picture the ‘color’ beyond the white pages full of static black symbols. The words had to become events. My mind often transposed the convoluted processes into cartoons; after all, much of it only makes sense as story. How else is anyone supposed to understand what is going on inside a star or an atom? Reality transcends mere words. We transpose the unseen, untouched world into pictures, into analogy, into math, into poetry. In the end, science is fiction, language is myth, math is… music!  I believe Hawking reconciles himself to the metaphysics of physics, even if it is unconsciously, when he states, “It is meaningless to ask: Which is real, “real” or “imaginary” time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”

It is so interesting that so much of this book is now common knowledge at least in outline: The Big Bang, black holes, the variable nature of time and space. It was new depth in decades-old ideas for me as I relearned Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Uncertainty Principle, and quantum mechanics. I also finally understand a little better the nature of light, color, radio/x-ray/gamma rays…and the whole electromagnetic field that these waves wave on; and I can finally grasp the essentials of Super String Theory, which I’ve come to think is just a way to apply the mystery that particles cannot be differentiated from waves. Holistic cosmological evolution is now outlined in my mind more lucidly than it ever has been before. And I certainly know more now than I EVER wanted to know about black holes!

I was a little confused about Hawking attributing a sweeping loss of order to the universe in his elucidation of entropy with barely a nod to increasing order. He concedes the remarkable nature of human consciousness and man’s understanding of the universe, and refers to it as “a small corner of order”, but isn’t that small corner a greater improbability than all of the rest of the universe’s order/disorder put together? In other words, the concentration of evolution in terms of improbably and highly complex structure is weightier than all the entropy of all time. Doesn’t this warrant more attention and awe than quickly dismissing it as ‘a small corner of order’? Is he so eager to prove his point about the ultimate Big Crunch at the end of time, or the absence of cosmic intelligence, that he totally disregards the significance of his own sphere of existence and its rarity?

Science, for all it claims of emotional detachment and pure mechanics, so quickly capitulates to egoism. Maybe this betrays my ignorance, but I am always stunned by the amount of angst wrapped up in the competition among the intelligentsia. Maybe this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but still it is upsetting for me to learn—the scientific community is cutthroat! Reading Hawking’s short bio on John Newton at the back of the book floored me as regards the Machiavellian nature of Newton’s politics that polluted any hope of unbiased research he might have undertook.  Who would believe a word he said if they couldn’t reproduce the results themselves? And apparently times haven’t changed: Hawking couldn’t even get through this book on super-physics for the layman, a daunting enough task to warrant cutting out all extraneous drama, without alluding to recent skirmishes between himself and his colleagues, and years later he’s still defending himself, or ostensibly trying not to defend himself.  To the credit of Hawking’s scientific integrity, he has admitted at least some of his errors in the past. Immediately following a paragraph in the book in which he asserts “one cannot really argue with a mathematical theorem [referencing his own handiwork of course]”, he humbly acknowledges, “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe.” It seems that though one can’t ‘argue with the math’, one can change its meaning, even years later. Two plus two may equal four, but two apples and two refrigerators equal four…what? The idea that science is pure and math is not arguable is nonsense. Simone de Beauvoir rightly said that “every objective description, so-called, implies an ethical background.” We’re all trying to get at something.

The last chapter, ‘Conclusion’, was truly startling to read. Hawking all but admits a thirst for some kind of ultimate meaning at the end of the book. “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?...Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” I thought it was a brave move, especially after working so hard to debunk God. Then, as if he was the first to ask these questions in an intelligent way, Hawking commits an embarrassing faux pas by accusing philosophers of neglecting their task of asking ‘why’. “Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.” He cites Wittgenstein as a “comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant”, and obviously laments Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy as drifting away from the real purpose of philosophy. Let us suppose Hawking’s elitist view—that only certain people have the right to ask certain questions—is valid, and suppose it really is solely the philosophers business to ask the ‘why’ as Hawking suggests; then who is he, a mere empiricist, a mathematician, to question another sacred authority? Though I disagree with his accusation of modern philosophy, and though I think he has contradicted himself by questioning a fellow authority that he self-allegedly should be trusting implicitly to work unassailably in their specialized field, I still think he’s right in asking the questions himself. Maybe we all ought to be asking the big questions and making some discovery for ourselves, not implicitly trusting Hawking and Wittgenstein to do it all for us. In the end, the ‘specialists’ can’t save us. They can barely save themselves.

That all being said, I really did enjoy the book and I learned a lot. Mystery is necessary for the expanding soul, and we can take comfort in the fact that there isn’t an end in sight.  This ‘small corner of order’ is boundless—as deep as it is wide—and the longer the universe expands, the more infinite the scope and intricate the scale. The universe we know will always be a door to a larger universe as long as something keeps urging us to ask ‘what’ and ‘why’. And the question itself signals more; and if nothing else, we can always squeeze back through the small hole the question itself slipped in at. There’s always more for those who want more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

SeinLanguage by Jerry Seinfeld

For me, this book was an ‘inbetweener’. It helped lighten the load between Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time and an anthology of existentialist thought titled Existentialism. And lighten the load it did. I read just a couple pages each time I came to it, and put it down with a more cheerful and ‘breathable’ outlook.

Everyone knows Seinfeld’s humor (if you don’t, I don’t want to know you anymore…simple as that…just leave). He cracks jokes about everyday things that we take for granted, and helps us see the absurdity of what we accept as normality and common sense. A running joke on his sitcom Seinfeld is that it is a show about ‘nothing’, the irony being that it is about everything little that happens in our lives, and not any one big happening. His plots never go anywhere in the strict sense of narrative progress, but they explore the everywhere and find in it the irony and wonder of being.  

I truly believe we all need this sense of the hilarious mundane. Reading his jokes helps me, even if for a moment, not to be so consumed with restlessly prodding along the cosmic epic of my life, and to embrace the moment-by-moment joy and laughter that I can experience if I just open up my eyes. Not that Seinfeld’s humor always celebrates beauty and love, it also rejoices in the madness and destruction of the idiot, and that is funny too, no? Who doesn’t, at least inwardly, jump at a chance to call someone stupid, especially when that someone is us, and I think this urge helps us better define the boundaries of what we consider practical/impractical, or wise/unwise. The margins of our sanity can be a frightening zone to explore, but cognitively scoping out these borders can keep us from wondering too close in deed. Thus, comedy is a safety valve of sorts, allowing us to test the waters of danger in theory, not reality. That’s why I like to say, humor is soft danger, or soft fear. Humor is fear on weed. And that statement is weed on weed.

And now for a few examples from the book that had me rolling:

“I couldn’t be a maid. I wouldn’t have a good attitude. If I was a maid at someone’s house, I’d find them, wherever they were in the house. ‘Oh, I suppose you couldn’t do this…No, no, don’t get up, let me clean up your filth…No, you couldn’t dust, that’s just too tough, isn’t it? Don’t even try to help me. You rest. Save your energy so you can turn this place back into a filthy, stinking hole when I leave.’”

“Of course we all try and save time. Cutting corners, little short cuts. But no matter how much time you save, at the end of your life, there’s no extra time saved up. You’ll be going, ‘What do you mean there’s no time?  I had a microwave oven, Velcro sneakers, a clip-on tie. Where is that time?’ But there isn’t any.”

“So I was on this plane where it was this flight attendant’s first day on the job, but they didn’t have a uniform for her yet. And that really makes a big difference. I mean, now it’s just some regular person coming over to you going, ‘Would you mind bringing your seatback all the way up?’ I turned around, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And then she goes, ‘Well, I’m the flight attendant.’ ‘Oh yeah? Then I’m the pilot. Why don’t you sit down, I’m about to bring her in.’”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Future Of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

I’ve always been interested in how some of the brightest minds of different eras attempted to solve the dilemma of existence, those people who have cast a large shadow in history for one reason or another; people whom others have looked to for answers for their time, in whom the spirit of the age was represented but partially transcended; figures like Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Luther, Lincoln, Einstein, and, to cut to the chase, Sigmund Freud. The simple idea that many of our adult ‘parapraxes’ and neuroses may actually be unconscious fixations and frustrations carried over from coping mechanisms in early childhood was revolutionary, and kicked open the door to a surge of research into depth-psychology and eventually neuroplasticity. Freud was no joke, even though many of his theories were left far behind, as all theoretical tailings are, in the exhaust of later developments in psychology and psychoanalysis. The man was a courageous visionary in his time, and did much for science…and for religion. Some see his attitude towards religion as completely hostile, but I don’t think it was. His attitude towards some forms of religion and some religious attitudes was aggressive, but his posture towards religion in general was one of understanding of the time and culture in which they arose, and of the psychological prerequisites that occasion religious devotion. He happened to think that most every religion was indeed wishful thinking, or ‘wish-fulfillment’, but he didn’t think it was all bad, and actually thought it might be, in many cases, good for what ails a society and a soul.

Freud had written more extensive treatises on the evolution of religious belief in culture and individual psychology, but this short work is not to be ignored. If a work like Moses And Monotheism or Totem And Taboo was his assiduous proof, then Future Of an Illusion was his concise posit. It is direct and honest, yet offers a glimpse into what might be called Freud’s ‘humility’ in the matter of people’s cherished beliefs and traditions (though some may say it feels the opposite). I was actually impressed, and somewhat persuaded, by some of his points. There was a good bit of prefabbing and contextualization for his argument in the first few chapters, establishing that the mass of society needs either coercion or persuasion to abandon a lazy-impulsive lifestyle. He opts for the latter, persuasion, and loses no time in working to convince the reader of the dire need to displace religion with reason.

Freud is actually pretty fair in his acceptance of the idea that religion was developed as a necessary, instinctual response to the need of mankind to survive in a hostile environment. He asserts that man personified nature, creating a father-image to protect and rule over him, and slowly grew out of an infantile animism to value his personality as it grew powerful in intelligence to order his own way through chaos. He assigned this growing consciousness the value of an anthropomorphized Power—God—but now humanity is having a hard time salvaging truth from those ancient analogies (“important historical recollections”). Thus, the idea of ‘God’ is an ongoing cultural neurosis, an illusion that at one time was subscribed to by the masses and is still propagated by the collective pressure to repress the growing disconnect been our religion and our reason, and conform to the dogma of this shared myth. All is not lost, however, and even this communal fixation has some value in that “devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain [individual] neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the [cultural] neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

Who can blame Freud for catching onto, and pulling back the curtain for others to see, the conspiracy with which religious leaders dupe simple people into believing something for which no reason or proof has been provided, except the mandate not to question or one would lose their privileged status as God’s ‘darlings.’. He specifically zeros in on three bogus claims of religious teachings that are used to manipulate the flocks of possibly well-meaning followers: 1) The teachings ought to be believed because they were believed by primal ancestors, 2) We possess ‘proofs’ from these same ancestors, 3) It is forbidden to raise a question of their authenticity on penalty of excommunication, death and/or hellfire. Who can disagree that these are indeed harmful traits and can bring any ideology into question? The real danger of trying to cement ancient paradigms lies in the attempt to transplant ideas into a new ethos, away from its native soil and environment. All the old ideas have to be put into theological zoos, cramped, withered, and anemic away from home; and the new theology all but kills the original thought which was wild, often contradictory, and rather uncivilized. The new form is hardly recognizable: “The truths contained in religious doctrines are after all so distorted and systematically disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth.”

Now, some of it did feel outdated. Freud lauds scientific progress ad nauseum. Does he not realize that for all his dissection of totemism in his other works, science is becoming the new totem of our age, the fetish of modernism? Here Science becomes the one god, and Freud is his prophet. Freud is a believer in logical positivism to an embarrassing extent, and subordinates the subjective thinker far below objective phenomenon, putting all his eggs in the one basket of external reality. Freud thinks reason will save the world, and I don’t blame him for pleading for more balance between faith and reason, but his answers come across as naïve. He gives a downright obnoxious illustration of one of his children that was “distinguished at an early age” for calling out during a children’s story time in which a fairytale was being shared, “Is that a true story?” When he was answered in the negative he turned away in disgust. Freud’s point? “We may expect that people will soon behave in the same way towards the fairy tales of religion.” What a downer. Did he really have no appreciation for imagination, beauty, and the power of symbols? What can I say—he wasn’t so far ahead of his times that he wasn’t influenced by the utopian dream that intellectual prowess alone can bring peace and love.

I applaud Freud for wanting change to come the non-violent way. He saw two ways that change could come about: “Either these dangerous masses must be held down most severely and kept most carefully away from any chance of intellectual awakening, or else the relationship between civilization and religion must undergo a fundamental revision.” Glad he elected to pursue the latter. What a peach. But his ending is pathetic, and, as all endings become what we are most remembered for, it is a terribly disgraceful way to go out. The paragraph to the last is a defense of science, and the last sentence is almost funny…except it’s not. “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” Geez.

So, ironically, we’re stuck having to cull some semblance of ‘systematically disguised and distorted’ truth from Freud’s illusion of science’s majesty. What’s new?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Existentialism edited by Robert Solomon

I really enjoyed this collection of excerpts from existentialist writings. I liked that it opened my eyes to the different kind of thinkers within this tradition: liked some, loathed some. It gathered from about 26 writers from Kierkegaard to Arthur Miller, and concentrated more heavily on the more well-known contributors like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre. I came to this book having read some from this philosophical emphasis, but I wasn’t disappointed in the selections which helped me to broaden my understanding of different expressions of the ideas as well as lesser known authors which have contributed to its progress (or lack there-of).

Some broadly assume that existentialism is an expression of egoism or solipsism that offers no value system, or ultimately leads down the path to a philosophical ‘catatonic immobility’. Not so. That is mostly a misunderstanding of the uninformed. It, in fact, has been developed as a system, or as ideological tools rather, to help one redefine and reform one’s values, and conceptualize truth and meaning in the face of the increasing dereliction and obsolescence of old meanings and ideas in each new age. It is not wholesale ‘relativism’, as some would like to think, but a grounded sense of conviction and purpose within a growing awareness, individually and globally, of the relative nature of people’s perception of reality. Subjectivity is the dominant focus of existentialism because it brings me first, then others, into the center of my concern; and freedom and responsibility of the individual become the core values.

I definitely come away from this wanting to read more of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Jaspers, Hesse, Marcel, …and DEFINITELY Sartre above all the rest. Sartre has so many profound things to say, and I love his emphasis on human responsibility. Not sure I can stomach his Nausea, but we shall see, because it’s going on my reading list along with some of his others. I can’t get away from some of his words:

“What happens to me happens through me…Moreover everything which happens to me is mine.”

“To live [in any given situation] is to choose myself through it and to choose it through my choice of myself.”

“Everything which happens to us can be considered as a chance.”


I will say, however, that reading this expanded selection from different types of existentialist authors makes me a bit more cautious in labeling myself broadly and unreservedly as an ‘existentialist’. That label might be in need of some qualification depending on who is talking and who they are talking to.

The point of this book, and one of the reasons I’ll never read it again but benefited from it regardless, is that it was as good as it was bad. I was introduced to authors that I grew to love, but some that I was glad to be finished with once-and-for-all. The contrast was enlightening.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Huckleberry Finn

Finally, I finished my first Mark Twain book. Verdict: it was fun and often engrossing, but I guess that’s it. I didn’t find it to be an especially meaningful story, although Twain made it clear in a unequivocal notice at the beginning of the book that this was his intention, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” No kidding. Someone must have moralized the hell out of Tom Sawyer.

There were a couple laugh out-loud parts, and some mystery/suspense that might appeal to biblio-sleuths. Mostly I think it is just a well-paced adventure, with unique and bizarre twists, and a cast of loveable characters. The fact that some consider this to be a piece of civil rights literature I suppose is true enough, although I would like to remind readers that Twain denied having his book say anything about anything; but if it did something for the wellbeing of blacks, it certainly helped readers to sympathize with and grow comfortable imagining a relationship with a black person who may have had little exposure to their culture. Granted, the black person typified in Huckleberry is ignorant, nearsighted, a dupe for a prank, and overly-sentimental; but the average black person in those days was most likely uneducated, segregated and unaffected by so-called ‘refined’ intellectual society, and I’m sure their emotionally dominant way of thinking was a bit more serviceable to their survival needs. But it still seems to me they were less to be pitied than their prejudiced, gluttonous, and hostile white brothers and sisters; and Twain does much to endear Jim to the reader despite his stereotyped manner.

I thought the tapestry of lies that Huck wove every time he was in a tight spot was brilliant. And hilarious. I’ve never had so much fun witnessing someone lie. It was Huck’s high art. Each meticulously crafted deception was studded with creative and ludicrous details, dovetailed together so seamlessly so as to evoke the reader’s admiration. It was so reflexive without any accompanying guilt to clothesline his momentum. It was his way of life, and it was survival. Huck’s young age and small stature made it the most useful defense against the dark arts of adulthood and brute force. Every falsehood worked to grease his escape and afford him another day to move freely on the river in the hot potential of the sun. It was especially entertaining to watch him out-con the cons. I cheered him on the entire time, and it helped that he seemed to know when to turn his mendacity ‘off’ when he felt that honesty would be more conducive to a healthy relationship.

The ending of the book was the most disappointing. It truly seemed as if Twain had totally lost track of the plot. The last fourth of the book was completely taken up with Tom Sawyer entering the scene and playing an imaginative game of rescue of Jim from his captors. SO boring. I totally wanted to put the book down and call it a day. What an absolute waste of time. Dumb. Not bad writing necessarily, but just arbitrary and uninteresting. Was Twain trying to stretch the story, and stick it to his publishers? It’s not unheard of, and I have no better explanation.

I probably won’t read Tom Sawyer anytime soon, though I probably will one day. More interested in his other short stories like Mysterious Stranger and others. Too bad this wasn’t more rewarding. It had my vote before I started, but lost most of it by the end. I’m sure Twain wouldn’t have cared.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Fatherhood by Bill Cosby

This was a very enjoyable read! It was another one of those books that I’ve know about for a long time, but never had the interest in reading. I came across it again recently, and, since now I am a father of two, thought it might be interesting. It was. I laughed on almost every page. What I loved most is that Cosby is so sarcastic about his appreciation for his children, speaking often of a concealed desire to set them on fire or getting rid of them and making new ones. He refers many times to his hope that his children will be out of the house by the time he dies. He calls his children beggars, and says that he often sits in the stillness of the night watching his daughter sleep, relishing the air of innocence about her when she’s not asking for anything. He is wry, and he says it like he means it. But he’s not always serious, except when he is. You have to trust him to understand him, and I do.

He’s creative with his comedy, and actually very intelligent about it. I was surprised to find out that he has his doctorate in education, and his value on education certainly comes through in the book. These are no low-brow jokes, although the appeal probably still spans across all educational levels. He expertly and often eloquently boils down the ‘sweet insanity’ of parenting, not only fatherhood, to its quintessence, and helps us come to terms with those most frustrating realities like a child’s lack of logic, a girl’s journey through dating, a boy’s devil-may-care attitude, and a grown children’s tendency to return home after college.

I am definitely going to re-introduce this book into circulation among my friends and family who are parents, although a parent will mostly appreciate it only after having been a parent for at least several years. Besides being a classic—much of it has already woven itself into the parenting humor of our culture (“I brought you into this world, and I can take you out…”)—it is a safety valve of sorts, releasing in laughter the building pressure from all the things you think you can’t complain about in parenting. Cosby blows his top for you, and does it brilliantly. You can hear his punctuated, consonant-popping, measured emphasis of every syllable, stressing his utter bewilderment of why kids do the things they do, and why people choose to have them in the first place.

For all the satire, it really is good-natured humor. He makes complaining about children’s behavior feel right, for at its heart it is deeply reverent of the miracle of life and love. You sense that Cosby is a paragon of a good father, and his steady love and understanding of children’s sometimes slow intellectual development becomes the model of patience for his readers. I come away from this with a better understanding that parents are in the unique position of being the wisdom and law for relatively unreasonable creatures, while still trying to learn the rules of the life ourselves. We walk the tightrope of trying not to take human logic—and the lack of— too seriously, while taking love very seriously.

I don’t spend a lot of time with humor books, but this one was rich and well worth the short read!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Leda [poems] by Aldous Huxley

I found this cool first edition copy of Huxley’s Leda at an antique store. I have always been interested in Huxley’s writings, and was curious about his poems. This book contains the poem Leda, along with 25 others.

I was disappointed. Most of the poems, including Leda were rambling and verbose, overly florid depictions of nature, and gushingly romantic. His use obscure words felt too heavy and forced, and the poem was bogged down with his meta-messages. The worst part about poetry like this is being convinced that the meanings aren’t worth the work, and being satisfied with them remaining obscure. Leda, the titular poem of the collection, was the worst. Complete waste of time. So far I like his prose much more than his poetry. Anybody want to buy a first edition of Huxley’s Leda?

HOWEVER, there were a few poems that I was glad I read: The Birth Of God, From The Pillar, First Philosopher’s Song, The Merry-Go-Round, and Last Things. Of these, The Merry-Go-Round is my favorite, and is profoundly moving/disturbing. Too bad it will go mostly unread, as this tawdry collection of poems is sure to ward off most would-be readers.

I’ll save you the trouble…here is the complete text of The Merry-Go-Round:

THE machine is ready to start. The symbolic beasts grow resty, curvetting where they stand at their places in the great blue circle of the year. The Showman's voice rings out. 'Mont e z, mesdames et messieurs, montez. You, sir, must bestride the Ram. You will take the Scorpion. Yours, madame, is the Goat. As for you there, blackguard boy, you must be content with the Fishes. I have allotted you the Virgin, mademoiselle.' . . . 'Polisson !' ' Pardon, pardon. Evidemment, c'est le Sagittaire qu'on demande. Ohé, les dards! The rest must take what comes. The Twins shall counterpoise one another in the Scales. So, so. Now away we go, away.'

Ha, what keen air. Wind of the upper spaces. Snuff it deep, drink in the intoxication of our speed. Hark how the music swells and rings . . . sphery music, music of every vagabond planet, every rooted star; sound of winds and seas and all the simmering millions of life. Moving, singing…so with a roar and a rush round we go and round, for ever whirling on a ceaseless Bank Holiday of drunken life and speed.

But I happened to look inwards among the machinery of our roundabout, and there I saw a slobbering cretin grinding at a wheel and sweating as he ground and grinding eternally. And when I perceived that he was the author of all our speed and that the music was of his making, that everything depended on his grinding wheel, I thought I would like to get off. But we were going too fast.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano

In this short book, Mercogliono launches an attack on the modern forces of conformity and societal control over children by labeling these threats “the systematic domestication of childhood itself.” What would warrant such an accusation against the quality of our care of life’s most precious resource? Criticizing parenting and children’s education can be a slippery endeavor, for what life-form doesn’t want to take care of its progeny? None as it turns out, but Mercogliano offers a helpful equation at the end of the book (why the end? me) that helps to account for the total misplacement of values: Fear leads to control, and control leads to domestication. When we allow fear to consume us, our reflex is to completely systematize our lives and super-refine our processes. We sanitize everything. We pad every corner. We child-proof every door leading to other worlds. In short, even great parents and educators fall into the trap of insulating our children from dangerous, magical, beautiful life. This over-protection is cloaked domestication, and we raise children like livestock, growing their minds in petri-dishes. As a result, childhood—real, pure, virgin childhood with all of its risks, margins of free time, and un-manipulated play—is becoming endangered in our society.

Mercogliano (hitherto lovingly referred to as Merc) starts out with citing many of the fears that motivate parents to over-protect their kids’ lives. He believes it all starts at childbirth, where a mother is practically hooked up to machines to birth the baby for her, and parent-child bonding is inhibited. He speaks on this at length, and, frankly, belabors the subject. I’m not sure I buy into all the hysteria about the artificiality and depersonalization of hospitals and modern medicine, but I do see the far-reaching risks of indiscriminately giving our bodies over to be completely regulated by machines. We also risk trusting life less, risk trusting our bodily defenses and self-healing less, and risk losing trust in the level of our pain-tolerance and in our sense of the meaning of pain. But I also see that we are subtly making a sacrifice of relationship—mutual reliance between human beings—for safety. We are entrusting, maybe selling, our souls to machines.

From childbirth he moves to the fears we all face as we try to raise a child in a hazardous world. Here we develop more rules and less freedom for kids to hurt themselves or screw something up. He cites the scare over Halloween candy that had cautious parents thinking that every piece of candy was laced with poison or concealed a razor blade. I was surprised to learn that this scare was blown WAY out of proportion in the 70’s, and two sociologists studying all reported cases of Halloween candy deaths dating back to 1958 found not a single incident of a death from trick-or-treating at strangers’ homes. But the fear of something bad happening greatly changed the way we thought of Halloween for decades.

This paranoia over our children’s safety encroaches upon our dreams for their success. Schools have become ‘factory learning’ centers that are over-scheduled, send home too much homework, and focus on an extrinsic reward system of adult approval (grades) rather than intrinsic motivation that takes into account each student’s unique interests and strengths. The author cracks schools and modern academia against the skull with words that ring like an aluminum baseball bat: “Classrooms are becoming places where kids spend their days like cloned sheep, grazing passively in a pasture of uniform right answers.” He believes our school system neither understands, nor do they care, for children. Children are herded through curriculum and grade levels and diplomas and degrees, and one find day find themselves at the end with a high approval ratings from adults, but no real life experience to share in the adult world. It is ‘arrested adulthood’, and people in their 30’s are finding themselves trapped in it because of the “maddening double message” that has been fed to them all their lives: “grow up fast, but you don’t have to grow up at all”.

So, what are Merc’s solutions?

1) Have your baby at home.

Again, I have the hardest time with the dogmatism of this one. I’m just not convinced that babies and mothers are as estranged, and their relationship as mechanized, as the author suggests. Doesn’t getting a midwife imply that one needs expert attention and assistance? Then why not a doctor with expert nurses all around? I understand the whole idea of avoiding ultra-insulation in medical practices, but I’m not sure I’m with him all the way here. Oh…and his wife is a midwife. Author’s bias anyone?

2) Read

Not just to your kids. Read for yourself. One day your kids will catch on to the areas in which their parents are unable to demonstrate a conviction, despite how much they pretend to want their kids to buy into it.

But yes, as we all know, we must also read to our kids. The author suggests we read a lot of fairy tales/myths in particular. Why? “Embedded in fairy tales…are rich, archetypal symbols and themes that enable children to integrate rather than suppress the turbulent dimensions of their personalities.” In other words, fairy tales and ancient myths are raw and gritty with earthy emotions and expressions of genuine desires that are often repressed by the social contract—Law. It would be wise to remember that Freud warned that the ego, Merc’s ‘inner wildness’, can only endure a certain amount of unsatisfied libido before it channels its energies into a neurosis. Rugged myth is indeed absent from our Sesame Streets and Little Einsteins on which ‘adventures’ are tame exploits into the alphabet or subtle lessons on safety and basic math. You can tell we don’t trust children…maybe we’re afraid they might possibly grow into US!!

3) Work to help children develop intrinsic motivation instead of mere extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation goes beyond ‘the carrot and the stick’, and keeps in mind that “the archenemy of intrinsic motivation is control.” To illustrate his point, Merc offers the contrast of encouraging a child and positively praising them by saying “You must have worked very hard to accomplish that”, versus dangling the flattery, “You must be really smart.” One turns the child’s focus towards their own sense of fulfillment from the task, while the latter turns the focus on how they stacked up against others who compete for their place of acceptance. The first is the child doing something for themselves, and the second for the approval of those around them. A healthy individual must at some point must steer away from dependence on the approval of others, to a more independent sort of fulfillment and morality if they are ever to progress towards an interdependent, collective good.

This intrinsic motivation is further developed by the theory of ‘autopoiesis’. Autopoiesis is the ability of living systems to continually maintain themselves and generate their own organization (theory posited by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela). Human beings are autopoietic (“self making”) in their learning process, and depend on internal structures and organization to adjust to the outside world as a result of contact with external information being processed by internal a priori categories. Thus education is about waking internal truth, bringing to maturity an autonomous being, and not merely the unilateral result of external programming. Immanual Kant said that with ‘the question’ of philosophical inquiry, “no object is obtained, but our being is transformed”. Our educational pursuits become as meaningless as their sought objects if the quest for understanding and expansion is “denatured into scientific objectivity”. And yet, this ‘data-gorging’ is mostly what we offer our kids by way of teaching. The abortive and increasingly un-compelling goal is a social label, a grade, being on the honor roll, having a high gpa, or getting into a prestigious university.

The author takes one final swing at shattering our dreams of a future in which formal academics save humanity: “95% of all learning occurs spontaneously, through play, fantasy, and experimentation—what I call ‘wild learning.’ Only the remaining 5 percent of our knowledge—in our lifetimes—is acquired through formal instruction, and of that 5 percent, we remember only 3-5 percent for any significant length of time.” Psychologist Jean Piaget affirmed this loudly when he wrote, “Teaching at its best requires creating situations where structures can be discovered; it does not mean transmitting structures…Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves.”

4) Give children margins for development.

This means kids need time to think. “Solitude and reflection are lost in the constant shuffle from place to place and from structured activity to structured activity.” Kid’s also need time for unstructured, unrestricted, creative play. They need to feel free to be themselves. Don’t smother them, and that also applies to not seeking their approval for everything you do as a parent. Dependency is parasitism, and that also applies to the co-dependency of needy parents. Too many parents are reining their children as alter-egos, turning them into their ‘status symbols’.

The author borrows from Paul MacLean’s model of the ‘triune brain’ to demonstrate how aggressively pushing kids to succeed can be every bit as harmful as over-protection. Our brains have evolved and have become more sophisticated over time, and their current structure reflects the order of that growth. The oldest and most fundamental of our brain structure is called the reptilian brain (“R-complex”) and is responsible for basic sensory information and the central nervous system. Next is the mammalian brain (“limbic system”) which surrounds the reptilian brain and is responsible for emotions and intuition. The final layer is the newest brain (“neo-cortex”) and it is the center of logic, memory, cognition and self-awareness. When a person feels insecure, a ‘downshifting’ occurs which defaults brain functioning to the primal R-complex, and abstract and nuanced intellection is sacrificed in a regress to basic survival instincts. “The learning kids are now expected to accomplish occurs mainly in the neocortex, and yet the neocortex is the first part of the brain to shut down when a child feels threatened [by lack of approval if they fail].”

5) Get out in nature.

This involves getting kids away from the passive experience of the television, away from the sugary comforts of couch potato-ism, and remembering that learning is not simply about ‘going to school’. Kids nowadays suffer from what Richard Louv called “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Playing beneath the unbounded ceiling of the sunny sky alone can teach us more than can be gleaned in the dark, low-ceilinged classrooms. The poet Walt Whitment stated it well when he swore, “I will never again mention love or death inside a house, And I swear I will never translate myself at all, only to him or her who privately stays with me in the open air…No shutter’d room or school can commune with me, but roughs and little children better than they.” Nature has a way of steeping us in truth, and waking the truth inside us; because nature is life, and life is eternal. It would behoove us to remember that a live tree gave its dead leaves for us to write our dead logic upon.

The conclusion: we have to trust our children’s inner wildness to some extent. Now, I would never believe that we can trust raw, earthy nature as much as the author says we can. To be sure, the author is clearly biased in favor of the basic goodness of people, and declares that “children are inherently civil” and “at their core are loving, responsible, and sociable beings.” He even claims that the kids in the Lord Of the Flies scenario would not be acting that way if they were from HIS school. What?? He can’t be serious. Anyone need only sit in the play area of Chic-fil-a for two minutes, their kids out of sight in the play tunnels, before some rougher kid charges rough-shod over the others while hitting and yelling epithets. In my experience, whenever kids are in control all hell breaks loose and someone gets hurt. Each wild bi-ped, even but a few years out of the womb, feverishly yearns to wreak havoc on the world. Let’s remember that ‘wild’ is not always a cute connotation, and Nature is…well…wild. For God’s sake, there’s a species of shark that eats their siblings in the womb!! In…the…friggin’…womb!!

To Merc’s credit, he does acknowledge that a parent must be ‘in control’ but not ‘controlling’, and that is some consolation I suppose, but in my opinion he trusts to the goodness of inner wildness far too idealistically. However—here’s another whiplash reversal—I love him for his idealism, and I think he demonstrates well the benefit of trusting a bit more to this inner wildness than we often do, especially in our regimented society and academics. I believe humanity’s most salutary position is somewhere in the middle on the gamut between beast and machine, instinct and intellect, wildness and culture. So yes, I think it’s high time someone sounds the alarm that our children are being systematically programmed and manufactured for intelligence and behavior that devalue their individuality and spiritual freedom. Merc is doing the right thing in asserting that kids are much more capable than we give them credit for. It’s time for us to stop raising them like livestock to to feed our egos and fend off our fear of being forgotton.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Before Adam by Jack London

This was an interesting glimpse into what life was like for primordial man. The story begins with a modern man who is having dreams and nightmares which are of a type so distressing and profound, that they are disabling to his waking life. In these dreams he is embodied in an early evolutive stage of humanity predating homo sapiens—basically a low-intelligence caveman—and through these dreams he relives an entire lifetime of intermittent images and experiences that he later puzzles together into a coherent narrative. These dreams turn out to be genetic or “racial” memories—snippets of real life that his progenitors experienced over 1 million years ago in the Mid-Pleistocene when hominids began to evolve into their current form but still coexisted with other contemporaneous hominid species.

London actually does a good job of establishing the possibility of genetic memories of bygone eras being transmitted to and through each of us as our biological heritage. It is in line with Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious, and is primarily how we define or describe what we know as instinct. London explains through the protagonist that one of the most familiar vestiges of this evolutive memory is the fear of heights, which is posited to be a leftover from our tree-dwelling ancestors. Why else would a newborn baby be sent into convulsions when it suddenly detects instability beneath it? London wiggles his finger into this hole and works it wide enough to accommodate the possibility of a person having concrete memories and dreams that conduct ungarbled sensory data from a past life to the present one. This, other than a strong imagination, could explain some people’s claim to reincarnation or what is referred to as ‘remote viewing’.

The main character describes his primitive experiences without allowing his modern viewpoint to internally vitiate, only retrospectively comment upon, the ancient perspective. His story follows the journeys of his ancestor Big Tooth, a hominid, from shortly after birth, wending through his entrances and exits of tree- and cave-dwelling communities, and finally culminating in his mating with Swift One. It was entertaining to witness the perpetually accidental discoveries which would advance a community or set them back, mostly without them ever realizing how much a small adjustment could have changed everything for better…or worse! It was accidental living at its best. Big Tooth and his friend Lop Ear accidentally discovered boating by falling into a river and catching onto a floating log. They accidentally discovered tools and language and music and even water storage…without remembering it from one minute to the next.

As you might imagine, the hominid community was no paradise. They were brutal towards each other, even towards their kin and friends. They had very short attention spans, laughed a lot, played a lot, tormented anything that moved, and were driven by desire for food and sex. And everything they did was colored by fear. In the collection of stories called “Love Of Life” London wrote, “Fear…lies twisted about life’s deepest roots.” This must have been one of London’s interests in writing this story, for it was the atavistic fear of falling from a height that London premised the tale upon.

I believe London uses this backdrop of prehistoric times to explore the nature of fear, survival, desire (‘hunger’), language (‘thought symbols’), self-awareness (self as ‘universe centers’), community, art, music, and science. Even the provenance of religion was alluded to in a passage about darkness: “We were afraid only of the dark…We knew only the real world, and the things we feared were the real things…the darkness was the time of the hunting animals…Possibly it was out of this fear of the real denizens of the dark that the fear of the unreal denizens was later to develop and to culminate in a whole and mighty unseen world.”

London has limned for us a picture of rudimentary humanity in a state of unreflective, sensual existence. Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of it feels contemporary. This is still the story of civilization—of all history—only stripped of the logic which we like to imagine can explain most of our actions. It is emotional humanity, which often seems to sum us up quite succinctly. The question London leaves unanswered is: have we as civilized men and women come as far as we like to think?


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick is a great author and illustrator. His previous book, The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, was amazing, and although this book seemed clearly inferior, it was a nice read nonetheless. His research is thorough, he puts a lot of thought and intentionality into his characters and the overall message, and he is a great illustrator.

Of course, I would be blind not to notice that the illustrations are a bit inconsistent, with the portraits of the main characters morphing a bit depending on whether or not they are large or small on the page. I’m also not sure that all the illustrations are exactly germane to the story (several pages are simply white circles in the midst of dark shading). Dare I suggest that this book, in form and content, was an ‘easy sequel’ based upon the platform of dedicated fans that resulted from his first book? Sadly, it came across that way several times throughout the book.

I took me only a couple of hours to finish the book, and I am not a superfast reader. As I mentioned, the pictures didn’t seem to be integral to the story, especially at first, and this in spite of the fact that one pivotal character ONLY developed with the pictures in the first half. I like when graphic art supplements the story, but Selznick seemed to quite arbitrarily elect to tell one part of the first half in words, and the other part of the first half in picture. Why? No reason that I can tell. Seemed like this artistic device was more a gimmick than an aid to the story. The second half was altogether different, and Selznick balanced word/picture much more discriminately.

Aside from the style, as far as the elements of the story, the first half of the book was not that great honestly. It felt too mundane and very much like youth fiction. I don’t mind youth fiction per se, but Selznick rose above the genre and appealed to youth and adult alike in Hugo. Wonder Struck began with a broken family and a clear case of a youth attempting to cope with his situation: no father, dead mother, living with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, and he is trying to make sense of the mystery his mother left behind by trying to conceal secrets about his true identity. It was dry mystery without the magic.

The second half was much more appealing as it created a better backdrop and started to tie together much of the dangling ends. I loved the museum adventures which lent to the nostalgic feel of historicity and mystery; and the surprise about the New York Panorama, though it seemed to come out of nowhere, was very educational. I loved how they walked out among the miniature buildings/landmarks and found pieces of Ben’s story hidden throughout. Another great metaphor of how our stories are woven throughout our landscapes, and we are at the heart of the sometimes seemingly impersonal, faceless development of society.

At the very outset, the author takes a stab at setting the tone of expectation for thoughtful readers with, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Such a beautiful line, and I’m sure it will stick with me for quite some time, but I don’t really feel like that theme played out fully throughout the book, even though the final scene was certainly a throwback to that idea. Selznick seemed to flick his storytelling brush across a variety of possible motifs, including how our lives are like valuable museums and treasure maps, the value of communication across the gulf of lost language, and even the title itself, “Wonder Struck” pointed to the miraculous nature of our existence. However, the theme that evolved most consistently was that the interconnectedness of all things in the world and our parallel journeys within it. It reminded me of the theme of Hugo: None of us are extra pieces. We all belong and are indispensible. We fit. Makes me wonder if, in one way or another, Selznick is a man of faith. He definitely sets forth bold and vibrant images for people of hope to hold onto.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I’ve always loved this story. I first read parts of it in High School. I remember learning that there was something philosophically significant about it, but I liked the grotesque imagery enough to bypass any search for deeper meaning. Now that I’m reading more of the existentialists, this story found its way on my reading list, and I’m glad it did. It is short, but extremely pregnant with meaning.

I was surprised to learn about how autobiographical the plot was. Franz Kafka was a Czech/German/Jew who suffered the alienation from all three groups because of his mixed heritage, especially in the pre-WWII world in which being a Jew had well-known challenges. Not only that, his family also experienced constant friction as his father was a wealth-obsessed tyrant in the home, and his mom, coming from a wealthy upbringing, was constantly dissatisfied with her husband’s failures to rise to the top of their socio-economic class. Kafka’s sister, however, provided Kafka with some comfort, and symbolized for him a place of stability and acceptance. These relationships and his feelings of loneliness, social frustration, and guilt are very clear in The Metamorphosis.

This story is a grueling depiction of the exile of humans by humans. This alienation, crippling to the will, is described by Kafka as being perpetrated, not simply by our enemies, but ultimately by our own community, and often by our own friends and family. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor is segregated from his family by his family, and the worst part to watch is the rationalization and desensitization that the family uses to slowly soothe themselves and finally forget about Gregor. The haunting conclusion is this: we quickly move on from loving one individual, to loving another. In the end, each of us are replaceable in each other’s psychology, and we all would be mortified to know how quickly we may be compensated for by those left behind.

I loved how ordinary the beginning of such an extraordinary tale was rendered. The protagonist was certainly shocked, but he immediately implemented coping mechanisms. He was somehow able to switch mindsets with lightening speed from a human being to a bug, quickly accepting his mutation and assuming that he was in a healthy state of mind. He repeatedly hoped to wake up, but didn’t ever really question his sanity, too quickly adapting to the new world. I suppose that could come in handy for survival scenarios, but if we all abandoned the old world so readily for unconfirmed, undeveloped space, then what would be our chances of ever thriving? Without some trust, and even a degree of commitment to something firm under our feet, we could never build into the clouds. Kafka apparently never was able to reconcile his fear of derelict and floating sense of reality with his longing for progress, not anchored to anything in the so-called absolute or logic. He became a victim to his paranoia of being lonely and drifting in the void of chaotic and dangling sense perceptions.

The entire story was disgusting, and was intended to be so. Kafka cunningly turns us against a person ensconced in a ‘sick’ body, and shows us so clearly how lightly bound we are to one another, barring an aversion of the senses by an uncomely situation. One of the parts of the story that revolted me most was the apple that was thrown by the father to become lodged and rotting in the skin of Gregor’s vermin body. Many critics agree that this is a symbol from Eden, but for me, an apple is a everyday symbol of health, innocence, and purity; and to see it become a projectile of hate and repulsion from one person to another, becoming an agent of inflammation and disease, was sickening. I have to applaud Kafka here for excellence in morbid imagery and piercing symbolism.

I could not believe the family could so easily exchange their sorrow over Gregor’s death for their joy at the prospects of their young, hale daughter. The ending of the story with the sun, and lightheartedness, and celebration was completely forgetful of Gregor’s death, and was evidently even deepened by the loss! Are we so fickle, and is our sorrow over losing a loved one so short-lived? How many of us would hesitate to squash a bug if we knew it was a loved one that could not be restored to our likeness? Are we so driven to a material valuation of each other? Does hunger and egoism really define the firm boundaries of our experience? Is our spirit/consciousness so paper-thin and diluted to nothing by the concerns of the body? Much of my experience seems to corroborate this; but the very fact that I recognize it and long to move beyond mere me—this is hope. And then, there are those stories that give us a glimpse of some kind of higher spiritual life and love.

This story is so meaty and would be awesome fodder for deep discussion about the nature of perspective in logic and relationships, and it could deepen our understanding of the easily confused motives of love and philanthropy. It’s a shame most people stop reading good books after high school or college. This is a great shortcut back to appreciating books that could lead to deeper intellectual activity, and possibly a transformed life. In a good way.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Courage To Be by Paul Tillich

I first started reading this book because I want answers to the existential angst that plagues me and others that are aware of the implications of post-modern ideas. I don’t mean to say that I wanted an alternative to post-modernism; I don’t believe that is any more realistic than saying that I want an alternative to turning 32, for that’s just wishful thinking. I’m not a post-modernist, for I am not merely a product of my culture, but I am influenced by my culture. If I’m being honest with myself, there is simply no escaping thinking in part like a post-modernist, for I am steeped in a post-modern era of thought and practice. It doesn’t help to revert to modernist ‘fact-finding’ when immersed in a society that is exploring the cognitive foundation of what we call objective reality—but people attempt this regressive tactic nonetheless because it’s a familiar place. But the past is dead and done; it is worn into a deep rut, and a new path must be found. We must confess, though disheartened, that facts don’t find nearly as much as they don’t find. Enter post-modernism.

Tillich starts by differentiating between fear and anxiety. Fear is a manifestation of universal, existential anxiety; and as a leaf and not a root, fear can be more directly dealt with than anxiety. The individual fears are embodiments that can be avoided, resisted, opposed and even eliminated—while the root of fear—anxiety—is really the ever-present awareness of non-being that constantly hovers. This anxiety cannot be removed, and is a necessary part of self-preservation (“self-affirmation”) which adds to one’s valuation of life. This principle of ineradicable anxiety is one of most difficult parts of this book to make peace with (didn’t I start reading to do exactly that…decrease anxiety?). But Tillich reveals that just as torture can be accepted at the hand of a trusted physician, so existential anxiety can be courageously endured because of a deeper realization that affirms one’s sense of purpose and identity. This truth is revealed in the last quarter of the book.

There are three basic forms of anxiety: anxiety about death (“non-being”—which ultimately subsumes the other two), anxiety about meaninglessness (an empty life), and condemnation (guilt about a wrong life). One can deal practically with fears, but anxiety (no matter which sort) must ultimately be accepted into one’s ultimate sense of self-worth and one’s right to BE (again, “self-affirmation). This is what the author refers to as ‘taking it [fears, doubts, anxiety] into oneself’. In spite of anxiety, one can still do what must be done, and can remain confident that God is still holding them. This is the confidence of Being—COURAGE—that gives one the strength to stare down non-being in its many forms.

This courage, however, does not always come easy, nor or is always immediately apparent when it does arrive. Courage can be partly obstructed by one’s lack of realization that confidence in one’s own being can take place only as an ancillary to the deeper confidence in what Tillich calls “being-itself”, viz. God. Pre-mature courage often evidences itself as ‘courage to be as a part’ [collectivism], or ‘courage to be as oneself’ [individualistic existentialism]; the former missing out on a belief in self, the later missing out on a belief in the world.

I can certainly say that I comprehend our existential predicament a bit more clearly after reading this book. Never have I read a work that so faithfully scrutinized our ontology as if it were under a microscope, but did not abandon the soul under the microscope to wriggle and die. In the words of the psychologist Carl Jung, our author has stood and stared into face of the monster of the maternal abyss, and has not been mesmerized by its power, but has overcome. This understanding of the source of our anxiety and fear can help bring a renewed determination to renew the fight, and to be hopeful and courageous even when all hope seems lost. It brings new meaning to the idea that while one is alive, there is still confidence to believe that one is ‘meant’ to be alive. In the words of Robert Browning, “This world’s no blot for us nor blank; it means intensely, and means good. And to find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

Why We Read What We Read by Adams/Heath

Overall, this was a very nice treatment of the latest trends in America’s choice of reading as evidenced by book sales. The authors were funny and insightful, and worked hard to interpret the patterns of book sales into a portrait of the modern zeitgeist. It started out great, but became predictable and belabored in parts. Too much time was spent critiquing some books, the choice of which selection to apply a lengthy critique often seemed arbitrary (based on the authors interest and not exclusively on sales), and some books that I was really interested in learning more about were barely mentioned. I realize they had to lean on their discretion to keep the book brief enough to be readable, but it just felt imbalanced in parts. Much of it was synopses of books everyone has already read or heard about, or, in my case, books I’d never want to read. For instance, I’m not all that interested in reading John Gray’s Men Are From Mars…, much less Adams and Heath’s 20 page synopses/critique of it. Whoa. I’d pay not to read either.

They finally brought it back to the real objective of the work near the end, but it took some disciplined skimming to get me there. The findings were fairly obvious: we read to pass time, we read to ‘effortlessly confirm our own convictions’ (Jung), we read for easy secrets, and we read to vicariously experience adventure without the associated risks. I suppose I was attracted to the title because I was hoping for more insight into these principles, and not merely a run-down of sales receipts.

I did find the chapter “Soul Train” to be an interesting case-study of the direction that works on the subject of faith/spirituality are taking and how the world perceives their success or failure. On the whole, even with Rick Warren’s Purpose and Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer, much of the evangelical output is the old ideas repackaged with the ubiquitous ‘go to church’ ingredient. Adams and Heath write that however sincere these Christian authors may very well be, it will always be a challenge to hear the whispers of truth from out the mounds of gold these writers are amassing. No one can argue that Adams and Heath have done their homework here. I mean, why, just why, would any critic, in his or her right mind read all of the Left Behind series (12 books!!) just to moan about it multiple times and offer the same conclusion as with many other works by the fundamentalist Christian movement? The authors’ verdict: people who can think the sovereign God plans these horrors and still loves us are “succumbing to a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome” by never questioning their torturer. All of the survivors of God’s wrath seem to agree, “Man, I’m glad I’m going to Heaven, but why does God have to be such a nasty prick sometimes?” Brilliant…but it took Adams/Heath 12 books to figure that out?

There are some nifty lists in the back that provide an overview of bestselling books from 1993-2006, but that might be a reason why some may not read the book: it’s outdated by about 5 years. I knew it was fairly outdated when I bought it from a used book sale, but I was hoping to learn something from it nonetheless. Which I did.

So what were Adams/Heath’s final words of advice? Read things that may not be comfortable or familiar, and…read more tragedy. Tragedy doesn’t offer easy, platitudinal solutions that we’ve tried over and over again with the same results. Trends in reading suggest that readers want “simple, univocal reinforcements of hunches, rather than complex, challenging efforts to search for real answers.” Tragedy offers dilemmas in which we are psychologically ‘sucked in’ to searching for a subtly elusive answer, and this struggle stays with us long after reading a book without a satisfactory ending. Their finding is that “the most disturbing stories—whether books or films—stay with us the longest and push us to consider and reconsider the most.” The Road, Martin Eden, and Lord Of the Flies come to mind as great examples.

And a very helpful word of warning from Adams/Heath: be careful not to substitute reading for living, as so many do. Reading engages the brain AND the emotions, and can simulate the effects of adventures lived, but from the comfort and safety of the couch. The semblance of personal growth and change one feels as an after-effect to reading is almost powerful enough to offer the illusion you have lived through experiences that you have only heard about, and the counterfeit risks and sensations of suspense, exhilaration, romance or bravura may actually ward off those risks and opportunities for growth and expansion that reality has to offer. If we read more than we act, we face the very real hazard of “finding solace not in change itself, but in the comforting if short-lived experience of reading about it.”

Reader beware.