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!