Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

 A fantastic book by an author I have never read before. I was trying to find authors similar to J.M. Coetzee and Andre Brink showed up. The book is set in apartheid Africa and describes the injustice of the times.

In that silence, behind the events of the afternoon and the uncommitted light of the sun, lay the memory of Gordon, small and maimed in his coffin in the cool bare room, his grey claws folded on his narrow chest. The rest seemed interchangeable, transferable, unessential: but that remained. And, with it, the aching awareness of something stirred into sluggish but ineluctable motion.

From a very early age one accepts, or believes or it told, that certain things exist in a certain manner. For example: that society is based on order, on reason, on justice. And that, whenever anything goes wrong, one can appeal to an innate decency, or commonsense, or a notion of legality in people to rectify the error and offer redress. Then, without warning you discover that what you accepted as premises and basic conditions - what you had no choice to accept if you wanted to survive at all - simply does not exist. Where you expected something solid there turns out to be just nothing.

Everything one used to take for granted, with so much certainty that one never bothered to enquire about it, now turns out to be an illusion. Your certainties are proven lies. And what happens if you start probing? Must you learn a wholly new language first?

It has begun. A pure, elemental motion: something happened - I reacted - something opposed me. A vast, clumsy, shapeless thing has stirred. Is that the reason of my dazed state? Let's try to be reasonable, objective: am I not totally helpless, in fact irrelevant, in a movement so vast and intricate? Isn't the mere thought of an individual trying to intervene preposterous?

But who are "my people" today? To whom do I owe my loyalty? There must someone, something. Or is one totally alone on that bare veld beside the name of a non-existent station?

What happened before that drought has never been particularly vivid or significant to me: that was where I first discovered myself and the world. And it seems to me I'm finding myself on the edge of yet another dry white season, perhaps worse than the one I knew as a child.

Eras like those of Pericles or the Medici lay in the fact that a whole society, in fact a whole civilization, seemed to be moving in the same gear and in the same direction. In such an era there is almost no need to make your own decisions: your society does it for you and you find yourself in complete harmony with it. On the other hand there are times like ours, when history hasn't settled on a firm new course yet. then every man is on his own. Each has to find his own definitions, and each man's freedom threatens that of all the others. What is the result? Terrorism. And I'm not referring only to the actions of the trained terrorist but also those of an organized state whose institutions endanger one's essential humanity.

There are only two kinds of madness one should guard against. One is the belief that we can do everything. The other is the belief that we can do nothing.

When one person unexpectedly finds himself on the edge of another - don't you think that's the most dangerous thing that could happen to anyone?

On the other hand: what can I do but what I have done? I cannot choose not to intervene: that would be a denial and a mockery not only of everything I believe in, but of the hope that compassion may survive among men.

At the very most we are like two strangers meeting in the white wintry veld and sitting down together for a while to smoke a pipe before proceeding on their separate ways.

In the beginning there is turmoil. Then it subsides, leaving a silence: but it is a silence of confusion and incomprehension, not true stillness but an inability to hear properly, a turbulent silence.

The disturbing truth is that even as I prepare to finish it off I know that he will ot let go of me again. I cannot grasp him: neither can I rid myself of him. There is no absolution from the guilt of having tried. I am left with a sense of hopelessness. In my efforts to do justice to him, I may have achieved the opposite. We belong to different dimensions: one man lived, another wrote; one looked forward, the other back; he was there, and I am here. Perhaps all one can really hope for, all I am entitled to, is no more than this to write it down. To report what I know. So that it will not be possible for any man ever to say again:
I knew nothing about it.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

This amazing book by an author I regret never having read before, has a similar feel to Orhan Pamuk's books. The struggle with faith, of believing but not knowing whether belief lead to anything. Set in Poland in the seventeenth century at a time when war and massacres were routine, the book is a beautiful story about a man who becomes a slave but even after achieving freedom, realizes he can never be free again. He continues to believe but his belief is shaken by all that he sees around him.

Ceaselessly he prayed for death; he had even contemplated self-destruction. But now that mood had passed, and he had become inured to living among strangers, distant from his home, doing hard labour. It was difficult to believe in God's mercy when murderers buried children alive.

In Jacob's case the normal order of things had been reversed. It was God who spoke in simplest language while evil overflowed with learned quotations. How long did one live in this world? How long was one young? Was it worth while to destroy this existence and the one that would follow for a few moments of pleasure?

Yesterday everything had been bright; now it was gray. Distances had shrunk; the skies had collapsed like the canvas of a tent; the tangible had lost substance. If so much could vanish from the physical eye, how much more could elude the spirit.

The explanation he had given that free will could not exist without evil nor mercy without sorrow now sounded too pat, indeed almost blasphemous. Did the Creator require the assistance of Cossacks to reveal his nature? Was this a sufficient cause to bury infants alive? Even if these souls rose to the most splendid mansion and were given the finest rewards, would that cancel out the agony and horror? Through forgetfulness, he had also been guilty of murder.

But Jacob had no peace. Everywhere he heard people asserting things that their eyes denied. Piety was the cloak for envy and avarice. They had learned nothing from their ordeal; rather suffering had pushed them lower.

But he realized with astonishment, what was so new for him was stale for everyone else. As for the Almighty, He maintained his usual silence. Jacob saw that must follow God's example, seal his lips, and forget the fool within, with his fruitless questions.

As a boy he pitied the watchman in the cemetery whose life had been passed near the cleansing house, but now the whole of Poland had become one vast cemetery. The people around him accommodated themselves to this, but he found it impossible to come to terms with. The best he could do was stop thinking and desiring. He was determined to question no longer. How could one conceivably justify the torments of another?

One day seated alone in the study house, Jacob said to God, "I have no doubt that you are the Almighty and that whatever you do is for the best, but it is impossible for me to obey the commandment, Thou Shalt Love Thy God. No, I cannot, Father, not in this life."

Yes, the day Jacob had left Josefov for the village where he had been a slave for five years, he had picked up a burden which became heavier with the passage of time. His years of enforced slavery had been succeeded by a slavery that would last as long as he lived.

Jacob's body died, but he was already so busy greeting those who had come back to meet him that he did not look back. His dark cabin with his rags and refuse was left behind on the ship. The voyagers would clean it out, those who must still continue to journey on the stormy seas. He, Jacob, had arrived.

Monday, December 9, 2013

In the heart of the country by J.M. Coetzee

This book seems a bit similar to "The life and times of Michael K" as it looks at a human isolated and how in that isolation, connection to the land, with the natives and even with the concept of God take a very different meaning. Like all of Coetzee's works, a fantastic read.

All my life I have been left lying about, forgotten, dusty, like an old shoe, or when I have been used, used as a tool, to bring the house to order, to regiment the servants. But I have quite another sense of myself, glimmering tentatively somewhere in my inner darkness: myself as a sheath, as a matrix, as protectrix of a vacant inner space.

I must not fall asleep in the middle of my life. Out of the blackness that surrounds me I must pluck the incident after incident after incident whose little explosions keep me going. For the other kind of story, the weave of reminiscence in the dozing space of the mind, can never be mine. My life is not past, my art cannot be the art of memory.

My learning has the reek of print, not the resonance of the full human voice telling its stories. But perhaps our teacher was not a good teacher, perhaps she slumped sullen at her table tapping the cane in the palm of her hand, brooding over insults, dreaming of escape, while her pupils picked their way through reading books and one could hear a pin drop.

And then, in the bloom of her tentative young motherhood, the woman must have died trying to give birth to a third child, died as she feared she would, afraid to deny the man his detested relentless pleasure in her, her death a hideous storm of terror, with the midwife wringing her hands about the room and recommending ipecacuanha as a last resort.

So what actually creates the sense of emptiness that we quite often feel? The fact that at no point of time were you ever the centre of another human's life? Or the lack of cherished memories while you grow up? Or a disconnect with your immediate family?

It takes generations of life in the cities to drive that nostalgia for country ways from my heart. I will never live it down, nor do I want to. I am corrupted to the the bone with the beauty of this forsaken world. If the truth be told, I never wanted to fly away with the sky-gods. My hope was always that they would descend and live with me here in paradise, making up with their ambrosial breath for all that I lost when the ghostly brown figures of the brown people I knew crept away from me in the night. I have never felt myself to be another man's creature, I have uttered my life in my own voice throughout, I have chosen at every moment my own destiny, which is to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates, near my father's bones, in a space echoing with hymns I could have written but did not because it was too easy.

The beauty of the world we live in takes my breath away. Similarly, one reads, the scales fall of the eyes of condemned men as they walk to the gallows or the block, and in a moment of great purity, keening with regret they must die, they yet give thanks for having lived.

This, after all, is how people smell in the country who have laboured honestly, sweating under the hot sun, cooking the food they have tilled or killed over fire they have made with their own hands. Perhaps, I tell myself, I too will smell like them if I change my ways.

Life in the desert teaches nothing if not that all things are permissible. Where this house stands in the desert there is a turbulence, a vortex, a black hole that I live in but abhor. Between four walls my rage is baffled. Reflected from planes of plaster and tile and board and wallpaper, my outpourings rain back on me, stick to me, seep back through my skin.

The love of the country, the land that nourishes us and without which none of us could live. As a city dweller all my life, I never could understand this but would like to. But then again, this life comes as a price - the isolation that creates a void and threatens to suck you into it. Would you still wish to live that life?

I cannot see a necessity behind what we are doing, any of us. We are no more than whim, one whim after another. Why can we not accept that our lives are vacant, as vacant as the desert we live in, and spend them counting sheep or washing cups with blithe hearts? I do not see why the stories of our lives have to be interesting.

I am not one of the heroes of desire, what I want is not infinite or unattainable, all I ask myself, faintly, dubiously, querulously, is whether there is not something to do with desire other than striving to possess the desired in a project which must be vain, since its end can only be the annihilation of the desired. Yet at the same time I know that nothing will fill me, because it is the first condition of life forever to desire, otherwise life would cease. It is the principle of life forever to be unfulfilled. Fulfilment does not fulfil. Only stones desire nothing. And who knows, perhaps in stones there are holes we have never discovered.

That is the origin of our feeling of solitude. I for one do not wish to be at the centre of the world, I wish only to be at home in the world as the merest beast is at home. Much, much less than all would satisfy me: to begin with, a life unmediated by words: these stones, these bushes, this sky experiences and known without question; and a quiet return to the dust. Are not all these dicta from above blind to the source of our disease, which is that we have no one to speak with, that our desires stream out of us chaotically, without aim, without response, like our words, whoever we may be, perhaps I should speak only for myself?

An extremely interesting contrast. Should you just keep living a mundane life without the desire to be ever remembered by your actions? Or is that never ending desire that at the same time threatens to leave you chasing hopes forever makes you human?

It is in order that we shall not fall victim to the assassin, that we consent to die if we ourselves turn assassin. Every man born in slavery is born for slavery. The slave loses everything in his chains, even the desire to escape from them. God loves no one, and hates no one, for God is free from passions and feels no pleasure or pain. Therefore one who loves God cannot endeavour that God should love him return; for, in desiring this, he would desire that God should not be God. God is hidden, and every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden is not true.

Desire is a question that has no answer. The feeling of solitude is a longing for a place. That place is the centre of the world, the navel of the universe. Less than all cannot satisfy man. Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained. When God accomplishes what he wishes through the wicked what he has decreed in his secret counsels, the wicked are thereby not excusable. Those whom God leaves out of his election he is also reproving, and for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them.

An interesting bit about God from Coetzee.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Plague by Albert Camus

An absolute masterpiece that I read in close succession to another masterpiece "The Stranger". Hard to understand how this genius could create stories like this.

But the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town, and throwing them, day after day, on the illusive solace of their memories. For in their aimless walks they kept on coming back to the same streets and usually, owing to the smallness of the town, these were streets in which, in happier days, they had walked with those who now were absent.

It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile, that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.

In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon the idea anyhow, as soon as could be, once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it.

At such moments the collapse of their courage, willpower, and endurance was so abrupt that they felt they could never drag themselves out of the pit of despond into which they had fallen. Therefore they forced themselves never to think about the problematic day of escape, to cease looking to the future, and always to keep, so to speak, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet.

Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.

Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savour only of regret. For they would have wished to add to it all that they regretted having left undone, while they might yet have done it, with the man or woman whose return they now awaited; just as in all the activities, even the relatively happy ones, of their life as prisoners they kept vainly trying to include the absent one.

The book captures the feeling of imprisonment after the quarantine being imposed on the city. The concept of time standing still with life continuing as usual in the world outside the city by coming to a standstill for those trapped inside it. Even without plague, this feeling of being trapped is something all of us feel at some point. Just that the plague forced a feeling of finality with death standing just around the corner.

According to religion, the first half of a man's life is an upgrade; the second goes downhill. On the descending days he has no claim, they may be snatched from him at any moment; thus he can do nothing with them and the best thing, precisely, is to do nothing with them. He obviously had no compunction about contradicting himself, for a few minutes later he told Tarrou that God did not exist, since otherwise there would be no need for priests.

"After all it's something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence."

How do you perceive God at a time like this? For an agnostic, it is just further proof that religion and faith serve no purpose. How does a believer feel? Would you examine a reason why this was inflicted upon you or a remedy that might solve it? Or as in some parts of the book, consider it to be a penance for your sins? Who would win at a time like this?

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.

In my opinion the most power statement in the book. And so incredibly true. Almost like friendly fire – the one who shot you might be your own comrade and had no intention of doing so. But how does it matter who shot you if you have been shot?

Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.

For, characteristically, the sound that rose toward the terraces still bathed in the last glow of daylight, now that the noises of vehicles and motors, the sole voice of cities in ordinary times, had ceased, was but one vast rumor of low voices and incessant footfalls, the drumming of innumerable soles timed to the eerie whistling of the plague in the sultry air above, the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted love from all our hearts.

"You haven't a heart!" a woman told him on one occasion. She was wrong; he had one. It saw him through his twenty-hour day, when he hourly watched men dying who were meant to live. It enabled him to start anew each morning. He had just enough heart for that, as things were now. How could that heart have sufficed for saving life?

Yes, Rieux, it's a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it's still more wearying to refuse to be it. That's why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death.

And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one's work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Reading "Kafka on the Shore" by Murakami was probably not as much of an impact as Norwegian Wood. But for some reason, the passages seemed to strike so very close. Far too close to add my comments to the passages.

Sometimes, fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing direction. You change direction, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step. There's no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That's the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.

And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You'll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.

Where does your responsibility begin here? Wiping away the nebula from your sight, you struggle to find where you really are. You're trying to find the direction of the flow, struggling to hold on to the axis of time. But you can't locate the borderline between dream and reality. Or even the boundary between what's real and what's possible. All you're sure of is that you are in a delicate position. Delicate - and dangerous. You're pulled along, a part of it, unable to pin down the principles of prophecy, or or logic. Like when a river overflows, washing over a town, all road signs have sunk beneath the waves. All you can see are the anonymous roofs of the sunken houses.

Time weighs down on you like an old ambiguous dream. You keep on moving, trying to slip through it. But even if you go to the ends of the world, you won't be able to escape it. Still you have to go there - to the edge of the world. There's something you can't do unless you get there.

I'm free, I think. I shut my eyes and think hard and deep about how free I am, but I can't really understand what it means. All I know is I am totally alone. All alone in an unfamiliar place, like some solitary explorer who's lost his compass and his map. Is that what it means to be free? I don't know, and I give up thinking about it.

So I want you to be careful. The people who build high, strong fences are the ones who survive the best. You deny that reality only at the risk of being driven into the wilderness yourself.

You don't want to be at the mercy of things outside you anymore, or thrown into confusion by things you can' t control. If there's a curse in all this, you mean to grab it by the horns and fulfill the program that's been laid out for you. Lift the burden from your shoulders and live - not caught up in someone else's schemes, but as you. That's what you want.

As long as I was alive, I was something. That was just how it was. But somewhere along the line it all changed. Living turned me into nothing. Weird ... People are born to live, right? But the longer I've lived, the more I've lost what's inside me - and ended up empty. And I bet the longer I live, the emptier, the more worthless, I'll become. Life isn't supposed to turn out like this. Isn't it possible to shift direction, to change where I'm headed?

What Chekhov was getting at was this: necessity is an independent concept. It has a different structure from logic, morals, or meaning. Its function lies entirely in the role it plays. What doesn't play a role shouldn't exist. What necessity requires does need to exist. That's what you call dramaturgy. Logic, morals, or meaning don't have anything to do with it. It's all a question of relationality.

A long time ago I abandoned someone I shouldn't have. Someone I loved more than anything else. I was afraid someday I'd lose this person. So I had to let go myself. If he was going to be stolen away from me, or I was going to lose him by accident, I decided it was better to discard him myself. Of course I felt anger that didn't fade, that was part of it. But the whole thing was a huge mistake. It was someone I should never have abandoned.

You're afraid of imagination. And even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the responsibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep, and dreams are a part of sleep. When you're awake you can suppress imagination. But you can't suppress dreams.

Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That's part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads - at least that's where I imagine it - there's a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you'll live for ever in your own private library.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Nothing to be frightened of" by Julian Barnes

An absolute masterpiece by Julian Barnes. This is the first novel written by him that I have read. The book is about death and the way he begins to think about it after his parents pass away. He examines his belief in God and how and why people believe in God. Some of the paragraphs are simply explosive. I had to stop myself from quoting the entire book for fear of plagiarism.

This was a typical statement from my mother: lucid, opinionated, explicitly impatient of opposing views. Her dominance of the family, and her certainties of the world, made things usefully clear in childhood, restrictive in adolescence, and grindingly repetitive in adulthood.

It was one of those moments when your parents surprise you - not because you've learnt something new about them, but because you've discovered a further area of ignorance. Was my father merely being polite? Did he think that if he simply plonked himself down he would be taken for a Shelleyan atheist? I have no idea.

He died a modern death, in hospital, without his family, attended in his final minutes by a nurse, months - indeed, years - after medical science had prolonged his life to a point where the terms on which it were being offered were unimpressive.

I had always imagined that his would be the harder death, because I had loved him the more, whereas at best I could only be irritatingly fond of my mother. But it worked the other way around: what I had expected to be the lesser death proved more complicated, more hazardous. His death was just his death; her death was their death. And the subsequent house-clearing turned into an exhumation of what we had been as a family - not that we really were one after the first thirteen or fourteen years of my life.

And so, instead of leaving the final remnants of my parents' lives confidentially bagged. I poured the house-clearer's rejects into the skip and kept the sacks. (Is this what my mother would have wanted?) I looked at the spread of stuff below me and, though there was nothing incriminating or even indiscreet, felt slightly cheap: as if I had buried my parents in a paper bag than a proper coffin.

My mother told me that Grandpa had once told her that the worst emotion in life was remorse. What, I asked, might he be referring to? She said she had no idea, as her father had been a man of utmost probity. And so the remark - a most untypical one for my grandfather - hangs there unanswerably in time. I suffer from little remorse, though it may be on its way, and in the meantime am making do with its close chums: regret, guilt, memory of failure. But I do have a growing curiosity about the unled, the now unleadable live, and perhaps remorse is currently hiding in their shadow.

No words to describe the effect the above passages had on me as I think about my own family. "And the subsequent house-clearing turned into an exhumation of what we had been as a family - not that we really were one after the first thirteen or fourteen years of my life." and "I suffer from little remorse, though it may be on its way, and in the meantime am making do with its close chums: regret, guilt, memory of failure." - so painfully close!

If I called myself and atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first-century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1959, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgment. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that out knowledge is so final?

So I had no faith to lose, only a resistance, which felt more heroic than it was, to the mild regime of God-referring that an English education entailed: scripture lessons, morning prayers and hymns, the annual Thanksgiving service in St. Paul's Cathedral. And that was it, apart from the role of Second Shepherd in a nativity play at my secondary school. I was never baptised, never went to Sunday school. I have never been to a normal Church service in my life. I do baptisms, weddings, funerals. I am constantly going into Churches, but for architectural reasons,; and more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.

No doubt; but the Christian religion didn't last so long merely because everyone else believed it, because it was imposed by ruler and priesthood, because it was a means of social control, because it was the only story in town, and because if you didn't believe it - or disbelieved it too vociferously - you might have a quickly truncated life. It lasted also because it was a beautiful lie, because the characters, the plot, the various coups de theatre, the overarching struggle between Good and Evil, made up a great novel.

One of the reasons I liked Orhan Pamuk and Haruki Murakami was because of their examination of belief - the need for God, the reasons why conventional religion exists. But this book dealt with religion in a huge way. Would you believe in God as you were about to die or at least dilute your insistence that he didn't exist? Was it just a doubt that grows or was it the fear of death and what lay beyond it? Or did you believe in God just to be a part of a group?

Memory in childhood - at least, as I remember it - is rarely a problem. Not just because of the briefer time span between the event and its evocation, but because of the nature of memories then: they appear to the brain as exact simulacra, rather than processed and coloured-in versions, of what has happened. Adulthood brings approximation, fluidity and doubt; and we keep the doubt at bay by retelling that familiar story, with pauses and periods of a calculated effect, pretending that the solidity of narrative is the proof of truth. But the child or adolescent rarely doubts the veracity and precision of the bright, lucid chunks of the past it possesses and celebrates. So at that age it seems logical to think that our memories as stored in some left-luggage office, available for retrieval when we produce the necessary ticket; or, as goods left in one of those arterial roads. We know to expect the seeming paradox of old age, when we start to recall the lost segments of our early years, which then become more vivid than our middle ones. But this only seems to confirm that it's all really nice up there, in some orderly cerebral storage unit, whether we can access it or not.

"Mr Barnes, we've examined your condition, and we conclude that your fear of death is intimately connected to your literary habits, which are, as for many in your profession, merely a trivial response to mortality. You make up stories so that your name, and some indefinable percentage of your individuality, will continue after your physical death, and the anticipation of this brings you some kind of consolation. And although you have intellectually grasped that you may be forgotten before you die, or if not, shortly afterwards, and that all writers will eventually be forgotten, as will the entire human race, even so it seems to you worth doing. Whether writing is a visceral response to the rational, or a rational response to the visceral, we cannot be sure."

There are some who believe that childhood was the best time of their lives and there are those who believe it is the worst. It has something to do with not having to worry about anything serious but honestly the things that seem ridiculous now were deadly serious then. So does it have anything to do with the vividness with which a memory is preserved but the helplessness at not being able to do anything about it?

You come into the world, look around, make deductions, free yourself from the old bullshit, learn, think, observe, conclude. You believe in your own powers and autonomy; you become your own achievement. So over the decades, my fear of death has become an essential part of me, and I would attribute it to the exercise of imagination; while my brother's detachment in death's face is an essential part of him, which he probably attributes to the exercise of rational thought. Yet perhaps I am this way only because of our father, he that way because of our mother. Thanks for the gene, Dad.

Our history has seen the gradual if bumpy rise of individualism: from the animal herd, from the slave society, from the mass of uneducated units bossed by priest and king, to looser groups in which the individual has greater rights and freedoms - the right to pursue happiness, private thought, self-fulfillment, self-indulgence. At the same time, as we throw off the rules of priest and king, as science helps us understand the truer terms and conditions on which we live, as our individualism expresses itself in grosser and more selfish ways, we discover that this individuality, is less than we imagined.

`The wake-up call to mortality' sounds a bit like a hotel service. In some ways, this bad translation of du Bos's phrase is the good one: it is like being in an unfamiliar hotel room, where the alarm clock has been left on the previous occupant's setting, and at some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.

Religion tends to authoritarianism as capitalism tends to monopoly. And if you think popes seem a sitting - or enthroned - target, consider someone as unpopish as one of their notorious enemies: Robespierre. The Incorruptible One first came to national prominence in 1789 with an attack on the luxury and worldliness of the Catholic Church. In a speech to the Estates General, he urged the priesthood to reacquaint itself with the austerity and virtue of early Christendom by the obvious means of selling all its property and distributing the proceeds to the poor. The Revolution, he implied, would be happy to help if the Church proved reluctant.
In a grand phrase, he declared that `atheism is aristocratic'; whereas the concept of a Supreme Being who watches over human innocence and virtue - and presumably, smiles as unvirtuous heads are lopped - was democratic through and through'. Robespierre even quoted (seriously) Voltaire's (ironic) dictum that `If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.' From all this, you might imagine that when the Revolution introduced an up-to-date belief system, it might avoid the extremism of the one it replaced; might be rational, pragmatic, even liberal. But what did the invention of a shiny new Supreme Being lead to? At the start of the Revolution, Robespierre presided over the slaughter of priests; by its end, he was presiding over the slaughter of atheists.

Learning your way through life, through the way you fall. What a way to learn! But would it necessarily be a better way to learn that have it hammered into you? We think so, maybe assume so. Or in the end are those beliefs we claim to learn only replace those ridiculous ones that we were conveniently spoon fed?

For all his practical wisdom and knowledge of the world - and for all his fame and money - Maugham failed to hold onto the spirit of humorous resignation. His old age contained little serenity: all was vindictiveness, monkey glands, and hostile will-making. His body was kept going in vigour and lust while his heart grew harder and his mind began to slip; he declined into an empty rich man. Had he wished to write a codicil to his own wintry, unwarming advice, it might have been: the additional tragedy of life is that we do not perish at the right time.

Yes, remaining in character: this is what we hope for, this is what we cling to, as we look ahead to everything collapsing. So - and this has been a long way round to an answer - I doubt that when my time comes I shall look for the theoretical comfort of an illusion farewelling an illusion, a chance bundle unbundling itself. I shall want to remain in what I shall obstinately think of as my character.

And there is something infinitely touching when an artist, in old age, takes on simplicity. The artist is saying: display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of the ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. For the religious, this might be becoming the child again in order to enter heaven; for the artist, it means becoming wise enough, and calm enough, not to hide.

Those proud lines of Gautier I was once so attached to - everything passes except art in its robustness; kings die, but sovereign poetry lasts longer than bronze - now reads as adolescent consolation. Tastes change; truths become cliches; whole art forms disappear. Even the greatest art's triumph over death is risibly temporary. A novelist might hope for another generation of readers - two or three if lucky - which may feel like a scorning of death; but it's really just scratching on the wall of the condemned cell. We do it to say: I was here too.

A fine ending to a fine story. Who would not want that? But somehow everyone wants to cling on, we refuse to let go. We know we should, but in the end does everyone think rationally?

I also realize that this God I am missing, this inspirer of artworks, will seem to some just as much  an irrelevant self-indulgence as the much-claimed `own personal idea of God' I was deriding a while ago. Further, if any God did exist, He might very well find such decorative celebration of His existence both trivial and vainglorious, a matter for divine indifference if not retribution. He might think Fra Angelico cutesy, and Gothic cathedrals blustering attempts to impress Him by a creation which had quite failed to guess how He preferred to be worshiped.

We live broadly according to the tenets of a religion we no longer believe in. We live as if we are creatures of a free will when philosophers and evolutionary biologists tell us this is largely a fiction. We live as if the memory were a well-built and efficiently staffed left-luggage office. We live as if the soul - or spirit, or individuality, or personality - were an identifiable and locatable entity rather than a story the brain tells itself. We live as if nature and nurture were equal parents when evidence suggests that nature has both the whip hand and the whip.

Maybe another part of my condition is envy for of those who lost faith - or gained truth - when losing faith was fresh and young and bold and dangerous. Francois Renard, suicide and anti-clerical, was the first person to be buried in the cemetery at Chitry without the aid and comfort of a priest. Imagine the shock of that in the remote Burgundy countryside in 1897; imagine the pride of unbelief.

Again the question - if there was a God, how would He feel about all the religions that existed? About the rituals (or lack of), of the architectures we dedicate to Him?

Whatever religions may claim, we are set up - genetically programmed - to operate as social beings. Altruism is evolutionary useful; so whether or not there is a preacher with a promise or a threat of hellfire, individuals living in society generally act in much the same way. Religion no more makes people behave better than it makes them behave worse - which might be a disappointment to the aristocratic atheist as much to the believer.

Common sense raises utility into factitious but practical truth. Common sense tells us we are individuals with (usually integrated) personalities, and those around are as well. It is going to take a while before we start thinking of our parents, say, as bundles of genetic material lacking any `self-stuff', rather than the dramatic or comic (or cruel or tedious) characters, all too riddled with self-stuff, in the narratives we turn our lives into.

This is what, amateurs of our own existence, we believe in, don't we? That the child is father, or mother, to the man, or woman; that slowly but inevitably we become ourselves, and this self will have an outline, a clarity, an identifiability, an integrity. Through life we construct and achieve a unique character, one in which we hope to be allowed to die.

Memory is identity. I have believed this since - oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

So here's another would-you-rather. Would rather die in the pain of being wrenched away from those you have long loved, or would you rather die when your emotional life has run its course, when you gaze out at the world with indifference, both towards others and towards yourself?

It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity, will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. This is what growing up means. And it is a frightening prospect for a race which has so long relied upon its own invented gods for explanation and consolation.

So if, as we approach death and look back on our lives and `we understand our narrative' and stamp a final meaning on it, I suspect we are doing little more than confabulating: processing strange, incomprehensible, contradictory input into some kind, any kind of believable story - but believable mainly to ourselves. I would expect a dying person to be an unreliable narrator, because what is useful to us generally conflicts with what is true, and what is useful at that time is a sense of having lived to some purpose, and according to some comprehensible plot.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

What a masterpiece by Saul Bellow. Reminds me of the profound impact Dean's December had on me. This book examines many of the aspects of modern life - relationships, identity. And brought out by narrating the life of a man dying of a terminal illness by one of his closest friends.

But luckily - or perhaps not too luckily - this is cornucopia-time, an era of abundance in all civilized nations. Never, on the material side, have huge populations been better protected from hunger and sickness. And this partial release from the struggle for survival makes people naive. By this I mean their wishful fantasies are unchecked. You begin, in accordance with an unformulated agreement, to accept the terms invariably falsified, on which others present themselves.

There is a parallel between inner-city phenomena and the mental disarray of the U.S., the winner of the Cold War, the only superpower remaining. That's one way of boiling it down. He took you from an antiquity to the Enlightenment, and then - by way of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau onward to Nietzsche, Heidegger - to the present moment, to corporate, high-tech America, its culture and its entertainments, its press, its educational system, its think tanks, its politics. He gave you a picture of this mass democracy and its characteristic - woeful - human product.

France, alas, was no longer the center of judgment, enlightenment. It no longer attracted the world's great intellects and the rest of the cultural schtuss. The French had had it. De Gaulle the human giraffe sniffing down his nostrils. Churchill saying about him that England's offense had been to help La France. The lofty military creature gazing on the tree-tops of the late-modern world could not suffer the thought that his country needed help.

We had both lived in France. The French were genuinely educated - or had been so. They had taken a bad beating in this century. However, they had a real feeling for beautiful objects still, for leisure, for reading and conversation; they didn't despise creaturely needs - the human basics.

Abe Ravelstein didn't at all mind being behind the ropes. Paris today was as Paris should be. The kings who had laid out Versailles directed the architects to build the magnificent public spaces of the capital. These, today, were Ravelstein's setting. He was the grandee in the new order of thing. These days, Ravelstein was a magnificent man.

As with "Dean's December", this book throws open the decay in a modern western civilization. But then again quite often it seems as if the protagonist is neck-deep in the mess of the western world.

To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete. Zeus is a tyrant. Mount Olympus is tyranny. The work of humankind in its severed state is to seek the missing half. And after so many generations your true counterpart is simply not to be found. Eros is compensation granted by Zeus - for possibly political reasons of his own. And the quest for your lost half is hopeless.

I was familiar now with Ravelstein's ideas on marriage. People are beaten at last with their solitary longings and intolerable isolation. They need the right, the missing portion to complete themselves, and since they can't realistically hope to find that they must accept a companionable substitute. Recognizing that they can't win, they settle. The marriage of true minds seldom occurs. Love that bears it out even to the edge of doom is not a modern project. But there was, for Ravelstein, nothing to compete with this achievement of the soul. The best we can hope for in modernity is not love but a sexual attachment - a bourgeois solution, in bohemian dress. I mention bohemianism because we need to feel that we are liberated. Ravelstein taught that in the modern condition we are in a weak state. The strong state - and this is what he learned from Socrates - comes to us through nature. At the core of the soul is Eros. Eros is overwhelmingly attracted to the sun. I am never done with Ravelstein and he was never done with Socrates, for whom Eros was at the center of the soul, where the sun nourishes and expands it.

An interesting perception of modern relationships. But then how should the strong state be achieved? But then Ravelstein never achieved it.

You had to be something of a specialist to follow the movements of his mind. You had to distinguish between what people had been taught that they ought to do and what they deeply desired to do. According to certain thinkers, all men were enemies; they feared and hated one another. There was a war of all against all, in the state of nature.

Of course we're good and fed up with personality profiles, or defects. One reason why violence is so popular maybe that psychiatric insights have worn us out and we get satisfaction from seeing them blown away with automatic weapons, or exploding in cars, or being garroted and stuffed by taxidermists.

Another similarity to Dean's December. An attempt to answer the question - why this senseless hatred and violence all around us? This book touches also on several aspects of the holocaust since both the main characters are Jewish. An attempt to answer the question - why was there so much hatred in the world that there were people who wanted all Jews to be exterminated? How should modern Jews learn history to know about a period the rest of the world would be quite happy to forget?

But you can't keep you innocence in this age. Nine-tenths of modern innocence is little more than indifference to vice, a resolve not be affected by all that you might read, hear or see. Love of scandal makes people ingenious. Vela was ingenious in her science and guiltless in her conduct.

The older you grow the worse the discoveries you make about yourself. He would have put to better use the years that I was allotted. To acknowledge the plain facts is the least that I can do. He thought I was being flippant about the sin of suicide when I said he had given the couple a very Jewish answer. But then he relented, saying, "Anyway, you can credit me with having saved two lives."

Quite a lot of the book marks the changing perceptions as you grow older. Wanting to correct past mistakes and make up for wasted time.

People are infinitely more clever than they used to be about pursuing your secrets. If they know your secrets, they have increased power over you. There's no stopping or checking them. Build as many labyrinths as you like, you're sure to be found out. And of course I was aware that Ravelstein didn't care a damn about secrets.

Shutting his eyes he flung himself bodily backward into laughter. In my own different style I did the same thing. As I've said before it was our sense of what was funny that brought us together, but that would have been a thin anemic way to put it. A joyful noise - immenso guibilo - an outsize joint agreement picked us up together, and it would get you nowhere to try to formulate it.

Quite a few passages about the close friendship between Ravelstein and Chick. That's something that makes this book an absolute joy to read. At times, it is just a narrative about friendship.

As for you, Chick, you're making your total American declaration of rights. It's very brave of you to do it, but it's also off the wall ... For miles around, you're the only Jew. Your neighbours have one another to rely on. Whom do you have - a gentile wife? You've got a theory - equality before the law. It's a big comfort to have constitutional guarantees on your side, and it's certain to be appreciated by other devotees of the Constitution itself.

"I like the kind who accept nihilism as a condition and live in that condition. It's the intellectual nihilists I can't stand. I prefer the sort who live with their evils, frankly. The natural nihilists. Celine recommended that the Jews be exterminated like bacteria. It's the doctor in him, I suppose. In his novels, the influence of art is a restraint on him, but in his propaganda he's a killer out and out."

I could see that he was following a trail of Jewish ideas or Jewish essences. It was unusual for him these days, in any conversation, to mention even Plato or Thucydides. He was full of Scripture now. He talked about religion and the difficult project of being man in the fullest sense, of becoming man and nothing but man. So he was dying thinking of these questions, Ravelstein formulated what he would say but was not able to deliver his conclusions. And one of his conclusions was that a Jew should take a deep interest in the history of Jews - in their principles of Justice, for instance. But not every problem can be solved. And what could Ravelstein have done?

Both the main characters being Jews, quite often the book touches on the topic of the Jewish identity - what it was to be a Jew in modern times.

Rakhmeil, who had figured since the forties in my life and since the fifties in Ravelstein's would be one of the crown taking off at intervals. Rakhmeil was highly educated, but to what end? Every corner of his apartment was stuffed with books. Every morning, Rakhmeil sat down and wrote in green ink. His mind was made up once and for all upon hundreds of subjects and maybe this was the sign that he had completed his course. I felt I was summing him up for an obituary. It is possible that I was trying to replace Ravelstein with Rakhmeil so that I wouldn't have to think of Ravelstein's death. Lots of bitter facts, too horrible for contemporaries to contemplate. We can't actually bring ourselves to acknowledge them. Our souls aren't strong enough to bear that. And yet one can't give oneself a pass. A man like Rakhmeil would feel obligated to face up to the fact that this viciousness was universal. He believed that everybody had his share for it. You could find these murderous impulses in any person of mature

The rule for the dead is that they should be forgotten. After burial there is a universal gradual process towards oblivion. But with Ravelstein this didn't work altogether. He claimed and filled a more conspicuous space in Rosamund's life as well as mine. She remembered a text from her schooldays that went "Associate with the noblest you can find; read the best books; live with the mighty, but learn to be happy."

Though I was his senior by some years he saw himself as my teacher. Well, that was his trade - he was an educator. He never presented himself as a philosopher - professors of philosophy were not philosophers. He had a philosophical training and he had learned how a philosophical life should be lived. That was what philosophy was about, and this was why one read Plato. If he had to choose between Athens and Jerusalem, among us the two main sources of higher life, he chose Athens, while full respect for Jerusalem.But in his last days it was the Jews he wanted to talk about, not the Greeks.

The book brings in several different characters whom Ravelstein was fond of and somehow influenced him. And in a way, that seems to be the theme of the book - enjoy every relationship that comes your way. Lessons well learned are lessons worth remembering.