Showing posts with label modernism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label modernism. Show all posts

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ian Mac Niven's "Lawrence Durrell: A Biography": Book Review

I read this immediately after another biography, also published in 1998, Gordon Bowker's "Through the Dark Labyrinth." Bowker, although constrained by Mac Niven's authorized version from quoting from Durrell's correspondence let alone his novels, nonetheless managed to provide insight into the troubled, determined talent who juggled a manic pace when creating intricate texts, a heavy work load earlier in his checkered career working for the British foreign service, and many, many women.

Starting with India as the key to Durrell's mentality, part of but apart from his British origins, searching for belonging beyond the usual borders, seeking hidden patterns in arcana, Mac Niven takes us through his years growing up in an Anglo-Indian, as Durrell preferred to label his downscale (by comparison at least with some British lording over the Jewel of the Crown) background, his schooling in London, his failure to summon up the effort to get into Cambridge, and his bohemianism. Already, via Hamlet's predicament, Durrell contemplated his "heraldic" theory, that two Hamlets existed, one bound in the here and now and another in a sort of Platonic (to me if not him) realm of forms and symbols. Henry Miller and Anais Nin encouraged him in this pursuit.

His arrival as a poet preceded his departure in 1938 with his first wife for Corfu, and his Greek ties grew strong. But his marital ones could slacken. His second wife, Eve or Yvette Cohen, daughter of a Tunisian Jewish father and a Ladino-Sephardic Turkish mother, with her ideal beauty, stimulated what would become Justine. Although he never thought he'd wind up in Egypt, a flight from the invading Nazis found him in first Cairo and then Alexandria. Mac Niven sums up its crossroads appeal well, while noting that Durrell's depiction of the port as a lascivious landscape takes much more from its WWII brothels than its pre-war, more Greek and Italian, sedate character for what was then a compact city of 750,000. Certainly, in the Alexandria Quartet the city turned its own symbolic terrain, brought to life, if a dusky and detached, aesthetic and literary, form of its own. Mac Niven emphasizes how this novel was written in the mid-1950s, on insurgent Cyprus (after diplomatic assignments to postwar Rhodes, Argentina, and Yugoslavia), while his marriage to Justine crumbled.

But, Mac Niven offers very little coverage of the novels themselves that made his fame, or their critical reception. His details about the writer provide the data, and this data, as said before, can answer probably many questions readers have, but still this book, aiming not at a critique of his texts but a presentation of their author, serves its purpose, leaving explication and reader reception to others. We do get nods to the four-dimensional quality and its purported application of relativity, its time-based and space-based novel arrangement, and its ties to letting go of the ego and welcoming death. This facet, a turn from Christian-based or earlier European fiction, may portend the drift, in his later Avignon Quintet, to a more Buddhist-based approach, where characters appear and revive, freer of chronological convention or indeed, verisimilitude. This enchanted some and maddened other readers. Durrell tried to leap past material limitations in his work, but it seems to stay blurred and off-kilter. While Mac Niven does not take on the issue of if his novels will last, he looks at Durrell's travel writing and poems, and provides at least an overview of the works, if again, no real analyses.

Mac Niven provides about five times, it often seems, the information on any incident discussed by Bowker. For instance, Durrell's teaching stint at Caltech gains by a description of where he stayed, what he lectured upon, and what car he even drove on Los Angeles' freeways. Some may, however, wonder if such depth is necessary for a reader curious but not determined to find out every detail. Such biographies, full of documentation, as Mac Niven offers serve a scholarly purpose, as the go-to work to be consulted by students of his subject. But for general readers, Bowker, at a few hundred fewer pages, with his own array of sources, may suffice. The value of both works, to me, is evident.

The issue of his conflicted daughter, Sappho, her claims of incest by her father, and her eventual suicide, receives a judgment of relying on the discredited "recovered memories" treatment once in vogue, in Mac Niven's estimation. He shows in a poignant scene his own day spent looking at photos of her in the company of the grieving father, and he laments his failure to help his daughter more.

Durrell, in conclusion, does wonder as an aside if his work will endure. Late in his life, he seems to wonder, in his South of France retreat, if any one will listen to his admonitions that appeal in his final works to "selflessness and non-possession" and with this, one closes this in-depth study of this author.
(Amazon US 5-14-14)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Gordon Bowker's "Through the Dark Labyrinth": Book Review

Having finished this biographer's 2012 study of James Joyce, I was curious if Lawrence Durrell, less heralded now than half a century ago, certainly, merited the same steady if detailed life survey Bowker applied to the Irish innovator. Durrell's contribution, as attempting to integrate an Einstein-derived, relativistic series of levels from which to examine what, in the start of his most famous novel, Justine, Freud avers are the four people present when a couple couples, seems to me at a distance rather musty, and The Alexandria Quartet appears more of series of hothouse flowers, in characters and sultry ambiance. Arguably, the author's wanderings, writings, and self-importance make him a worthwhile subject for Bowker's scrutiny.

Hobbled as Ian Mac Niven's even longer authorized biography then in the making prevented Bowker from citing from Durrell's correspondence let alone his works, Through the Dark Labyrinth--similar to his Joyce take--breaks little new ground. But Bowker despite his handicap tackles the remarkably self-involved Durrell with sympathy if not forgiveness, although the biographer to me remains largely polite and well-behaved when describing the affairs, abandonments, and amours of this dedicated lothario. His preference, given if not romanticized "Tibetan" origins given some general proximity to the Himalayas from his Indian birthplace to an English father and Irish-descended mother, for the warmer climes and the less restrictive mores they supposedly engender, is clear. "Pudding Island" as his ancestral homeland and the place where he is sent for school as a boy remains detested, although he repaired there often over his career. A bohemian, he failed to master the math to get him into Cambridge. He chose to hang out in London, befriend Henry Miller, and cultivate connections, as a poet and then novelist, in the 1930s. As war loomed, Greece appealed, and it was off to Corfu.

The Nazi invasion barely avoided, he fled to Alexandria, to cobble together a career as a sort-of spy, information officer, propagandist, and British diplomatic such-and-such, there and in postwar Greece and Cyprus. In the latter, he found himself entangled as the colonial power Britain exerted weakened under the pressure for ties to Greece, and Durrell had to flee, again, as violence over land broke out.

Bowker shows how Alexandria provided, as well as Durrell's beloved and adopted Greek nation, the setting that inspired him. Then more Greek-British-Jewish and much smaller than today's Egyptian sprawl, the city served as a natural crossroads and an erotic cauldron. Modernism meets Freud, as spirals rather than linear narrative arrive to plunge a reader into breakdown--the one aspect Durrell complained to T.S. Eliot that he wished he'd have experienced (as he had with his first if lesser success, The Black Book) to add verisimilitude. But his failed second marriage to Eve Cohen, the Sephardic beauty who provoked the novel, provided his own anxieties, although never for long. He seems selfish, letting go as he outgrows his wives and a little daughter, she twice set aside. Bowker does not editorialize much, but he mentions how Henry Miller saw women as an "aperture" and later alludes to Durrell's take on women as less than persons and more general laws or biological urges.

The Atlantic complained how his "characters embraced with the cool click of algebraic equations." The haste in which he wrote the three installments to come shows he worked out his Quartet as he went, rather than starting in the first novel with a solid structure. Balthazar in six weeks, finds Durrell "feeling his way forward." Mountolive took two months, Clea eight weeks, he attested. This looseness may however have worked to his favor, for what Bowker sums up in the insighful, valedictory, final chapter of this biography as an achievement where we care less about the fates of the characters (his friend Diana Gould Mehunin complained of their coldness even and especially when sex was asserted as the main energy in these novels, and his others, after all) but we learn about the role destiny plays, and how we may reinvent ourselves, remaking our reality and our perceptions.

For all his indulgences as an intellectual, Durrell appears rather lightweight, preferring the effusions of what the nascent counterculture might cotton onto as gurus, seers, New Age exponents, or what some call today life coaches, for his nebulous or scattered musings. Granted, his main diversions in these years were sex and sunbathing, but he did manage fourteen-hour days often, parallel to careers on and off, working away on the next book. Certainly his knack for Greek, his fluency in French, his ability for sussing out the natives around the Mediterranean, speak to his skill at depicting his setting.

This setting shifted to Languedoc, after the success of the Quartet brought him fame and many more women to woo. The nature of his relationship with his troubled daughter Sappho, and her claims (Bowker weighing them decides innocent until proven guilty on Durrell's behalf) of incest clouded his later years; she eventually hanged herself. His third marriage appeared his happiest; his fourth demonstrated his brutality. Bowker alludes to Durrell's admiration for Sade (whom he refers to as de Sade; he also misspells MacNiven's name and makes a few minor errors throughout in proper nouns), and the appeal Durrell exerted over women up to his death in 1990 must prove the triumph of a certain charm, given his short stature, increasing portliness, and large nose. He turned his friends into fiction, and many complained. The women he seduced rarely returned for more. He tends to be a cad.

However, he softened as yoga and Buddhism--when a Tibetan monastery was established near his rural retreat--taught him the value of patience. He avers how reincarnation made more sense, living a life over and over until it was perfect, and the monks claim he has been reborn as a vineyard keeper in Burgundy. Bowker, in spite of the limits under which this was written, provides a thoughtful overview of Durrell. It can bog down in minutiae even as some parts skim; for instance, he goes to Israel and visits a kibbutz, but that's all we learn, while other times we find out what he had for dinner with such-and-such, time and time again. This may be due to the archival access he was granted, and in the end, Bowker does the best he can, digging into many sources, interviewing many, about Durrell
(Amazon US 5-13-14)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Peter Watson's "The Age of Atheists: Book Review

If neither science nor religion suffices, how do we get past our present impasse? Do we lament our lack of progress, or welcome possibility? Seven years to the day, I finished this after the same author's "Ideas: A History of Thought from Fire to Freud."  Both hefty works share this veteran journalist and now intellectual historian at Cambridge's dogged devotion to rational thinking over supposition, and the view, as his 2006 book concluded, that our human perspective is better suited to watching our world pass by and act out as if we peer at a zoo rather than a monastery. He acknowledges the scientific mission to dissect and pin down all that we observe, yet he nods to the atavistic tendency embedded within many of us to yearn for transcendence. That impulse, his new book agrees, will not fade soon, but the twentieth century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the nineteenth) celebrates the triumph of evolution, the breakthroughs in physics, the insights of psychology, and the wisdom of philosophy, art, literature, and communal engagement which enrich our current times and allow us so much liberty.

"Ideas" took me a month of evenings to study, given its 740 pages and 36 topical chapters, book-ended by a substantial introduction and conclusion, to chart the multi-millennial span of civilized endeavor. By contrast, I fairly raced through about 540 pages of the present book, which I highlighted (on a Kindle advanced copy, which had its flaws in format) in eighty-five instances that show my engagement with its provocative exchanges, cover roughly 125 years; Watson has also written (unread by me) "The Modern Mind" (2001) about the twentieth century, so I wondered how much of that third big book overlapped with "The Age of Atheists."

"Ideas" anticipates many of the newest book's themes. Progress continues despite those who fear it. The brain battles those who fear it. Meaning beckons but floats out of our grasp. Science discovers more only to ponder ultimate questions to pursue. Unsurprisingly, William James' pragmatism and Max Weber's sociology return, prominently among the hundreds of thinkers summarized and paraphrased here. That is both Watson's skill and this book's necessary limitation: he quotes and cites nimbly, making recondite concepts accessible. Yet, this popular touch and the breadth required to survey so much as an historian with his own biases and predilections may leave the specialized reader frustrated that his or her pet theory or favorite thinker suffered by its few pages meted out per topic.

That caveat addressed, an inevitable result of a one-volume book able to be held in two hands, this presentation conveys a firmly Western-centered, by-now familiar point-of-view. Nietzsche remains its driving force, and his fervent denial of a divine presence outside of the alienated, defiant human imagination reverberates through mavericks as diverse as Lenin and Joyce. Watson recognizes that German iconoclast's insanity, even as he roots for this raw challenge to Christian hegemony which encouraged his subjects, American and European rebels who rejected God and welcomed inquiry.

Watson's investigation roams as widely as one expects for an historian tracking modernity's slow march away from credulity and comfort found in the ethereal or emotional, to where more and more of us wind up today, in the post-modern predicament of a worldview where neither cold science nor warm faith eases the loss of grand meaning or ultimate purpose which many contemporaries lament. 
He addresses, as an early example of his wide-ranging bent, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart's assertion that charts richer nations' secularization offset by declining birthrates, whereas poorer nations' perpetuation of belief-based systems as a solace for suffering and privation leads to a more populated humanity with "existential insecurity" which overall is becoming more, not less, religious.

Secular proponents, therefore, must contend with sociological explanations for belief, as well as psychological ones. Atheism, Watson finds, may be in the ascendent among the cohort he supports, but a growing sense among developed nations and educated societies of pervasive personal and social disenchantment reveals that consumerism cannot assuage the longing for meaning deep within us. William James agreed that religion emanated from what Watson phrases as "born of a core uneasiness within us" and that for many, faith was seen as the solution. Replacing that with the inspiration of music, the escapism of art, the thrill of scientific discovery, the plunge into sex or drugs, drove many in these chapters to attempt to fill up their empty souls with a spirit energized by bold possibilities.

The usefulness of religion, for James, might be succeeded by the vocabulary of reason; others who followed his suggestions looked to fields as different as dance or fashion to apply more daring experiments. Stories we tell ourselves, as Watson portrays Richard Rorty's model, move beyond the transcendental to the empirical and experiential narratives and scenarios which ground themselves in the body. Watson presents the Swiss art colony at Anscona, the critical faculties generating doubt as explored by Stefan George, and the Symbolist poetry of the early century as settings within which ecstasy might sustain itself, as generated within a movement breaking down distinctions between individuals and between concepts so as to release a mystical jolt, or a disorienting confrontation. These encounters, which would engender the cult of the body and the New Age or therapeutic trends which would return with the "religion of no religion" at Big Sur's Esalen in the 1960s, carry a charge that Watson credits by way of many current approaches in which we treat and regard each other.

George Santayana mused: "There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval by discerning and manifesting the good without attempting to retain it." A common sentiment among those Watson favors, as resignation to mortality and the impossibility of knowing the secrets behind all of creation appears to gain pace as the century's wars and brutalities weaken rational explanations. Impotence to change human nature contends against discontents driven to improve the human condition. Freud represents the latter contingent: Watson credits him for the dominant shift in modern times, "which has seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one".

Watson observes intriguing indicators of this shift, across the creative spectrum. The cover illustration of Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884-1886) depicts people not worshiping, but picnicking and promenading. One couple, dressed in black, appear to be looking on, "from the (moral?) higher ground" at the crowds "enjoying themselves in very secular ways, most with their backs turned". Additionally, this French painting continues a tradition of "public contemplation" as its many figures reveal serious play. This happens despite a breakdown on the canvas of perceived or imposed order into a teasing shimmer of reality manifesting itself more subtly. The satisfaction for the viewer emanates in impressions "as a web of tiny, distinct stillnesses".

Revolutions and conflicts darken chapters; from the Soviet triumph, "one propaganda poster posited 'prayers to the tractor' as alternative ways to produce change and improvement in the community". Watson emphasizes the substitution of idolatry and worship within totalitarian societies and parties. He also notes that religion was not eradicated in many regions of the U.S.S.R. except by elimination of believers during Stalin's purges. An underlying message persists: belief will be a fallback for humans caught in difficulties, and faith may be wired into human nature despite rational powers.

Rilke sought in the foreknowledge of death that which appears to distinguish humans from other mammals: a direction to guide searchers towards a sense that mortality "drives the plot of life". He recognized that consciousness itself, as Watson puts it, may be "a crime against nature". Why evolution may have embedded within humans the powers of song, the aleatory, musical ability, or a sense of beauty, as well as a tendency in many to interpret phenomenon as supernatural, sparks some of the liveliest later chapters. Suffice to say that many arguments arise, and as many suggestions.

Virginia Woolf's often-quoted observation that around "December 1910" a change happened, so that "reality was no longer public", accompanies modernist plunge into the interior response rather than the recording of the focused, outward observation. The loss of confidence in a shared vision and the gain in conviction that a personal reaction conveyed the spiritual experience that whirled within the intimate sphere and not in the emptying cathedral propels the writers and creators Watson introduces. Oscar Wilde sums up the leap forward: "It is enough that our fathers believed. They have exhausted the faith faculty of the species. Their legacy to us is the skepticism of which they were afraid." Kafka throws up "the sediment left by the great monotheisms: that the mind of God can never be known, we shall never solve the mystery of God because God is the name we give to the mystery itself". (Watson astutely footnotes, if half the book away, an apposite aside that St. Augustine had a similar opinion.)

Through Chabad and Beckett, Salman Rushdie and The Doors, Philip Roth and Theodore Roszak, Boris Yeltsin and Timothy Leary, as the second half of the century progresses, Watson explores the impacts after the purported death of God within academia, theological disputes, and popular culture. He delves into less-familiar texts such as the forgotten bestseller Joshua Liebman's "Peace of Mind" (1946) to prove how the post-WWII merger of religion with psychology enticed clergy into roles as counselors, and how this promoted the therapeutic rather than theological cure across America. Such a range of references and examples accounts for much of the bulk of this book, but its contribution towards an accessible account from which a patient, intelligent, and reflective reader will benefit greatly cannot be diminished. Predictably, those immersed in a particular school of thought may cavil at the generalizations and judgments Wilson must convey by such compression given three-dozen chapters. However, the documentation he provides and the stimulation he generates merit respect.

Countercultural chronicler Roszak, to whom Watson gives welcome and lengthy attention, repeated José Ortega y Gasset's reminder: "Life cannot wait until the sciences have explained the universe scientifically. We cannot put off living until we are ready." An urgency boosts these late-century sections. Their pace quickens as Watson weighs dozens of competing or compatible attempts to forge a third way, apart from the calculated certainties of a stolid scientific method or the fervent claims of a fundamentalist religious precept. Roszak, following Roth and Beckett for Watson in mapping a humanist response looking hard at death if perhaps a bit more softly at mortality, laments the "boundless proliferation of knowledge for its own sake" and the exclusion of many seekers who cannot enter this closed system, and who find themselves alienated as democratic culture weakens.

Watson encourages in his closing chapters those who strive to build meaningful structures by which ecological imperatives and economic equality might co-exist. He rejects those who by faith in a better life to come justify the rape of the earth and the pain of its inhabitants. He accepts that science may not provide comfort for those who, however irrationally, search for truth and beauty beyond what can be calculated or purchased. Mark Kingswell's philosophical rejoinder to a capitalist culture "based on envy, and advertising, the main capitalist means of 'selling' consumerism, works by 'creating unhappiness'". Happiness, if God is removed from the window through which we view Watson's earlier model of the zoo vs. the monastery, may emanate from a rejection of what for many people in Western society supplants or supplements fading religious belief: the "pathography" (he credits Joyce Carol Oates for this coinage) of the dysfunctional, confessional, survivor-strutting meta-narrative that has drowned out the traditional monotheistic, and arguably I may add, modernist world-views today.

Ronald Dworkin may speak for many of his colleagues in the seminar or clinic: "Philosophers used to speculate about what they called the meaning of life. (That is now the job of mystics and comedians)." Thomas Mann cautioned that the concept of "one overbearing truth" has been exhausted. Jürgen Habermas directs us to look not above for answers but to listen to each other, for communication may produce critical meaning, and within an informed public sphere, guidance can be generated. Watson finds truth in pragmatism. "We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands."

Few will choose this enriching and rewarding removal from reality TV and manufactured distraction, along the course mapped in these heady pages, to a sobering path of self-awareness of our fragile presence surrounded by darkness and mystery. Fewer choose Kafka over Chopra, and fewer may finish this book than the latest novel by even Oates herself. But those who persevere will glimpse in Watson's closing chapters spirited and moving testimony by wise professors and writers exchanging their versions of what Sartre phrased as "lyrical phenomenology": what Watson calls "the sheer multiplicity of experience as the joy of being alive". This quest for meaning may endure, parallel to or divergent from science. This search embraces a persistent appreciation that beyond facts hovers that which may forever suspend itself apart from our perception, no longer named God, still ineffable.  (Edited in RePrint at PopMatters 3-28-14 as "'The Age of Atheists' Considers That Beyond Reason or Science, Our Quest for Meaning Endures" and a second time to Amazon US 2-19-14)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Edmund Gosse's "Father and Son": Book Review

In 1907, this "study of two temperaments" dramatized religious convention opposed to rational modernism. Edmund's father, Philip Henry Gosse, ran a Plymouth Brethren household. His wife died of cancer, and the son movingly documents her own demise, drawing from her diary, and enriched by his own recollections. After she dies, at twilight, he seeks his father's embrace: "I used to turn my face up to his, patiently and wonderingly, while the large, unwilling tears gathered in the corners of his eyelids." While the severity of his parents' attitudes has been challenged by scholars of Edmund's dramatic and eloquent narrative, the power of the clash of tradition and innovation at intimate levels during the mid-nineteenth century's encounter with Darwin's revolutionary theory can be felt.

As a naturalist, Philip tried to reconcile the new doctrine, arguing in the book "Omphalos" that as Adam added a navel thanks to God's intervention, so His plan allowed for fossils embedded to look as if a more antiquated cosmos had been intended from the beginning. Philip thought his argument would reconcile atheists and believers, but he was shattered when his book met with dismissal and was ignored. He popularized the Devon tide pools, and Edmund recalls with bittersweet detail the wonders that the shores once held undisturbed in his youth--until his father's studies and illustrations convinced many others to visit the beaches, and to ruin the fragile ecosystem irreparably.

Therefore, in its environmental as well as creationist themes, you can see the relevance a century later of this account. He describes the Victorian conventional mindset well. "People would, for instance, go on living over a cess-pool. working themselves up in an agony to discover how they had incurred the displeasure of the Lord, but never moving away." He also engagingly portrays the shift to an "extreme" Puritan and fundamentalist sensibility as he and his father--soon with a stepmother--live in a hamlet in Devonshire. There, away from the city, the foibles of trust in those deemed upright and righteous turns sad, or subtly satirical. A spinning top or a plum pudding, the word "Carmine" all loom large in the young child's mind, and can terrorize as deviations from the approved mentality.

While he's precociously allowed to be baptized before adulthood after being grilled by the elders, he finds the "mechanical address" and empty language of his prayers a telling revelation. Like a pot that surrounds an already growing plant, he feels as if he's trapped, and tries to grow up around the suppressing weight of the pattern imposed. He grows apart from the faith of his father, and in the final section breaks away as a maturing man from Philip. "The incidents of human life upon the road to glory were less than nothing to him," a man of belief.

Seeking a truer criterion of "moral justice" than that of the Christian Judge, Edmund refuses to sanction an Almighty who would condemn millions for "a purely intellectual error of comprehension." So, individualism, the ability to think for himself, takes control. He refuses to compromise, and no truce, he concludes, could have been acceptable between son and father. (Read  via Project Gutenberg for the Kindle. Amazon US 11-9-12.)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Robert Hugh Benson's "Lord of the World": Book Review

This imagines, penned in 1907, the apocalypse as envisioned in the Book of Revelation, with innovative plot twists. While Msgr. Benson's vision of 1971 or so of course could not have predicted the fall of the British or Turkish Empires, or the rise of the Bolsheviks and Fascists, it does set up a convincing lurch to a one-world state under the curious and sudden power exerted by Julian Felsenburgh. This Vermont senator takes over, it seems, nearly every land. Rome stands as a holdout, the Vatican regressing to a pre-modern enclave, while velors (nice steampunk touch--giant propelled dirigible-like transports) and trains globalize the realms freed from royalty, who find refuge in Rome.

Alone, the Catholic Church does not capitulate. Its priests hunted and its followers persecuted, Fr. Percy Franklin represents the indirect first-person narrator for much of the plot. He will face an unexpected duty to carry out far from his humble post. His London-based dystopian yet wondrous city gains Benson's detailed and exciting command of detail. The velo-rides over the Alps, London, and later Palestine as seen from above or afar convey a feverish sensibility, as if hallucinogenic--compare Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday." I've never read in a popular novel as "Lord of the World" such an attempt to depict the dark nights and bright encounters of meditation--both a Catholic mystic and a secular approach interestingly compared via Percy and Mabel, one who struggles to believe in the New Faith under Felsenburgh's ascent to dominance.

Here you gain a sample of Benson's style, as he contrasts the Two Cities, of God and Man, and the Lords over each. Mabel "contrasted the selfish individualism of the Christian, who sobbed and shrank from death, or at the best, thought of it only as the gate to his own eternal life, with the free altruism of the New Believer who asked no more than that Man should live and grow, that the Spirit of the World should triumph and reveal Himself {Julian Felsenburgh}, while he, the unit, was content to shrink back into the reservoir from which he drew his life."

The enemy, socialist and humanist thought turned into anti-religious action under a stern if at first somewhat tolerant regime promoting euthanasia, takes over as in such melodramas its own platform to convince the reader. The pace can get creaky, and the preaching by both the Pope's side and his foes does go on and on. The characters do fall into the patterns of mouthpieces for their causes, but Mabel in the author's climactic scene with her does evoke a fantastic, dream-like aura that compels.

Benson does to his credit (and vocation) deliver a sense of the appeal of an anti-Catholic, pro-liberal set of convictions, and his characters do struggle with Catholic teaching during their own dry spells and periods of doubt. He, in Mabel and the ex-priest (one of many in the Last Days) Francis, reveals how often--as a convert himself to the Church and the son of no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury--Robert Hugh Benson must have heard similar arguments against faith and for reason in his own life and his rejection of his family's religion. The tension of reason and belief continues, and both sides try to reconcile the two modes, to speculative and convincing methods recalling the efforts of post-1789 France to eliminate the clerisy and to establish a rationally based public religion. This can get very didactic and the now-vanished air of pre-Vatican II casts a nostalgic, incense-filled glow over what's turned in our reality as antiquated, but Benson keeps the "steampunk" and political thriller-type of action coming, amidst the expected lengthy explanations by the friends and foes of the Vatican's remnant. 

Some lament what they label as anti-semitism in early chapters, but I found these allusions expected if unfortunate in its typical Catholic tone (the Church after all held that it kept the full revelation and means to salvation) for the time, which also sends up Masons and others deemed doughty foes of the Tridentine Church, which fought Modernism during this era. Careful readers may sense in later scenes a subtle shift, while still "orthodox" naturally or spiritually, to a nuanced appreciation of the Holy Land. Trying to apply this End Times thriller to our times, in a changed geopolitical and religious culture and mindset post-Vatican II, seems about as fruitless as any generation's attempt to link scriptural and coded warnings to current events, but the theme retains inherent interest for a few.

One need not be a Catholic to appreciate the aims of this dramatization of the battle between "Supernaturalism" and "Humanism." As with most artifacts a century old, you can admire parts and discard others. The earnest message, while sometimes declaimed by those for and against the Roman legions at more than necessary length, remains a thoughtful way to speculate on the clash of tradition and progressivism as seen from the early part of the last century.  (I read this for free via Project Gutenberg as an Kindle e-book; Amazon US 11-9-12)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Christian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss": Book Review



Diagnosed on his thirty-seventh birthday via a “curt voice mail message” with cancer, Christian Wiman confronts his fate, his drift from his West Texas Baptist small-town upbringing, and his decision to revive his “latent” faith, conscious of all its confusions and ambiguities. After twenty years a poet, he analyzes in these spare essays his seven years living with bone marrow transplants, and with his two twin daughters and his wife, as he faces down pain and as he examines belief.

Mr. Wiman warns early on: “if you have believed at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life”. His life has been a wandering one; he mentions moving forty times in fifteen years. While little of his background or subsequent profession emerges from the few facts he chooses to share, he shares much about his thoughts on death, mortality, and divine presence, or the lack of such when examining the impact of his prognosis. 

The essays, which an acknowledgement notes were published in some form in eleven different publications, may stray from the themes of modern belief. Yet, for all its dispersion, this book roams around a central concern for a contemporary Christian. For one schooled in modernism, and for one committed to the craft of literature, Mr. Wiman contemplates the predicament of those raised after post-modernism, who prefer to believe in -- or argue over -- a good book more than the Good Book. 

Borrowing Paul Tillich’s phrase, Mr. Wiman posits that art replaces death as the “ultimate concern” today. Whereas for Dickinson, Stevens, Beckett, and Camus, a transcendental absence beckoned, for more recent writers, post-modernism “sought to eliminate death in the frenzy of the instant, to deflect it with irony and hard-edged surfaces in which, because nothing was valued more than anything else, nothing was subject to ultimate confirmation or denial”. Certainly, “ultimate” hovers as a telling term here, as Mr. Wiman urges a fresh way “to imagine ourselves in and out of death”, even if “the old religious palliatives” such as the Christian idea of heaven certainly appear inadequate. 

Citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mr. Wiman finds a congenial if chilly voice: “The God who lets his love in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.” 

Yet, like dew, his own faith rests as he awakes some days, full of promise. Then “it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions”. Such honesty offers readers skeptical of faith-claims and inspirational bromides a brisk, sobering series of reflections on a mature acceptance of faith affirmed cautiously. 

Alienation permeates many of these short chapters. They may stay calm or they may turn edgy. Language, lies, his calling as a poet, frustration, and death as our inevitable sentence: all crowd these pages with a serious look at faith. “Faith is the word faith decaying into pure meaning.”

After tenderly commending the love and support given by his daughters and his wife, Mr. Wiman in his chemotherapy-induced pain realizes: “It was God straining through matter to make me see, and to grant me the grace of simple praise.” The final chapter of these accessible, yet learned, meditations tries to avoid the tone of an elegy. Still, its author admits, “the very things that have led us to God are the things we must sacrifice”. 

Recommended for readers who prefer poetry and criticism to platitudes or self-help texts, this memoir suits an audience able to balance intelligent insight with open-minded possibility, as a talented poet challenges his own and our verities. (4-20-13 to New York Journal of Books)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Michel Peissel's "Mustang: The Forbidden Kingdom": Book Review

As a child, I learned about this thumb-shaped projection of an independent, feudal principality in Nepal that stuck into the Chinese-occupied Tibetan frontier. Michel Peissel, a French-born, English-raised explorer, wrote for National Geographic his account, as the first Westerner allowed to visit this tiny realm in 1964. Since Mustang for me meant in the late 1960s the fantastic Ford model, and secondarily a horse as I grew up, I wondered about connections--there aren't any.

Mustang derives here from Lo Mantang, the walled capital of a thousand people that at this time (since Nepal's Maoists took over in 2008, it's no more) continued medieval European equivalents into the modern era. Peissel, the first European who slept within its confines, takes two months to wander the land, looking for clues as to the origins of its kings in neglected chronicles. It took him two weeks to hike to the kingdom of Lo from Nepal, and few of its intelligent but isolated inhabitants had ever seen a "long nose" foreigner before.

His colloquial Tibetan, gleaned from a grammar abroad and then years of study, affords this Oxford-educated, Harvard Business School dropout a chance to enter the country, after a prime minister's assassination in similarly cautious Bhutan (he wrote about trekking across it in 1970's "Lords and Lamas") foils his plan to stay there. He longs to go deeper into the peaks and plateaus. Lo sits in the "great Himalayan breach" north of Annapurna and Dhalulagiri ranges, facing the funneled winds that bake it up to 90 in the day but freeze it at night. Given Tibet's capitulation, he cannot enter that territory, but he comes as close as possible. Mustang itself, patrolled by Khampas fighting a guerrilla war (see Peissel's later "The Secret War in Tibet") against the communists, proves an edgy outpost.

Even though he does not mention he's a diplomat's son, his negotiations enable him to elude trouble. He and his Tibetan comrade, Tashi, manage to figure out the background of the dynasty that hosts them, and parallels between medieval mindsets of Peissel's ancestors and those of the Lobas he gets to know during his residence can be insightful. He tends as in his later books to boost the advantages of the primitive over the jet-set, but he offers a patient view of the advantages the rest of us forget.

"The fortlike appearance of Kag spoke of a more valiant and warlike race, expressing in the majesty of geometrical sturdiness a taste more robust and less over-richly refined." (69) This as he broaches the divide between Hindu Nepal's "sickly mystery" and enters "the land of Lamas and Buddhism." Later, he spends a restless sleep in a Khampa "samar" war camp, and after Tashi confides his beliefs in spirits, Peissel ruminates. His uneasiness dominates his reflections, with no distractions in the tent, and medieval devils at night seem as real as a similarly outmoded God might in the day to protect him from avalanches and robbers. The next morning, "I had learned the meaning of fear as a direct product of faith. The fear of God, the fear of demons, the fear of famine, of cold, of fire, and of war. In Tibet faith equals fear; this inspires hope and religion." (83)

He continues: "It is faith free of doubt and questioning, it is the capacity to believe in the supernatural as a reality that is the foundation stone of a society of the medieval type. In such a society the incredible is believed, the unusual is not questioned, and the amazing is regarded as commonplace. I was now in the world of the 1,086 Tibetan demons that haunt man and beast and that are realities to the peasants and to Tashi, as they would have to be for me if I was to share the life and culture of Mustang." (84)

Peissel does fall hard for this little enclave, and his affection infuses this account. While he tires at the elevation and fatigue seems to do him in on his later forays away from the capital into the caves (I wanted to learn more about them, as at Yara, and the villages he passed through rather abruptly), it's a valuable reminder of what we miss as we evolve. "In fact we in the modern world all become half blind and half deaf from necessity if we are to admire beauty." (225) He observes how the Taj Mahal so photogenic is next to a "monstrous steel bridge," and how only the careful camera can rescue some places we admire from, say, the fate of the Acropolis, seen by him behind a chicken-wire fence.

The book (subtitled in its 1992 reprint "A Lost Tibetan Kingdom" or "The Forbidden Kingdom" in the edition I read from 1967) tends to rush the latter portion of his stay. He must have taken enormous amounts of notes. For a month's stay and two weeks trek in, it's a substantial report, although the rest of Lo outside the walls of Lo Mantang gets rushed and Peissel's health and stamina may have weakened his attention. Like an earlier, multinational English resident-author in or near these mountains Marco Pallis in Peaks and Lamas (see my March 2011 review), Peissel undergoes a subtle but telling change by the end. He is given a Buddhist name by a lama, Shelkagari, in his fragile state, and his awareness for all his Westernized skepticism appears to alter, after the title he inherits "Crystal Clear Mountain." (11-30-12 to Amazon US)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pico Iyer's "The Global Soul": Book Review

I liked Pico Iyer's debut collection of essays "Video Nights in Kathmandu" and his recent "The Open Road" on the Dalai Lama (the latter reviewed 10/08). A friend of mine leaving the U.S. to live in Ireland over a decade ago recommended this exploration of globalism from Iyer's perspective. I found it predictable, better read perhaps in its original version as magazine form rather than as seven essays.

The reason is, as a passing phrase such as Iyer claiming to be "middle-class" despite coming from an academic family in tony Santa Barbara who sent him to boarding school and then Cambridge, or his "whenever I attend an Olympics" about his reporting on many of these events, betrays his privilege. That alone cannot justify a critique of what he conveys in his journalism, but it does repeat a note of what he finds in Toronto as "rootless cosmopolitanism" and this note sounds on nearly every page, until it dulls the senses. 

He works hard to evoke his settings: the house on fire and amid flood atop a Santa Barbara hilltop; the hideous LAX where an Ethiopian arrives to find herself surrounded by her former enemies, the Tigreans, in a city where nothing matches the movies seen abroad of the palm tree celebrity paradise; his friend in Hong Kong who roams the world as, of course, a management consultant; Toronto's similar megapolis of new arrivals and "visible minorities" in a "postmodern Commonwealth"; Atlanta's Coca-Cola sponsored Olympics amidst a sprawl that's the "urban equivalent to bottled water"; London as seen through his semi-deracinated perspective; and finally a graceful depiction of his home in the Japanese locale of Nara.

Not to say moments emerge of insight or wit. "One curiosity of being a foreigner everywhere is that one finds oneself discerning Edens where the locals see only Purgatory." So he sums up Toronto (159), although naturally this could be anywhere he visits. I wish he'd tightened, as Toronto compared and contrasted with Los Angeles begs for an extended treatment, the connections between essays. The one on Toronto and the one on Atlanta drag on endlessly, when a revised version of these articles might have looked at all three, cut many of the vignettes and conversations, and focused on the best examples from the dozens that stuff each chapter.

That way, his identification as "full-time citizen of nowhere" might have sharpened, as the closing chapter shows best, when a customs officer as he comes back to Japan grills him: "What prompted me to bring antihistamines into a peace-loving island?" (277) Lighter, more streamlined, moments such as these in more abundance might have lightened the load of an ambitious but ultimately predictable array of observations on the global soul. (5-3-12 to Amazon US)

Monday, May 7, 2012

David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster": Book Review

I'm about the same age as Wallace, too old for the Gen-X category to which he has often been consigned as one of its infinite jesters, and too young for being a full-fledged baby-boomer, seeing that we came of age in the 70s and at the tail end of that. This ability to tilt between the boomer's desire for a utopian and liberated zone of unrestricted freedom and the anomie of the slacker's suspicion in an era where all politicians are tainted by the ghosts of Watergate and the relentless marketing of alt-culture's corporatized irony and self-referential smugness: here Wallace thrives. I have never read his fiction, and admired his journalism mostly at a distance. But, my curiosity got the better of me. His early essays seemed too jejune. Yes, he himself delights in loops of references and doggedly pursues his subjects with rueful sardonicism, but he has grown as a writer and a human being since his earlier journalism collected in 'A Supposedly Fun Thing...' into a more compassionate witness, a more disciplined thinker. While these essays tire you out if read too many at a sitting-- the effort to follow the notes in 'Host' being the worst-case scenario of his Stern-like (Tristram more than Howard I think?) passion for footnotes, asides, and marginalia-- they do inspire self-examination.

I would not have expected to sum up these essays with the term 'moral clarity,' but this is precisely the ideal that Wallace seeks amidst adult porn, Kafka's very un-American humor, prescriptive rules rather than only descriptive analysis of American Standard White English usage, or the reactions his midwestern neighbors have as they watch Dan Rather the morning of 9/11/01. He stops and notes, if in passing, a small detail in each essay that shows, despite the shenanigans and digressions, that he possesses intelligence and compassion. He reminds me of Tom Wolfe in that he is not so much a satirist as a moralist, in that he expects people he observes to live up to their code, and not to lie to themselves when they recognize a glimpse of truth within our cynically commodified market-driven celebrity-crazed dumbed-down culture.

For instance, in the porn article, he notes a retired cop's admiration for adult videos: they show, in the unguarded moments when the purported nasty bad girl experiences unfeigned pleasure as shown by a moment of ecstatic happiness on camera as she reaches orgasm, a window into our vulnerable humanity that mainstream actors can never equal. An insipid, ghostwritten autobiography of Tracy Austin moves former tennis sub-star Wallace to muse about its laconic dullness: could this not represent the inner drive, the absolute non-verbal total state of concentration that the superstar athlete can enter and so triumph over their nervous opponent? John Updike's turgid 'Toward the End of Time' contrasts its narcissism with Wallace's refutation of its 'bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants to is a cure for human despair.' Kafka's ambivalent wit resists reduction even as it can be summed up in the ultimate joke: 'the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.'

[A brief aside: in the American usage essay, Wallace correctly castigates theory-addled academics, but his footnote only gives the newspaper secondary citation for a source that looks-- lots of "carceral" blather-- to be another Marxian jeremiad from (perhaps an acolyte of?) Angeleno apocalyptic Mike Davis; Wallace needed to credit the primary author of this excerpt of the worst scholarly boilerplate award circa 2003.]

His long investigation into American usage leads Wallace into a realization that the SNOOTs (his acronym) who obsess over proper standards reveal the lie that so many Americans are taught: contrary to our attitude of populist reverse snobbishness, conventions do matter after all. Despite our American 'we're all just folks' insistence that class does not count (in both the classroom and the economic applications), Wallace reminds us that, like it or not, we are judged by how (and if) we handle English in a somewhat competent fashion.

The news footage of 9/11 leads Wallace into an uncomfortable epiphany: those who fly the planes hate not the America of his gentle elderly female neighbors nearly as much as the macho, aggressive, self-aggrandizing America he and his fellow younger men represent. A trip with John McCain inspires an essay far too long, but which hammers away at the complacency that, contrary to rhetoric, the parties in power love to sustain and churn up: keep politics dull, sanctimonious, and so repulsive that voters will stay away in droves and all the incumbents will be all the more secure come election day. McCain, whose Vietnam torture Wallace describes movingly (and which I, contrary to his assumptions, knew nearly nothing about beyond the fact he was a POW for five years), drives Wallace into an impossible predicament. Is McCain calculated in his public persona or is he genuine, and where does one end and the other begin if one is an intelligent candidate in the public eye for months on end? On a lighter note, any writer who can link the Hanoi Hilton to the mundane torment more familiar to the rest of us as a chain motel deserves kudos. The essay is wearying in its detailed itineraries, but after a while you enter a Zen state akin to that of stupor on the campaign trail, which may be its sly intent.

The title essay similarly challenges moral assumptions held if not often examined by most Americans. If PETA is right that 'Being Boiled Hurts,' how does this pertain to boiling lobsters for our delectation? Why do we kill other creatures? How do we justify doing so? Can we question our habits without ending up equating rats with pigs with each other? Writing for Gourmet, 'the magazine of good living,' Wallace honestly scrutinizes the uncomfortable truths about the need that drives us to consume animal and fish and bird flesh-- that most of us every day when we eat likely choose not to consider. He does this without sounding preachy or pompous, and ends his essay just in time, I suppose, about this difficult subject.

Joseph Frank's studies of Dostoevsky are interpolated with Wallace's own précis of the philosophical quandaries his reading of D. conjures up. These, again, illustrate Wallace's growing sophistication in tackling the tough questions, the existential angst we feel, especially as we age. Wallace conveys the core of Dostoyevsky's thought. Wallace deftly draws us into the limning of our own circle of responsibility, where we find the sheer impossibility to separate our selfishness from our altruism, and laments our lack, in today's writers, of any serious successor to D's own 'morally passionate, passionately more fiction' that somehow manages to be realistic and convincingly human.

Finally, in the interminable if intermittently interesting 'Host,' among many other issues around the supposedly populist voices of AM talk radio, Wallace does raise relevant questions. Why do so many on the left lack the cohesion and the passion with which conservative pundits can express their ideas? Why do the chattering classes hold the flyover states in such contempt? In blurring moral and cultural critiques with political right-wing lobbying, how do talk-shows promote the status quo rather than truly upending an unjust status quo? And, how much do these pundits pander as corporate shills for all sorts of products pitched to play into their listener's fears, credulity, and loneliness? He also challenges us to imagine why, beyond the stereotypes, many listeners to such shows may well be right (no pun) in their judgement that-- as the first essay showed us with porn that itself seems to have no taboos left to its voracious market expansion except the (so far) off-limit snuff films-- America has drifted away from a moral center-- however hypocritical or distorted, standards did once hold sway-- into debauched cultural permissiveness.

Wallace wearies this reader, but he does make me think harder about such issues. He goads us by his presentation of the material, and irritates our complacent expectations of how passive readers should be. The author has done more work here than the usual journalist. It may look undisciplined, but it is carefully-- if rather too generously for our patience-- constructed. Wallace kicks out the chair from under us, and makes us scurry about his pages as if they scurried away from a Kafkaesque typesetter.

The book jacket inside cover blurb trumpets this book as funny, as if to assure the cowed reader that all the footnotes won't be too scary. Yet amidst the flash of the rather undisciplined form, the content does contain sustained depth. His jacket photo studiously expresses Wallace's wish-- as he says in the usage article-- to be able to blend incognito with the rural midwesterners of his childhood. He does strike the requisite grubby pose. But, as he admits, he also carries his parents' own elevated (and at times snobbish-- but in a good way!) expectations that we everyday people live up to our potential intellectually and ethically. I know this is not the same as "uproariously funny," but in the tradition of Tom Wolfe, Mencken, or Gore Vidal, Wallace combines his own stint in the ivory tower with long treks across the lands where lurk the rest of us, the great unwashed.

He admonishes us, himself included, to live up to what America and our own abundant resources allow us to profit from: the exertion of our minds for the betterment of our souls. Not a flag-waver, but nonetheless another prophet awakening us from our malaise. I wish the press promoters would have advertised this morality supporting Wallace's social criticism. Perhaps his own essays will draw more writers-- and better yet readers-- towards the serious examination of cultural and moral trends that Dostoevsky might have expected us to continue.

(Since I posted my review of "The Pale King" yesterday, this one is reprised from 12-25-06--5:10 "helpful votes" w/one comment: "Pathetically pedantic. Get over yourself." via  Amazon US)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Kevin Barry's "There Are Little Kingdoms": Book Review

These thirteen short stories convey often the characterization and tone of a contemporary update of Joyce's Dubliners, however scattered across the midwestern and western cities and towns and villages of a jittery, weary, and off-kilter Irish present. Kevin Barry's debut collection shifts the tales across the landscape, from his homeland into first the North-west of England and then across a Greenland ice scape, where this brief volume ends. They stories begin in the coastal hamlets of Ireland facing west, and gradually move about the land before they start to get restless, as their characters, and they edge off the island.

"Atlantic City" tells of a young man's domination over a pool table in a makeshift video arcade and its teenaged, especially female, clientele. "To the Hills" maps a contest between two women for the favors of their fellow hillwalker during a weekend in the countryside. The strikingly odd, haunting dislocation of "See the Tree, How Big It's Grown" deserves mention; I've read this three times and I still marvel at its mysterious protagonist, who must in small town Clonmel start up, all over, running a chip shop after he arrives one day on a sort of a fixed mission he and we cannot fully comprehend.

"Animal Needs" finds another Irish man at wit's end, if due to his own womanizing while his purportedly organic farm awaits an inspector amidst domestic chaos. "Last Days of the Buffalo" as its title shows takes the mid/western elements of its own wandering hero as he walks down by the river around Limerick city, encountering his own showdown with confrontational nomads. "Ideal Homes" looks at the changes as the city lights come ever nearer a small town, and how its raw land opened for yet more tracts brings a couple of flirtatious girls nearer their hopes.

"The Wintersongs" then follows one girl leaving such a place behind for Dublin, and contrasts her decision with the garrulous old woman who talks away the bus ride. "Party at Helen's" looks at such people, up from Carlow or Roscommon, who find themselves drinking and mating and moaning in Galway city's flats, adrift:

"Around them, all was nervousness and elation. Lit up like stars, everybody loved everybody, and there was little shyness about saying so. Hugs and love and tearful embraces. It was all tremendously fluffy. These were children born to unions of a pragmatism so dry it chaffed, they came down from supper tables livid with silence, they came down from marriages where the L-word hadn't darkened the door in decades. There was the feeling of sweat from the nightclub cooling on the small of your back." (83)

"Breakfast Wine" examines a woman, maybe a generation older than these celebrants, who leaves a broken marriage behind for another small town, and another pub. The men who engage her in conversation over a long day of drinks represent the future she brings to their bachelor lives, middle-aged and boxed in. "Burn the Bad Lamp" takes a magical-realist tone, as a genie with a philosophical bent and a penchant for bemusement materializes before a down-and-out secondhand furniture shop. I found this and the next story, "There Are Little Kingdoms," slightly less involving for they moved Barry's strongest quality, his insight into rural and small-town characters in an overlooked part of Ireland, off the stage to make for more whimsical or less realistic situations.

However, the Cumbrian setting of the old rectory facing a reality-TV refurbishment in "Nights at the Gin Palace" has potential even if it like some stories works better for its buildup than its payoff. Barry works best when allowing us to enter his misfit and moping characters, for his plots may halt suddenly (if in rather Joycean style). All the same, seeing Barry outside of his Irish element makes for a useful and wisely chosen contrast with previous entries. Similarly, "The Penguins" about a plane full of characters over the polar regions leaves the reader curious--as one line overheard echoes that in the previous story!

He's a distinctive writer, not always easy to pinpoint in time. These stories take place now but feel sometimes older, without losing their modern or postmodern sensibilities. I look forward to his first novel, told in a more street-wise, polyglot, hardboiled argot forty years on in his imagined Cork-Limerick-Galway urban concoction, "City of Bohane." (I reviewed that on New York Journal of Books when "City" appeared March 6, 2012 in America-- the review above to Amazon US 9-7-11. See also his second collection, "Dark Lies the Island")

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wilson & Dobbelaere's "A Time to Chant": Book Review

I didn't expect such an engrossing, engaging sociological survey of British "votaries" of this Buddhist self-actualizing, libertarian-tinged, socially aware and creatively populated movement. These two professors interviewed hundreds of Soka Gakkai ("value-creation society") members around 1990, and they place SG within a response to a secularized Britain and a post-Christian ethos based on not an externally imposed system of moral codes but an emerging commitment to personal responsibility and communal action in peace studies, the environment, and global harmony. While for some critics this has smacked of a personality cult and an eerie Japanese export, Bryan Wilson (Oxford) and Karel Dobbelaere (Louvain/Leuven) argue that SG represents a reasonable reaction to an era when Christian morality emphasizing delayed gratification and an ascetic work ethic has been replaced by a consuming culture encouraging rapid fulfillment and "psychic liberation" from guilt and sin.

Nichiren Buddhism, defined as a "permissive, optimistic, and positively oriented religion," (33) takes its impetus from a thirteenth-century reformer who challenged the emerging feudal system. (See my review of Daniel Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" for more context.) Some of its followers, in the 1930s, began a lay-led society that eventually, by the time of this book in 1990-91, broke with their sponsoring Japanese priesthood in a controversial schism. An appendix explores the ramifications of this split, and the writers compare it usefully to the Protestant Reformation and modernizing tendencies. What they have in common is a move towards lay control, and less ritual and authority placed in a hierarchy. 


Of course, a system of local and global leadership is the reason for SG International. Therefore, part of the interest in the interviews transcribed and the data arrayed is to see how SGI members in Britain gravitated, all being converts, to a situation where their own libertarian, generally anti-authoritarian outlooks fit into a democratic system based on local circles of "votaries" who then serve their own structured system for mutual support and globalized goals of reform. It may reflect my own bias, but I would have liked more investigation of how a membership composed of those intellectuals, creative types, self-employed, artists and fringe occupations found a congenial mix of a self-motivated chanting and D.I.Y approach to morality within a structured, communal, and mutual-support society stressing cooperation.

Wilson and Dobbelaere separately contributed essays to a subsequent collection of essays, "Global Citizens," [see my review] and these can be consulted for more of their scholarship on this intriguing movement. "A Time to Chant" due to its depth allows a more nuanced examination of SGI, however, and some of the questions that I had when reading their essays in "Global Citizens" are better answered in "A Time." That is, I wondered how chanting for goods or success aligned with altruism or less-selfish or individualized goals, and the interviews and data included here examine this topic.

It may or may not be the fault of this book, but I remain hazy on how traditional Buddhist ideals of letting go of goods and attachments square off against SGI's encouragement of using chanting to generate goods as part of its acceptable goals, but I understand somewhat better the process of how chanting works to spark action, from these interviews. (One note: nearly none of those responding had exposure to other Buddhist practices before SGI, so useful research here as of 1990 was not truly possible.) Chanting, the scholars propose, may serve adherents as a means and an end, that is, those who attribute the fulfillment of their goals to the practice that is at the heart of SGI (and the larger Nichiren Buddhist approach) may express the dual methods of "self-examination and self-help" (186) at the core of the daily practice.

Naturally, the self-selecting limits of such a study, based on a list of members, is itself a predicament, for those responding tend (90%) to be regular practitioners. But even here, the professors take pains to share the honest answers of the few dissidents and skeptics that they can glean, as they seek to make this study the best it can be. Granted the boundaries of this report, its introduction provides a great overview of the organization's history and background, and its conclusion (however briefly) places SGI within countercultural and secularizing trends that in the two subsequent decades have rapidly accelerated in much of our society.
(Amazon US 11-22-11)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Péter Nádas' "Parallel Stories": Book Review

Robert Musil, early last century, tried to bring a modernizing and warring Central Europe into a massive work; he left its second volume unfinished. Péter Nádas picks up the saga a few decades later, as another war brings a neighboring nation into the struggle, and follows Hungary through its revolution in 1956 and its predicament in 1961 through to 1989, the year of its liberation. This enormous novel combines, as its title promises, different characters and various approaches towards exploring personal and political survival within this sprawling, intricate story.


The scenes set at Buchenwald, and among those surviving the Nazi terror, recall a socialist realist form of narrative, heavier on action and, if not heroism, than revenge. For other segments during and after the war in Germany as well as Hungary, a inwardly focused novel of manners and subtler tensions shifts overlapping tales into revelations of betrayal, appropriately conveyed in asides, incriminations, and hesitations as much as confrontations. The opening section which begins the investigation of a murder in 1989 Berlin follows the edgy, swaggering, uneasy mood of a mystery, full of diversions and evasions.

Imre Goldstein, who translated Nobel laureate Imre Kertész’s works set in and after the same world war in similar situations, brings to Mr. Nádas’ work the same fluidity. (See my review of Fiasco) The challenge of expressing Hungarian, a slowly spoken language full of heavy long words with opening stress, into conversational English has eluded many. Mr. Nádas’ prose carries in Mr. Goldstein’s rendering the sensation of solidity and density, and this creates the pleasure and the pain within this epic work.

That is, the commitment to over eleven-hundred pages of serious writing that roams from character to character without warning, and which depends upon an alert reader able to appreciate the considerable demands that a work eighteen years in the making and four in the translating expects may make this encounter a rarified one, for those able to navigate these confusing and chilly depths. Mr. Nádas rarely has his characters laugh, and only one scene here made me chuckle. For a work concerned with eugenics, conspiracy, anguish, lust, evasion, and compromise under a variety of oppressive regimes, levity may be a rare commodity, after all.

Jewish and Gypsy, Catholic and Protestant, fascist and fanatic, Nazi and Hungarian characters, many of which themselves are of mixed parentage, contend. They are almost never happy. Those in power resent those beneath them. Sex enters many relationships, but it never connects people beyond such moments. The explicit nature of this detached novel, conveyed with its intricate and extended descriptions of the aroused males and their pursuit of sexual release, less often in its fulfillment than its postponement, makes for a very difficult book to enjoy.

The blurb portrays this as the story of three men, spies in the Cold War era, but only two of them play large roles: Hansi von Wolkenstein aka János Kovách, and Ágost Lippay. Hansi was sent, as a bastard child, to a Nazi school where such youths were studied—this plays off other characters, including his mother, involved in eugenics schemes which employ Mengele among others, in Hungary as well as the Reich. One scientist muses over “independently inherited narratives” as intertwined within heredity, and this theme extends its tendrils over much of this work’s construction and intentions.

For instance, Ágost will entwine with his lover Gyöngvér, whose coupling takes most of seventy-five pages, certainly among the liveliest in this colossal story. Even here, however, Mr. Nádas refuses to give the reader a conventional narration.  The mechanisms of the male member earn great elaboration—both male-male and male-female pairings elicit clinical observation combined with if not soothing than enervating bouts rendered over many pages and many places, most of which are decidedly less than romantic. An underground pissoir, a cockroach-infested bathhouse, rough trade in the park of dark Margit Island, and a dismal room in a dreary flat typify the settings where men, with or more often without women, pursue their release. Even the shadows of Buchenwald for a brief moment become a place full of such a possibility.

Mr. Nádas interrupts that precisely narrated encounter (and the semi-humorous interruption by a dim old lady of the dimly lit couple makes for my chuckle) with Ágost and Gyöngvér’s memories, which drift off and come back. “Stories about the soul and about social relations scarcely touch each other; rarely is there a direct connection between them; they are two different categories written side by side.” So a neighbor reflects, in an interlude during the couple’s lovemaking.  Nobody in this novel has their time on stage for long, even if dense chapters may roam over dozens of pages.

The lack of tonal difference among many who enter this story to articulate their unhappiness, beyond the genre shifts earlier mentioned, discourages easy progress. Mr. Nádas prefers to cloak hundreds of scenes and many characters (an appended list would have helped, as this novel exceeds even Tolstoyan lengths) within an elongated, distended, wandering style which tucks revelations and explications within its narrative as if asides. This demands attention, and this attention flags over so long a book.

However, certain moments persist. As in 1961, when young Kristóf Demén pursues Klára from the counter at the candy store where she works across Budapest. This segues into a recollection of his burrowing into a bombed-out cellar as the Soviets crushed the 1956 rebellion; this then blends masterfully into a tense re-creation of how a bread line created competition and then panic, heightened in turn by the arrival of tanks. One points its turret straight at those in line.

The resolution of this showdown, as is typical, will be delayed for many more pages, and then it will be related in passing. (By the way, the translator’s footnotes now and then do assist the reader less versed in Hungarian references about politics and history.)  Péter Nadás may infuriate readers accustomed to a Tolstoyan resolution of a series of interrelated stories and characters and times and settings. The author refuses to resolve his unhappy stories.  Each will remain open-ended. Time and space, for him and his modernist creations, create a human and social longing to flee elsewhere, free of backbiting and spying, secret societies and endless bickering. Hungary represents a hopeless realm, confined between German power and Russian control.

The impersonal flesh contends with the personal imagination, the omniscient, if not exactly straightforward, impersonal narrator reflects. Neither passionate lovemaking nor desperate pick-ups will satisfy these men and women. They stay predators. They fail to find rewards across these restless decades.

Murder, sexual assault, backstabbing figural and actual, and the insistence upon compromise for surviving these brutal times occupy the actions for most of these characters. When Providence is invoked, it is more likely by a Nazi eugenicist than a devotee, for few in these pages praise any power higher than their own desperate struggle to stay alive. Fulfillment stays distant, and self-hatred curdles. For more than one of those condemned to be born when and where they are, betrayal becomes the promise, if not the realization, of liberation from regimes and police states. (Featured at New York Journal of Books; published 11-5-11.)