Buechner's reimagined biography of the saint is an empathetic account of the True Man, whose reality plumbs the depths of everyone who wills to look iBuechner's reimagined biography of the saint is an empathetic account of the True Man, whose reality plumbs the depths of everyone who wills to look into their darkness, fear and grime, and there discover life, against the vastness of which death can barely fill a cup. We assume Godric's sainthood as we tread his decrepit path of pernicious greed, lust, longing, loneliness, and sorrow; half a life as his alter-ego, Deric, pilfering pilgrims, whoring, proffering religious hokum and killing (incidentally, comical in their correlation and feline bloodletting) and robbing the poor to fatten the rich. Yet it is in the dank and rags that Deric is finally buried (after years of burying his own ill-gotten gains on the remote isle of Farne), and Godric finds his true self; that glimmer of humanity that can no longer bear life's vanity, cruelty and pain. God's existence is not negated by a broken world and broken lives; His reality is affirmed in spite of the dark as our humanity is stirred to a sense of hope of what should and shall be.
Godric guffaws at every attempt to sweeten the account of his life by the monk Reginald and the miracles ascribed to him (the account of him curing a leper with a kiss is a hilarious highlight). Sainthood is not cloaked in glory and the sublime. The glory is in the grime. Beneath all that religious affectation is the accretion of evil, hate, depravity, and amidst the dark, a kernel of true humanity as God intended it, if we have the courage to confront our shameful obscenity and corruption; Godric admits, even the most virginal sight by day is transformed to the most lustful dreams at night. The whitewashed hypocrisy of clergymen makes such honesty debilitating - acknowledging one's rot would invite condemnation and retribution by those no less fetid. Yet when we remain closed to revealing the Truths of ourselves to each other, we condemn ourselves to isolation and loneliness, and retaliate in hurt and fear (as the doomed love of Godric and his sister Burcwen attests).
Time is an ever flowing stream of remembrance, conscious living in the present moment (as Godric personifies in his daily baptismal ablutions in the Wear, rain, snow or shine) and the hope of what should be and shall come. Through Godric's biography, Buechner finds the timeless narrative of an unchanging God and the ordinary story of Christian faith, one riddled with moments of doubt (what if Godric had never met his friend Mouse and indulged in thievery; what if he had never left his sister Bercwen behind; what if he'd married and settled) and clarifying visions (Godric receives the word of a gutted porpoise at one point), desolating silence and irrefutable foretelling (Godric is led to his hermitage by the River Wear in a dream visitation by Saint Cuthbert, where he remains the second half of his life), despondency of one's moral ineptitude and the life-giving moments of one's sacrifice and compassion. Godric learns, even in the moral ruins of Rome, where he makes a pilgrimage with his mother, God can be heard in silence.
While Godric lives a life of monastic contemplation and penance, his mortification is less the means to perfection than a conscientious giving of the impoverished little he has; this giving should never be joyless, unlike his mentor, Elric, who sees demons in every crevice, recites every celebratory psalm like a dirge and imagines missing his mortifications in paradise. Neither is God found in the denial of reality. God resides in the muck; it is not some spectacular, declarative proof from God we desire, but the experience of a personal communion with Him. And that can happen in any ordinary life, even for a clod like William, Godric's friendless brother.
Buechner's novel condenses many of the theological themes in his sermons. But this is not theology in the guise of a novel. It is an artistic work that weaves an intriguing narrative (a finger to the propagandistic lives of the saints) in a convincing medieval voice that cajoles with humour, cynicism and pathos....more
The tragic loss of five lives with the collapse of the San Luis Rey bridge, held precariously and obstinately by rope for the longest time, sets BrothThe tragic loss of five lives with the collapse of the San Luis Rey bridge, held precariously and obstinately by rope for the longest time, sets Brother Juniper on a theological quest to explicate the meaning or randomness of death. Sudden, or preordained by some logical, moral sequence of lives unravelled in their inevitable end? Some divine appointment or divine indifference to the natural law, or lawlessness, of creation loosed in capricious decay?
Brother Juniper had nursed his hypotheses of predestination once before, when lives in his dear village of Puerto were claimed by the plague. Resorting to some moral accounting of these lost souls (which he rated on scales of goodness, piety and usefulness), he'd arrived at the dissatisfying conclusion that the dead were five times more worthwhile saving than the survivors. The tragedy of the San Luis Rey presented a new opportunity to test his hypotheses again, albeit using a new mode of inquiry. Rather than a reliance on public impressions of character, he now sought to uncover every detail of the five lives lost that might uncover a deeper theological design.
The narratives that emerge are disconcerting as they approach their end. The Marquesa de Montemayor, rich, generous, erudite (only in her letters) is ostracised as a half-wit and reduced to an inebriated existence in her obsessive love for a daughter who is physically and emotionally distant; her only consolation and purpose bounded by regular letters to her daughter (she 'lived' that she might have observations to write about). In an epiphanic moment, when "she remembered the long relationship, crowded with the wreckage of exhumed conversations, of charges of neglect, of fancied sights, of inopportune confidences, of charges of neglect and exclusion", she resolves "Tomorrow I begin a new life", only to have it cut short that very morrow when she crosses the fateful bridge.
Pepita, talented companion to the Marquesa, orphaned and raised by Abbess Madre Maria del Pilar, assumes the heavy ambitions of her benefactress. A suffragette before her time, the Madre anoints the youthful Pepita as her hard-found successor, readying the child for greatness while slighting her frailty in the larger scheme to liberate her gender. Pepita endures the isolation of serving the Marquesa for the Madre's cause (while suffering the chagrin of palace staff whose deceit she exposes), never once receiving a consoling note from the Madre, whom she pleads in a last unsent letter to "write me a little letter or something", and then follows the Marquesa to her death in unrequited sacrifice.
Esteban and his twin Manuel were indistinguishable wards of the Madre, whose lives were so intertwined it never mattered to them if their individual identities were acknowledged, until Manuel was besotted by the extraordinary actress Camila. Sworn to secrecy by Camila in his letter writing errands for her, Esteban misconstrues Manuel's silence as betrayal and abandonment, from which misunderstanding he finds the liberty to release possession of his brother's personhood and capacity to love; soon after, Manuel sustains a fatal injury and he is left alone and lost. Rescued from a suicide attempt, with a renewed conviction to push on with life on board noble Captain Alvarado's expedition, Esteban hurtles off the bridge on his way to Lima.
Uncle Pio, a vagrant man of letters, and Camila's admirer, teacher and impresario,remains stubbornly devoted to his muse till the end of her disdain, the rejection of her past with him, and her final removal from society, disfigured by smallpox. Transcending the "three great aims of his life : his passion for overseeing the lives of others, his worship of beautiful women, and his admiration for the treasures of Spanish literature", Uncle Pio makes one final appeal to redeem Camila's degradation; to make her son Jaime his ward that he may give him a gentleman's education. She relents; and they plunge to their deaths on their return to Lima.
Profundities are knotted by questions; answers mere possibilities. Was it some cosmic wit that had taken these lives in a clever play of irony? Or is there no larger cosmic narrative to the meanings we so readily construct for our lives? Then wherefore this instinct for rhyme and reason in our existence, if is neither encouraged nor evidenced to any verifiable degree? If we cannot divorce some measure of purpose in the act of living, then can we accept any plausible reason for existence without a sensible end?
In the lives of those left behind, we intimate possible ends to these deaths. Following the loss of Pepita and Esteban, whom she'd raised, Madre Maria "tore an idol from her heart" and she "accepted the fact that it was of no importance whether her work went on or not; it was enough to work". For Camila, she could now feel "the pain that could not speak once to Uncle Pio and tell him of her love and just once offer her courage to Jaime in his sufferings". The Marquess' daughter softens to the truth of her mother's love in the latter's final brave epistle, once clouded by circumstance and piteous, suffocating, need for her daughter's grudging affection. Life may be a narrative driven less by any presupposed purpose in its end, than that "love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."...more
The life of a nation is condensed in the life of one of its insignificant children; an Orphan Master’s motherless son who is twice-orphaned by a fatheThe life of a nation is condensed in the life of one of its insignificant children; an Orphan Master’s motherless son who is twice-orphaned by a father who denies his birthright and a Fatherland that enslaves him, until his liberation by the women in his life – a mother faintly remembered and imagined, an unwitting caregiver he cannot save from her delusions of a better life in Pyongyang, and ultimately Sun Moon the actress, the personification of his mother’s memory, and the Fatherland’s long-deceived incarnation of patriotic devotion, whom he liberates and is in turn liberated.
Through a series of misadventures, most significantly a mission to the US where he is mistaken by the ‘enemy’ for North Korean national hero and Minister, Commander Ga, Jun Do embarks on a new destiny that delivers him from the mire of a labour camp to the highest political echelons, where he becomes the pawn of a dictator to eradicate the political rivalry of the real Commander Ga and trump the pride of the American enemy. This is a journey of grandiose deception perpetrated by sheer force of fear - no one questions Jun Do's overnight reincarnation as Commander Ga, when he is conscripted as a convenient foil for the Great Leader's diplomacy with the Americans. The plausibility of this ludicrous plot is as credible as the dystopia many a reader would have come to believe of North Korea's repressive isolation; and it is in this cocoon of deceit that Jun Do's earlier inklings of freedom become hardened truth, just as his obsession with Sun Moon, the celluloid myth, finds consummation in a marriage of minds, and Sun Moon's eventual redemption from her own myth making - realising she had not transcended the 'act' to be mother patriot, but that the plot of a nation had made her the script.
In their awakening to freedom, Jun Do hatches an elaborate escape to America for Sun Moon and her children under the nose of the Great Leader. Three voices are plaited in an interlocking narrative to reveal, extract and construct the truth: Jun Do's revelation, his interrogator's tussle to see Jun Do's point of view and maintain his own loyalties to the state, and the state's fiction of Commander Ga's treason, duly broadcast as a radio drama serial. Despite the overwhelming threat and torment inflicted by the arbitrary powers of the state and its secret police, the resuscitated instinct for freedom cannot be obliterated by pain, and lies more deeply seated than memory can be lobotomised.
On some allegorical level, the Orphan Master's Son embodies hope that the fundamental human instinct for freedom remains embedded in the deepest recesses of the national consciousness, like Jun Do's secret place safe from trespass by any physical deprivation, oppression or pain. North Korea cannot be objectified merely as an evil empire. Its humanity has not been extinguished, though its volition and means to act have been curtailed. A measure of that spirit lies beyond the political borders of the demented North Korean leadership, but as Sun Moon's naïveté and hesitation suggest, the world outside needs to give these refugees certainty of their newfound belief and voice to liberate captives from within....more
One cannot readily comprehend why the narrator embarked on this 'autobiographical' account of a tragic episode in his childhood; his personal connectiOne cannot readily comprehend why the narrator embarked on this 'autobiographical' account of a tragic episode in his childhood; his personal connection to the gruesome murder was a remote friendship with Cletus, the killer's son, of whose semblance the narrator could not remember, and the only significant memory of their relationship was Cletus's indifferent willingness to play with the awkward school geek at the latter's yet-to-be completed new home. The narrative's dichotomous structure, one half based on historical research of media reports and court proceedings, and the other a wholly fictitious retelling (complete with the anthropomorphous thoughts of Cletus's farmdog longing for his 'boy'), is perplexing as to its intent.
A possible clue lies in the author's deeply expressed guilt over the abrupt end of this fleeting friendship following the untimely conviction and death of Cletus's father, and his painful struggle (which remained a calloused scar through adulthood) in accepting the loss of his mother to the influenza epidemic and his father's betrayal of her memory with his speedy remarriage soon after the customary period of mourning.
The confluence of these emotions stirred a deeper resonance than their seeming lack of common cause or mutual effect; both were rooted in betrayal - cuckcolding of Cletus's father by a faithless wife and a deceitful friend, and the indifferent, or determined, forgetting of the author's mother by his father. As though borne by some obligation to magic, the author laments his failure to restore these realities to his memory of a desired past; his mother returning from the grave, his relationship with Cletus restored and freed of intended or unintended judgments on his part. And his regret with Cletus is greater, necessitating some penitent exercise, because it had the living possibility of mending, not divine resurrection, and he had passed by those possibilities through inaction and delay.
This autobiography, particularly its imagined retelling, is arguably a catharsis of that unfulfilled desire and guilt; reliving Cletus's misery in every imaginable detail, traversing every boundary with the ease of navigating Giacometti's Palace at 4pm, as atonement for the empathy never extended. But unlike Giacometti's wall-less palace, where one could readily return to the beginning if one did not like the place one had entered, one doubts the author eventually found Cletus in the palace of his imagination.
(I relate to this story with the regrets that continue to remind me occasionally of the cruel bullying I inflicted on a disadvantaged classmate in my first year of primary school. Like the author, I've missed making amends, through inaction, often from fearful deliberation of the irreparable damage I may have caused and the impossibility of returning the sad aftermath to an innocent beginning. My retelling of this childhood then replaces my helpless inaction like some spiritual penance and a magical balm that wishes a triumph over adversity for my victim.)...more
The novel attempts a narrative that goes beyond intertwining the multiple perspectives of its protaganists to explore conceptions of shared mind, theThe novel attempts a narrative that goes beyond intertwining the multiple perspectives of its protaganists to explore conceptions of shared mind, the subconscious mind, and the 'super'-conscious mind that is capable of observing itself in the third person.
The plot is presented by the writer Ray, interspersed by memoirs of his unfolding relationship with his writing teacher Holly. Ray traverses the bounds of reality (i.e., the factual account of 'real' occurrences) and subjective states of mind, which are in various senses hyper-realities of their physical experiences. The narrative is further complicated by Ray assuming a shared state of mind with a character other than himself, Danny, while alluding to himself as another protaganist in the third person, whom he observes as a stranger in the entire story, even till his final fatal act against Danny - a real and symbolic annihilation of the assimilated 'other', against whom Ray has transgressed on account of his murderous physical act, and with whom Ray has identified as spiritual twin in penitent empathy through his confessional 'tale'. Throughout, the unified Ray and Danny recount fractured reconstructions of their external world and the minds of other protagonists - a mind versus mind parlay, where Ray-Danny seeks to outwit the real or imagined machinations of his cousin Howard, whom he once betrayed, and who may or may not be seeking revenge in a twisted mind game of manufactured history and fantasy role-playing within the time-defying confines of an ancient castle and its impenetrable keep. Contiguous with his incarnation as Danny's mind twin, Ray as narrator possesses the intermittent perspective of an observing god-mind that reflects on the inscrutable duality of reality and imagination, consciousness and subconsciousness; be it Danny's paranoia of mind worms, which are constructed realities that assume a life of their own to infiltrate and consume the unguarded mind, or the subconscious willing to reality of murky desires. And in this muddled morass of 'realities', where fact and fiction become inextricable, the only safe harbor is the keep of one's most treasured desires, Danny's love for Martha and Ray's love for Holly. But even this keep is not without its entrapments, subterranean desires that may merely be tortured skeletons of long-remembered myths never to emerge in a consciousness that can be shared with another.
In the parallel narrative of Ray's memoirs, his romantic entanglement with Holly is played out in the converging inner realities of their minds, which transcend the lies and fictions they proffer in their veiled conversations and deliberate acts of physical disengagement.
Egan's exploration of mind is set within the context of a hyper-connected world where virtual communications are encroaching on, and usurping, physical interactions and communities. (Danny is constantly unsettled by the unavailability of virtual, even perfunctory, communications with his social network in distant New York, at the expense of immediate engagement with his cousin and people in his physical vicinity.) A timely commentary on the fictions we entangle ourselves, and the impenetrable truths of ourselves that we may be lulled to imagine we know and commune in today's communicative excess....more
Less a feminist retelling of the Greek myth than a criticism of confused feminist aspirations, Penelope is a flawed heroine beleaguered by her plain lLess a feminist retelling of the Greek myth than a criticism of confused feminist aspirations, Penelope is a flawed heroine beleaguered by her plain looks, despite constant self-affirmations of her intellect. Taunted, possibly in her own mind, by the seductive beauty of her cousin Helen, she relegates herself to a poor second prize for Odysseus, who failing to woo beauty settled for chastity (and a princely kingdom) instead, achieved through victory in an appropriately trivial race with not a drop of blood shed, and auguring a lifetime of roaming (or running?) from this chaste bride.
Penelope, for all her exercise of wit in staving off the ravenous attentions of virile young male suitors intent on devouring the inheritance of her absent husband, resorts to schemes that are no less exploitative of her own sex. Her trusted maids trade sexual favors for intelligence, though one intimates from their bawdy cabaret that such 'debasement' is not unwelcome by these 'dirty girls' - possibly unenlightened by the inherent worth of their sex apart from their social station. Penelope faintly challenges the equivalence of chastity and the worth of a woman when she alludes to the sexual freedoms her husband is privy to in bedding whores or goddesses. She eventually eludes the castration of female fidelity in an affair with one of her less unruly suitors, but not without resorting to deceit in creating her own myth, which is itself enslaving to future generations of women, and the fatal betrayal of her own (lowly) sisters, who are duly massacred by her husband and son for whoring without the due permission of their rightful (male) master.
The empowerment sought by the female players in this drama is not a unified feminist agenda; their personal ambitions occlude their common political disenfranchisement by men from whom they ultimately seek approval, either of their charm, chastity or plain utility. In their competition for scant praise and status (conferred by men), these women trample on each other and entrench the sexual domination of men - either by accentuating their worth as objects of male desire (as with Helen) or sterile veneration (as with Penelope's myth). Even Penelope's (semi-) divinity is subservient to her son's whims and rights, and the revenge wreaked by her murdered maids on Odysseus befalls Penelope as she suffers the widowhood of a wandering husband into eternity. ...more
In Starkfield, winters are harsh. Every young person who has had the means to leave has. Except Ethan Frome - not for lack of opportunity, but the unrIn Starkfield, winters are harsh. Every young person who has had the means to leave has. Except Ethan Frome - not for lack of opportunity, but the unrelenting weight of duty and responsibility. First, caring for his father at the expense of his education, then his mother. Now into his fifties and with a battered body, his hypochondriac wife. His is a life shackled by benign choices and the crushing consequences of his disciplined decency. He had married Zeena after the extensive care she extended in the care his dying mother; he could not bear the silence in the house with his mother buried and Zeena's impending departure.
Zeena's sensitive caregiving had belied her hypochondria, the demands of which now sap Ethan's meagre resources to keep house and finance her incessant demands for doctors and cures. That is, until the arrival of Mattie, Zeena's young impoverished cousin, to serve as Zeena's caregiver in return for refuge. Mattie's fragile youth and reliance on Ethan infuses new hope and comfort in the suffocating confines of a parasitic marriage. When Zeena leaves on an overnight excursion to consult a new doctor in a neighbouring town, Ethan and Mattie are given reprieve to realise for one brief evening the warmth of hearth and home, marred only by the portentious breaking of Zeena's treasured wedding present of a dish Mattie had appropriated for dinner, by the cat, which, for the rest of the evening channels Zeena's presence, guarding her place on her chair by the stove.
Zeena returns armed with doctor's orders for a full time caregiver and the displacement of Mattie, who was never fully adept at housework and a charity case who had exhausted Zeena's goodwill. Mattie's fate is sealed when the broken dish is discovered, and Ethan is hapless in reversing Zeena's decision. Ethan contemplates leaving his barren farm, failing sawmill and Zeena behind, but is retrained by duty to an incapacitated wife who'd barely have any proceeds left from the sale of the farm after the debt repayments, much less the means to maintain the farm. When he escorts Mattie for the last time to the station, both are inspired to seek release from their mired lives with one last sentimental coast down a snow slope into a treacherous elm.
Ethan's betrayal of his duty in this reckless suicide is tragically foiled, and poetic justice is served when he is condemned to a lifetime of caregiving for Zeena and Mattie. ...more
While Hesse based his exploration of the essence of life (Atman) on Buddhist philosophy, the themes and paradoxes are universal to the contemplation oWhile Hesse based his exploration of the essence of life (Atman) on Buddhist philosophy, the themes and paradoxes are universal to the contemplation of many religious and philosophical traditions. Siddhartha's lifetime of discovery and ultimate awakening are recounted in three key phases of spiritual practice and realisation. Driven by his thirst to uncover the ultimate existential reality - the primal source - Siddhartha is disillusioned by the sham and falsity of life and seeks to escape the futile cycling of thirst, desires, dreams, joys and sorrows. Therein lies the first paradox: Is not his thirst for escape to eternity a desire to be divorced from desire itself? Through the ascetic life, Siddhartha seeks to die to his self, and transcend the distractions of the ego's drives and desires to be awakened to the “innermost essence” that lies beyond. Mortification of the flesh, the way of the samana, is the obvious means to subvert drive and desire, but all Siddhartha finds is temporary numbing of the senses from life's pain and senselessness – a state he'd have attained just as easily drunk. None of the wise men he sees has attained that release into eternity. He realises that wisdom does not reside in religious practice or learning, but in everything and being. He unravels the first paradox when he starts to believe that “this knowledge (Atman) has no worse enemy than the wish to know, than learning.” Siddhartha eventually meets the Buddha and despite revering the Buddha's attainment of eternal release, he cannot make himself a disciple for fear his ego would be attached to the Teaching and entrenched in the fellowship of the monks.
This leads to his second phase of spiritual realisation through self-knowledge, recognising that eternity is to be lived, not taught; constant fleeing from the self only leads to a loss of self, not its transcendence. Self-knowledge, not the ego's destruction, would be the means of release into the divine. While the way of the samana had deemed every material existence an illusion obscuring the invisible divine, Siddhartha now perceived the divine in everything. (The sign is the signficate, not its meaningless representation.) Herein lies a second paradox: If the ego embodies ultimate reality, would not hedonistic abandon be the essence of life itself, and the unrelenting cycle of drive and desire impervious to any notion of deliverance? On this course, Siddhartha lives among the child-people and attempts to enjoy material reality rather than to dismantle it as an illusion. He learns the art of love with Kamala the courtesan, engages in profit and business, and even entertains the vice of gambling, but never immerses himself in these passions (the art of love as opposed to love), separated and observing in scorn. For Siddhartha, life becomes an inconsequential game, a constant conflict of the soul and sensory world, with the soul ultimately wearied by world pleasures. (He experiences revulsion so great as to gamble obsessively and recklessly to exorcise his disdain of wealth, discontent, vice and greed.) This journey leaves the second paradox unresolved; he never experiences the passion of joy and fear, and the sweetness of being in love, only unpleasantness.
Despondent, he discards this life and enters his final path of awakening, learning from the quiet wisdom of a ferryman and the river, becoming a ferryman himself. He realizes the ephemera of life and self, and experiences genuine love, of which he was deprived while consumed in his intellectual pride and mastery of the three noble and invincible arts of fasting, waiting and thinking. Siddhartha experiences the zenith of Love’s bliss and pain when he is united with his son, who despises his father’s way of life and whom Siddhartha finally releases back to the life of comfort his mother Kamala provided. This Love is not the illusory love of samsara the Buddha had cautioned against, but self-sacrifice rather than selfish attachment, releasing and freeing the other rather than possessing.
In his seeking, Siddhartha had subjected himself to stupidity in order to begin as a child again, had sinned in order to live again, had despaired in order to find grace. Beginning as a Brahmin, intellect was the substance of his ego, which had to be sacrificed through material sensuality. That very sensuality possessed his self and had to be sacrificed in turn for the innocent child in him to emerge. He is enlightened by the oneness of all things; virtue and sin are equal and necessary to the understanding of the other, as are love and hate, joy and pain.
Hesse, in his narrative, reveals the limits of language in embodying spiritual truth. Siddhartha, when asked to share his teaching, declares that wisdom put to words becomes foolish. All concepts become half-truths and dichotomies, their fullness obscured by the poverty of description and the illusion of time that divides the Oneness. Therein lies another paradox: The opposite of every truth is just as true! Knowledge may be communicated, but not wisdom, which can only be lived. Love is paramount. Every material thing is not to be despised as illusion, or then we would be as much illusions.
Hesse’s exploration of oriental spirituality is not alien to occidental religious tradition. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, the same issues of futility (Ecclesiastes), pain and suffering (Job), and the centrality of love in redemption (the Christian gospel) recur, which substantiate the universality of human experience and need, and point to the a god-shaped hole in human existence that seeks to be filled. An insightful companion piece to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Siddhartha's intellectual aspirations (his heightened 'superego') at the start, like Kurz, give way to an exploration of the primitive instinct (the 'id'), but unlike Kurz, finds resolution and transcendence in his encompassing ego.
Kurz's final utterance “the horror, the horror”, in its unvarnished despair, underscores the ambiguity of Conrad's inexplicable darkness. Kurz, the goKurz's final utterance “the horror, the horror”, in its unvarnished despair, underscores the ambiguity of Conrad's inexplicable darkness. Kurz, the god man, is never fully revealed in the Congo's impenetrable wildenerness and the mystery of his ambitions or motivations; in death's final possession, only that primeval emotion affirms any materiality to his existence. It is this dark ambiguity to which some elusive form is given by Kurz's shadows of words and impressions (who “couldn't write a bit – but heavens! How that man could talk!), whose substance was faith and the power to “get himself to belive anything” (a precient commentary on post 9/11 politics, with allusions to Kurtz's “extremist” leanings and his demagogical propensity to lead any political party).
Conrad's darkness may be less a metaphor for evil than ambiguity and the futility of meaning. As the narrator Marlow reflects, “Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.” Kurz embodies that magic of rhetoric to impart hope and purpose to his fellows and himself – ephemera at best, that “the most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late - a crop of unextinguishable regrets”.
Conrad imbues in Kurz the political confusion of colonial Europe, eager to exploit wealth and fame, yet probably guilty or proud to admit the untamed darkness of its civilisation. The ambition revolves around the “unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression”, a “hollow sham”; Kurz is described as sometimes being “contemptibly childish”, seeking profit and the recognition of his ability, but taking care of the “motives – right motives – always”. (Another penetrating commentary on contemporary colonial politics exemplified by American violence in the cause of democratic freedom.)
The ambiguous darkness permeates the heart of nature and humanity, and frustrates any attempt at meaning, order or purpose. The White Man's Burden to tame and civilise the jungles and “hearts of wild men” is vanity, first destesting the incomprehensible, then falling into “fascination of the abomination”, exposing the dark heart of civilisation to be no more than “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale” perpetuated by “men going at it blind”, ironically, as it is “very proper for those who tackle a darkness”; a murderous racism “redeemed” by an “unselfish belief in the idea”.
Kurz, the “emissary of pity”, the “guidance of the cause intrusted by Europe”, loses his very “singleness of purpose” in the midst of pillage. The substance of his “horror” is never intimated. Was Kurtz confronted by the futility of his intended purpose to civilise the dumb savage (“each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing” - yet another comment on the ruthless futilty of market economics and efficiencies in today's amoral consumerism?) and his unbridled greed and descent to violence that exposed the roots of his own savagery, concealed from the presumed enlightenment of his intellect? Or was he frustrated by his failure as saviour to defend the savage kingdom he had delivered into order, thwarted by the greater encroaching darkness of his own kind? In the darkness of his own heart, he could have realised that “we live, as we dream, alone”; Marlow alludes early in his narrative that “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence,- that which makes its truth, its meaning”. Man's impenetrable self, the hollow abyss of disconnection, Marlow shields from Kurtz's fiance (his “Intended”), lying (as much as he attested to hating lies) that her name was what Kurtz last uttered. Marlow give voice to the isolation of every man in the heart of his existence: “I don't like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work,- the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know.”
In the hidden depths of the human soul (the 'id'?) rest the potential for an unconstrained freedom that defies reason, the fear of which sublimates into attempts to subjugate external reality - a visible darkness “monstrous and free” in the Congo. Horror was not instilled by the apparent inhumanity of these savages, but the very “suspicion of their not being inhuman”, which thwarted repression of the unknown and unleashed inner realities of “kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”, forcing one to “admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages could comprehend”.
In the heart of darkness lies a truth that can only be faced with a “deliberate belief”, not espoused principles, sentiments or acquisitions. Savegery and civilisation are illusory distinctions in the harsh light of scrutiny; the European colonisers were motivated by the violent greed of a benevolent civilisation, while the dignified savages exercised equal restraint of their impulses in their unbridled freedom (Marlow cites the case of cannibals on his steamer who could have overwhelmed their European masters in their hunger, but did not). Kurtz represents this moral collapse; he, the product of European civilisation and social retraint, once loosed in the wild Congan jungle without police or the judgment of his civilised society, soon forsakes the altruistic argument that “we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at,... can exert a power for good practically unbounded” for the blank exhortation to “exterminate the brutes!” and open rebellion against his own kind, seeking refuge among the brutes he hated and yet couldn't leave. Kurtz had become the ego fractured by the unfettered freedom of the primitive impulse ('id') and the repressive restraints of a flawed morality ('superego') and “magnificent eloquence”; “the wildenerness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance.” The wilderness elicited his primitive self, “whispered to him things about himself he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude”. Away from the social and moral structure of his civilisation, he had succumbed to the brutality, sef-gratification and degradation of his soul, deprived of faith and fear, yet “struggling with itself”.
The god man, in seeking to be an absolute god, was driven to madness by the dark void of his soul and empty beliefs of his own construction. ...more
A first person narrative that takes us into the internal world of an outsider. Changez achieves the success of New York's capitalist elite by assimiliA first person narrative that takes us into the internal world of an outsider. Changez achieves the success of New York's capitalist elite by assimiliating the norms that define his new social milieu while distinguishing himself with the exoticism of his colonial Pakistani heritage and the "hunger" of his work ethic. The heady approval he seeks and receives is confronted by the mounting loss of self in the midst of growing social and political tensions he experiences in New York and the oppression of America's economic colonialism in Pakistan. These questions of social and political identity resonate on a personal level in his romantic entanglement with Erica, who having lost her fiance to cancer is now thrust into an imaginary past more coherent than her surrounding reality. In his desperation to rescue Erica, Changez realises he is no less trapped in an existential 'unreality' of his own making....more
Dante’s moral history reflects the conflict of natural justice and Christian theology in its complex taxonomy of iniquity in the Inferno; why else theDante’s moral history reflects the conflict of natural justice and Christian theology in its complex taxonomy of iniquity in the Inferno; why else the invention of ‘Limbo’ in Hell to ameliorate the fate of good non-Christian souls, like Virgil, which Christian – particularly Roman Catholic - orthodoxy would exclude from Paradise? Neither is Dante averse to the subjectivity of his primal justice in sending the betrayers of hospitality to eternal damnation upon commission of such a sin, and leaving their living bodies abodes of demons on earth, despite the heretical defiance of Christian doctrine that God will save the repentant sinner up to the moment of death; that said, one might argue internal consistency in Dante’s portrayal of Hell, where heretics are confined to the sixth circle of Hell, while traitors to their guests plumb Hell’s deepest depths in the ninth circle.
At the heart of this intellectual struggle with Christian justice, with Dante advocating no less than the application of sober reason, is a prevalent, instinctive discomfort with the theology of original sin – of particular favour with Protestant orthodoxy – which imputes an equal guilt on all humankind, who share a shattered image of the Divine that no human volition nor deed will redeem. Dante’s choice of a righteous pagan in his tour of Hell would, therefore, be considered a logical choice of guide by reason of reasonable necessity. Could Divine Justice, the progenitor of imperfect human justice, be less discriminating and impervious to gradations of good and evil in favour of a blanket guilt for all?
Nonetheless, the flaws of human reason are not eradicated in Dante’s testament. For instance, while the phantasmagoria of hellish punishments follow the law of contrapasso, or just counter-penalty which matches sin and punishment, it is inconceivable how eternal torment is commensurate with sin in a lifespan of threescore years and ten. Neither is one fully convinced that sins of incontinence (such as lust) are necessarily distinct from, and of a lesser order than, sins of intent (such as violence); one need only tune in to ‘Law and Order’ for defences on the basis of insanity for a plethora of crimes that traverse Dante’s dichotomy.
Theology aside, Dante’s scathing denunciation of hypocrisy in the Church of his day remains a chilling bugle call to reflection and repentance by today’s Church, Catholic or Protestant, which continues to struggle with scandal, hypocrisy and avarice (often presented as God-sanctioned abundance). For the individual Christian, Dante’s search for the “path that does not stray”, having “journeyed half of his (sic) life’s way” prompts us to serious re-consideration of spiritual realities ‘mid life’s crises. ...more
Ian McEwan’s anecdotal narrative-within-a-narrative of postmodern epistemology explores the possible and fantastical frames of minds converging upon aIan McEwan’s anecdotal narrative-within-a-narrative of postmodern epistemology explores the possible and fantastical frames of minds converging upon a ballooning accident, which precipitates that single explosive moment when Jed Parry is thrust into a psychopathological obsession with the narrator, Joe. Just as Jed’s delusional narrative of Joe’s irresistible affections for him impose immense strain on Joe’s relationship with his common-law wife Clarisse, Joe’s preoccupation with Jed’s potential for vengeance estranges Clarisse, who in turn exacerbates the alienation she feels with her suspicions that Joe’s narrative is merely a fiction and madness.
The author’s narrative thesis on relativism is framed in the anecdotal retelling of a real-life story (the novel is a fictionalised account of P, an erotomaniac, whose case is documented in an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry), and intertwined with Joe’s latest assignment as a science writer to argue the transition of scientific discourse from subjective anecdotal narratives exemplified by amateur scientists, such as Charles Darwin in the Victorian era, to formal objectified discourse in current professional practice. This is an assignment which Joe, and one could infer McEwan, abandons as facetious and contrived by selective attention to evidence. The counterargument is eminently evident in the history of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which was first accepted as truth, upon which evidence was assiduously gathered in support of space-time distortions by gravity. Joe, and presumably McEwan, attributes this to the ‘elegance’ of the argument, which becomes an elusive pursuit of all the protagonists in this story.
The subjective fallibility of human narrative, from which the narrator is unable to exist independently, is conveyed by the diametric opposition of Jed’s Christian beliefs and Joe’s atheism; only the supernatural construct of God could possibly adjudicate the substance of Truth, but the believer cannot assume the Deity, the vision of Whom is shaped by his very own obsessions (Jed believes God has sent him to redeem Joe through his love), and the atheist very simply rejects such a supposition.
The only narratives left to explicate this epistemology are mere demonstrations of human subjectivity – hopeless, often impervious to mutual understanding, and at times comical. The primitive seat of subjective narrative is the emotions, which colour, distort, and fabricate connections with no knowable cause or effect. Joe, in his exasperation to ward off Jed’s attentions, re-experiences his crisis of self-worth as a science-writer who forsook a career of original academic research to be a mere observer of academic enterprise. Clarisse thinks this self-loathing has merely found a convenient exorcism in Joe’s narratives of Jed’s dangerousness. Meanwhile, Jed’s indefatigable love for Joe finds meaning and telepathic communion through signals construed in the curtains of Joe’s apartment windows and the lingering warmth of leaves brushed by Joe’s hands.
If emotions distort, then memory is an easy accomplice. When Jed’s hired killers botch their attempt to snuff Joe (mistaking a former diplomat at a neighbouring table in the restaurant, with the same lunch party of an elderly man, a middle aged man and a younger woman), Joe’s memories of the incident only render him an unreliable witness at best, and even a suspect. (The interrogation, in its comedy, boils down to whether dessert was served prior to the shooting and the flavour of Joe’s ice-cream, if it was indeed served. Joe was adamant it was apple, on the green side of white.) Law enforcers, for all their experience, fare no better. When Joe presents evidence of Jed’s harassment in numerous letters to the police, Inspector Linley dismisses Jed as a pussycat in the police archive of horrors.
If memory is an accomplice, then the balance of power in a relationship is the judge of a narrative’s validity. Clarissa is alienated by Joe’s insistence on Jed’s irredeemable harassment and pathology, which he undertakes a research investigation (Clarissa deems this an attempt by Joe to revive his failed research career) to substantiate as Truth. When Clarissa mouths the explicit declaration that their relationship is over, Joe is numb, despite his unwavering belief in the depth and honesty of their love (and how underserving it is of a balding, large man to have the affections of a beautiful woman). When Clarissa finally leaves their home (after Joe shoots Jed in the arm to free Clarissa from Jed’s hostage-taking attempt), disappointed that Joe had in some way made this final violent showdown an inevitability through his obsessive demonisation of Jed, and rejection of Clarissa’s partnership in the evolving crisis, Joe deems Clarissa an ingrate who failed to see the de Clerembault Jed was and the saviour he was.
The subjective narrative is unrelenting, even when Joe attempts a scientific, reductionist, evolutionary psychological account of the baby’s smile, an account that Clarissa notes is deliberate in dismissing the gestalt of a parent-child relationship. On the other hand, Clarissa the academic expert on romantic poetry diligently seeks possible historical correspondence that could throw light on Keat’s romantic affections for Fanny Brawne, as though Keat’s poetry needed an added narrative to throw light on its meaning. Even in the midst of a criminal transaction, Joe is driven to uncontrollable laughter when he contemplates all the associations he perceives in the moustache of a gun seller with whom he is lunching.
Perhaps the author unsettles the narrative most of all when he remind us of his authorship. The book ends with two appendices, the first a reprint of the British Journal of Psychiatry article on which the novel is apparently based, with a full bibliography no less, but without any indication of the article’s date or journal issue. The second appendix is a letter from Jed to Joe from the mental institution to which he has been incarcerated. The veracity of the ‘true’ story on which the novel is based is kept off-kilter to the very end. ...more
Through the unravelling of Bucky Cantor's strength and fortitude, Roth explores the crippling inner life of Jewish guilt in his microcosm of the HolocThrough the unravelling of Bucky Cantor's strength and fortitude, Roth explores the crippling inner life of Jewish guilt in his microcosm of the Holocaust in a Jewish community of Newark ravaged by a polio epidemic in the final throes of the Second World War. The threat of disease, at first deemed an external perpetration by hostile Italians bent on staining the unblemished Jewish neighborhood with their vicious spitting on the streets, is internalized as the community turns on itself; fearful households demanding the segregation of the affected and grieving families seeking blame for their afflictions. Bucky, for all his fastidious responsibility and courage in defending his playground, as its director, against an Italian gang bent on an assault of infectious sputum, is not spared the accusation of failing to prevent infection among his charges. This begins Bucky's crippling descent, and an intimate portrayal of Jewish guilt and learned helplessness that can only relieve itself in silent surrender and self-sacrifice.
Raised with the moral fibre of one who should resist any adversity with all the determination he could muster, polio's invisible contagion frustrates Buck's attempts at combat; God becomes the knowable nemesis he rails against for unleashing this vector of death on innocent children. Roth does not attempt a philosophical discourse on human suffering and the psychic need for a compassionate deity. That would be as pointless an exercise in creativity as another vain attempt to explicate the Holocaust without the authority of a survivor's narrative.
Apart from the remonstrations of Marcia, Bucky's fiancee, that his conception of God is simplistic, and the biographer's observation that Bucky is a man devoid of wit, Bucky's theology is an emotional catharsis that turns on himself. His vengeful god inverts the blame on his accuser, who leaves the oppressive heat of the city for the Poconos to serve as summer camp director and reunite with Marcia at her insistence. The first sense of betrayal at leaving his afflicted community for seeming self-preservation abruptly intensifies into self-loathing (a limitless sense of responsibility incapacitated by limited means of redemption) when polio infiltrates the summer camp and claims one of his closest charges. Bucky's mind becomes his final and ultimate nemesis when he finally succumbs to polio and assumes responsibility as asymptomatic carrier for the death of his charges, both in his former Newark playground and in the Poconos. The guilt is not assuaged and exacts its self-flagellating punishment when Bucky breaks his engagement to Marcia in an unredeeming act of sacrifice to free Marcia from bondage to a crippled husband. The determination, dedication and discipline that have moulded Bucky's life till now become the virtues of his self-meted judgment; determined never to entertain any other cause than himself, dedicated to his unrelenting loss and emasculation, and disciplined never to relieve himself through self-annihilation.
Could Roth be suggesting in this psychological portrayal some reason why six million Jews met their deaths in the Holocaust like lambs to the slaughter, and that the nemesis of the Mind paralyses everyone who has lost hope in a God they cannot deny?...more
LA's vapid hedonisim is chronicled in thirteen narratives, separate yet melding into an indistinct voice that is languidly restless, unfocused, indiffLA's vapid hedonisim is chronicled in thirteen narratives, separate yet melding into an indistinct voice that is languidly restless, unfocused, indifferent, and rambling in a drug-induced haze; friends, lovers, spouses merit the same mention, often less favourable, as Porches, Mercedes Benzes, Jaguars, and personal financial worth. Amidst the blase disregard of relationships for transient gratification, the desire for genuine connection is thinly veiled; the son who is affected enough to disapprove the behaviour of a father with whom he'd rather not converse, the daughter who is dismayed at her father's decision to marry his lover despite her parents' history of serial affairs, the friend who cannot bear to see his friend wasting before his eyes yet is devoid of any expression of endearment or empathy.
The conscientious ease with which emotions are smothered belies the death of humanity uninformed by self-awareness (everyone else is objectified), vulnerability, or morality (that is not solely motivated by personal gratification). The semblance of life in this death asserts itself ultimately through violence and a vampiric feeding of blood. Irreversible death is momentarily allayed through its distraction in a sacrifice of blood.
The Informers continues Ellis's narrative arc depicting the moral vacuity of excess in 80s America. Compared to the unrelenting amoral depravity of American Psycho, The Informers suggests a latent, but palpable, morality that hints at some “why” to the motivations of these characters, fatuous as their espousals may be. Ellis could be compensating for the cold calculation of Bateman the pscyho with the almost heartfelt loneliness of these characters (one entire chapter consists of pleading letters to an unrequiting friend). While serial torture and murder befitted the psychotic absence of empathy for Bateman, the vampires in this novel are fuelled by an undeniable need to be undead.
Who are the informers? It seems all narrators betrayed themselves with the absence of confidence, inconsequential life stories bled of human connection. ...more