§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: December 2006

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

This was a hard book to get through—and I suspect many people won’t bother. It’s especially difficult if, like me, your reading and learning has been focused on the last 200 of the last 2000 years because Armstrong’s focus is religious movements from 1600 BCE up until the 7th century of our own era, but nothing later than 220 BCE gets in before the last, really very brilliant, chapter. I’m tempted to recommend everyone reading that last chapter, but suspect that it wouldn’t make as much sense as it does after you’ve slogged through the rest. Let me also say that the need to “slog through” has nothing to do with Armstrong’s ideas or writing style, but is solely the fault of my own ignorance.

Here’s the idea in a nutshell as I see it. Armstrong examines various periods—usually periods of great change and much violence—in which religion changed and put a focus on love, forgiveness, respect for all humans, and nonviolence, often as an antidote to terrible violence, hate and exclusivity in the world. The term “Axial Age” Armstrong takes from German philosopher Karl Jaspers who saw significant spiritual progress in humanity between 900 and 200 BCE in several world religions: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel and philosophical rationalism in Greece and focused on “sages” like Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius and Euripides. During the various axial periods and with the teachings of various sages, religion went from being a matter of what you believed to how you behaved. Threading her way through these periods and religious changes—without oversimpilfying—is what Armstrong does in this book.

If you’ve studied comparative religion—as I have not—perhaps these historical periods are not so distant as they were for me. I knew little about China during these periods, less about India even though I knew a reasonable amount about Israel and Greece. Of the history of religion in these periods I knew even less, having seriously studied only some of the Old Testament in a long-ago college course (which nevertheless impressed me). But as I finished the book, I was in utter awe of Armstrong’s ability not only to explain religious movements in distant times and places but to relate them and to funnel her ideas down into what seemed to me brilliant advice about our own time. Here are a few quotations from that last chapter:

  • “The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda. For them, religion was the Golden Rule. They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from—their greed, egotism, hatred and violence. What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle.”
  • “Every single one of these faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time.”
  • “…violence usually recoils upon the perpetrator, no matter how well intentioned he might be. You cannot force people to behave as you want; in fact, coercive measures are more likely to drive them in the opposite direction.”
  • “Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual kernel. A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact: it is a program for action.”

Not that all this hasn’t been said before and it may not strike you as brilliant until you’ve read this very impressive synthesis of common threads in the world’s great religions over the last 4000 years. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

First, this novel is worth reading because Malouf’s style is fabulous. Secondly he creates tension and suspense by writing dispassionately about passion and prejudice and love and fear. Sometime in the mid 19th century, settlers in a small community in Queensland get a new inhabitant, a nearly inarticulate white man who’s been living with the Aboriginals for 16 years. He barely speaks English and can’t coherently account for his experience though we eventually learn he had been a damaged child who went to sea and was lost off the coast of Queensland.

There were no welfare agencies, no government policies for victims, no procedures for passing on the refugee. It was not even a village really, just an agricultural settlement where families lived and worked at a subsistence level; church and school, pastor and schoolmaster, plus the camaraderie of the families facing similar hardships held the community together. As did the fears they had in common, such as fear of attack by Aboriginals. When Gemmy Fairly appeared, many of the settlers feared that he would bring down the wrath of his former protectors on the settlement, even that he was an advance guard set ahead of the attach, and those fears superseded concern for the welfare of this Englishman who had, in fact, grown to adulthood with savages so that he seemed more like them than his own people.

One family, the McIvor’s—Scottish immigrant family consisting of father, mother, two daughters and a nephew—take in Gemmy. He had first made himself known to Janet and Meg and Lachlan, appearing before them without prior warning—just as they’d experienced with Aboriginals, barely managing to ask them not to shoot, he was British: “Do not shoot. I am British object”.

The book spans a period of at least 50 years from the time Gemmy appeared in the settlement, more if you consider the back stories Malouf provides. Chapters don’t so much follow a story line as sketch in a background and a foreground, from Mrs. McIvor’s choice of a husband who would not follow her brothers into the coal mines to how the educated schoolmaster and the pastor ended up in such an isolated spot, to a focus on the settlers whose primal fear of the Aboriginals clearly extended to the unfortunate white man who’d been rescued by the community. The incident of Gemmy Fairly turns out to be catalyst in the significant life choices made by the two main characters (if such they can be called) Janet McIvor and her cousin, Lachlan Beattie, who meet during the time of WWI, a nun and a politician, tied to each other and the Queensland settlement by the most significant event in their moral lives—and by extension in that of their country.

A guess on the title: It's Gemmy who "remembers Babylon", who like the Israelites during their captivity grew up knowing more of the land of their captivity than of their "home". Interestingly, the settlers too are exiles dealing with moral ambiguities they would have have known had they stayed home. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I was planning to write that this was an amusing story but boring in places, but when I got to the end I was so impressed with how the author tied up the disparate parts that my sense of its quality went up considerably. It’s the story of Jacob Jankowski and narrated by Jacob, alternatively, at two different stages of his life, one when he’s a young man during the Depression starting out to find his place in the world and the other when he’s 93 and in a nursing home. The latter bored me at first—or perhaps scared me since I’m 65 and so beginning to worry about quality-of-life-in-old-age issues.

Jacob starts as a veterinary student near the end of his course, with only his final exams between his degree and the beginning of practice with his father, when he’s summoned from class one day and told that both his parents have died in a car accident. He goes home to the house as they left it the morning of the accident—including the newly painted sign announcing the father-and-son veterinary practice. The lawyer soon tells him everything is mortgaged, that his father had been paid recently only in vegetables and eggs, and that there's nothing left. Shell-shocked, Jacob goes back to Cornell to take his final exams, but when the papers are handed out he cannot do it, hands in his paper without a mark and takes off walking.

He jumps a train. Turns out it’s a circus train, that of a minor spectacular traveling show, and that he’s invited to stay. Turns out to be a fit of sorts. He knows how to treat the animals and they can’t afford a ‘real’ vet so are delighted to welcome the Cornell-educated vet, degree or not. Those who run the show are pretty careless of both human life and dignity—to say nothing of animal life and dignity—and the workers stay because there are no jobs elsewhere. Jacob eventually stays because, like his father, he cares more for the animals than the money, and of course, there’s a girl—and an elephant.

The 93-year old Jacob has had enough of fake food and antidepressants if he complains. His family is not negligent though they do let him down on the day they’ve promised to take him to the circus. He’s forgiving, after all the eldest son, he figures, is 71 himself. I won’t tell you the ending because it’s too good not to experience it for yourself and ties up both strands of the story and all the themes rather nicely. Not the best of fiction for 2005 but I found it worth reading. Maybe especially appealing to those glaring at the end of middle age.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

One of my favorite novels of this year. Kate Grenville is Australian and a couple of years ago I read her The Idea of Perfection and liked it too. This one has an interesting background. Grenville researched her ancestors, among them a waterman from London who arrived in Syndey as a convict at the beginning of the 19th century and settled along the Hawksbury River where he farmed but also transported crops to Sydney and manufactured goods back to the settlers along the river. Grenville became particularly interested in the encounters between the settlers and the Aboriginals. She wanted to understand the Aboriginal way of life and even went to live with some who lived the traditional life in a still-isolated spot, assuming, not doubt rightly, that the urban Aboriginals of modern Sydney would not give her much clue to their ancestors’ lives along the Hawksbury 200 years ago. Altogether she researched settlements along the Hawksbury, Aboriginals living at the time, and also in London from whence came most of the convicts who became settlers.

Granville originally intended to write a non-fiction book, but at some point decided to make it fiction, that is, not to write about her actual ancestor, but to base her main character loosely on him. The result of all her research is, to me, the way novelists ought to use history. She writes a third person narrative, keeping the point of view that of William Thornhill, who, in bad times, was tempted into theft, caught and sentenced to hang. A plea for mercy, citing his otherwise honest career and his need to support a wife currently pregnant and an existing child, is honored and he’s transported instead, with his family.

The novel is fast moving, and the author has a comfortable command of the details of time and place. Nowhere does she stop and use her research to characterize a time or a place, but her knowledge is sure and the background details that creep naturally into her text feel right. The novel covers William Thornhill’s early life in Bermondsey, his trial and transportation (without getting side-tracked by the trials of the nearly year-long voyage), his experiences in the Syndey Cove settlement, and the move to the Hawksbury where he encounters the Aborginals who already live there. We see Thornhill as a strong man who is not naturally brutal, one who’s hardened by a hard life but willing to defend himself, even break the law, when his family and way of life are threatened. We see his wife Sal, who is, in many ways, Will’s moral center, whose 2nd son is born on the voyage and followed quickly by two more and a daughter and who is not nearly so enthusiastic about the land Thornhill has fallen in love with on the Hawksbury. Partly it's her fear of the isolation and the Aboriginals, but it's also her homesickness. Increasingly it becomes apparent that there will be trials building a home in such and isolated place as well as confrontations with the Aboriginals.

There’s been some controversy in Australia about this book. One historian criticized her for writing a book with a “liberal point of view” by which he seems to mean creating a character who feels compassion for the Aboriginals being replaced. Here’s John Hirst from an article in The Australian from last March. He says,

"She told the ABC: 'You want to go back 200 years and say to thesettlers, "Look, this is how the Aborigines are", and to theAborigines, "Look, this is why settlers are behaving the way they are. Let's understand this. There's no need for all this brutality".'

"Here is the liberal faith that conflict comes from misunderstanding. Actually, had Aborigines understood the settlers' intentions earlierthere would have been more violence and sooner. The settlers werefortunate in that the Aborigines often at first welcomed them oravoided them or attempted to accommodate them."

So Hirst complains that Grenville’s main character is more compassionate towards the Aboriginals than is realistic. I’m sure it’s true that Grenville has chosen to focus her novel on a subject of interest of her contemporary readers and is more interested in the compassionate emancipist than in the ones who cut off the hands and ears of Aboriginals and tied up Aboriginal women to service them. Novelists do write for their own contemporaries and main characters in novels are more often the odd person out than they are typical. I believe that’s the novelist’s job, to speak to contemporary issues. If they deal with history it’s probably better not to distort history, but a novelist can choose to focus on a particular type of character with attitudes that are different from most of his contemporaries, and need not, like many an historical profile, focus on the “typical settler along the Hawksbury” in any respect. As literature, this is a very good book. Grenville didn’t intend it as history; much as the history interested her, she chose to write a novel.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany

I had a book I’d read part of and several books I wanted to listen to on my iPod when I flew home from visiting my daughter in Vermont on Monday, but there was a “real bookstore” in the airport and I couldn’t resist. I came away with this novel about modern Cairo. I’ve since heard it’s been made into a very controversial film, controversial in Egypt because of the sexual openness, homosexuality, religious hypocrisy and political corruption. It’s a “what really happens behind closed doors” book that’s new and fresh because it’s Cairo and not New York or Paris.

Built in the 1930s, the Yacoubian Building is a venerable monument in downtown Cairo, built for the time when mostly foreigners lived and worked there. It’s not really a residential building, but several of tenants live there in offices and a wide variety of the lower classes live and work in one-room cubicles on the roof. There’s the doorman whose son has met all the requirements for the police academy but is not accepted because his father is a doorman, there’s the fading aristocrat (son of a prime minister in the distant past) who has an office there where he meets the women, the appreciation of whom has become his profession—and his servant and his brother who run a small business on the roof. There’s the politician who buys his way into parliament—and the king-maker who helps him. There’s a journalist in love with a young policeman from Upper Egypt and a girl who lives on the roof and is driven to work by the death of her father—when the only work her commercial degree gets her comes with an elderly boss who wants to fondle her. There are two widows with small children who make second marriages as a way of surviving, one the widow of a terrorist who seeks a husband in the terrorist camp and the other agrees to be the secret second wife who’s not allow to have any more children. Their stories are intertwined, and the social criticism is applied on the one hand with detachment and bits of humor but increasingly with gritty realism as lives explode.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to the film. Check out the movie trailerPosted by Picasa