Archive for July, 2014

When this book was first published twenty years ago, I was in its target audience. It’s now out of print, but you can find/order just about anything at a good bookshop. I first read it fairly recently, and it took me back to feeling like a kid reading pulp fantasy novels to escape his unhappy life. It made for good airplane reading.

When dealing with the fantasy genre, it is most common to talk about series instead of independent stories. This is an audience that usually has a voracious appetite for reading material, so the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. After all, if Harry Potter had only lived for one book, he would never have become the cultural landmark he is today. Getting your series turned into a movie is also extremely useful. So when people discuss Diana Wynne Jones, they tend to talk about Howl’s Moving Castle, the first of three books and it became an animated picture by Hayao Miyazaki. Being a one-off with no film, Hexwood doesn’t get much attention, and I’m sure the out-of-print thing doesn’t help.

This novel hits most of Diana Wynne Jones’s major themes: Celtic legends, transformations, discovering one’s identity, magic, and British culture. [It was very strange to both read Howl and see the movie, and watch how all the explicitly Welsh culture from the novel becomes Japanese in the film.] I like the way Jones resists Tolkien’s influence. The sword and sorcery stuff is there, but it’s not there for its own sake; it teaches us how to live in the contemporary world. And when a character even mentions hobbits, the author kills him immediately. Spoilers might be considered particularly egregious in a book like this, but I’m going to ruin it for you anyway.

Here’s the idea: There is a vast intergalactic government/corporation that relies on selling flint from Earth, which is used in interplanetary transportation. Earth has a galactic monopoly on flint, but we don’t know that. The Earth represented is a fairly close approximation to the one we live in. The corporation is governed by a group of five Reigners, who are so far from most of the workers that they are more mythic than real. They have an assassin called The Servant who takes care of any problems for them; he is their public face. The current Reigners are corrupt and excessively involved with consolidating their already extensive power. On Earth, the corporation is called Rayner Hexwood International; the Earth installation has the two goals of exporting as much flint as possible as cheaply as possible and preventing the local population from discovering the existence of life offplanet. There is also a secretive underground file storage facility, sometimes called a library, sometimes Hexwood Farm. The library houses The Bannus, a reality simulator that helps people make decisions. It was designed to create a reality that would run people through several different versions of a situation so that they could choose the best way to act. This Bannus was programmed to choose Reigners. Reigner One didn’t want to lose his position, so he sealed it up and hid it where he thought no one would ever find it. He did the same to his two most dangerous enemies. A thousand years later The Bannus is pissed, and manipulates a computer hacker into breaking the seals and turning it on. The dupe wanted to do some live role-playing with hobbits on a Grail Quest, but instead he got angry alien technology with mind control. It sucks in all the people around it and convinces them they’re living in this Camelot-style environment; as the book goes on, it sucks in more and more people, and the situation gets increasingly complex. But none of these people know they’re in a simulation, only the hacker does. Life before plumbing was rather more difficult than he anticipated. But hackerboy isn’t the protagonist; he’s just a pawn who thinks that he’s more central than he is.

The local village is early-1990s contemporary British, the sort of life considered normal by the intended audience. Ann is a regular girl with a familiarly obtuse family. She hears voices in her head and discovers a magical medieval world in the woods at the edge of the village. She accepts her reality as the real one, but can’t convince her friends in the woods around the castle that their reality isn’t real. Given time, Ann figures out that neither is real. She’s not a girl; she’s a grown woman who accompanied the Reigners to Earth to try to defuse the situation. The goal is to find and shut down The Bannus; it’s hard because it keeps convincing people they’re knights or ladies-in-waiting or shopkeepers. And if a sentient computer can alter reality, what would it make itself look like? Would it really become a Grail? The Bannus’s goal is to draw in the Reigners and kill them. This makes the book significantly darker than, say, the Howl books, because people die horrible deaths. Slipping in rivers, drinking poison, and being attacked by dragons. Not really kid-friendly, but the few references to romance or sexuality are all appropriate for the type of ten-year-old I was.

Even though this book was written by a woman, even though the main character is a female, it just barely passes the Bechdel Test. There are comparatively few female characters, and most of their interactions are unfortunate stereotypes: prosaic mother meets rebellious preteen daughter, evil woman in position of power eliminates all female rivals. They talk about fashion and families. Even in this world, an imagined world containing other imagined worlds, action belongs to men. The back of the book makes it sound like it’s all about Ann, but the cover art has three young men. It’s just weird.

This is a book about clearing away the corrupt elements at the top of society and replacing them with more virtuous equivalents. It’s not about revolution and overthrow; it’s about peaceful transitions to a better version of the present system. This is why the killing is so strange to me. Normally, the violent situations can be avoided, and there’s room for everyone in society. In Hexwood, there is no place for some people. They have to die. Like most fantasy narratives, it’s essentially conservative. I think that’s weird too, but it’s also true.

To some extent, all fiction is fantasy because it doesn’t describe events that actually happened. The stuff we label the fantasy genre, though, tends to present us with thought-experiments that study our limitations. Along with getting rid of the existing Reigners, The Bannus is also training the new ones not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Cycles of violence and exploitation can be broken, but someone has to work consciously toward creating new patterns.

And, there you have it. The language is functional and direct; the messages are fairly clearly spelled out; the characters are pleasant to be with. It’s not a taxing book, but it is one I enjoy. Think, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. That kind of feel.

When reading the works of Milan Kundera, it helps to have some knowledge of, or at least interest in, three subjects: philosophy, European history and politics, and sex.

I’ve read this novel before, focusing on plot and character and letting the philosophy wash through me. But having read Sartre recently, I understood the philosophy better, so I paid more attention to it. The title and first two chapters introduce some of the important concepts. Kundera begins with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return: existence happens in cycles, patterns of behaviour that are repeated within a person’s lifetime, throughout cultures, and on the global scale as well. Many books read this way, including the Old Testament (referenced quite a few times in the text). If this moment is bound to happen again and again, it is infinitely important that we make the right choices because we, and everyone else, are bound to repeat this choice over and over. This sounds like an easier-to-swallow version of Sartre’s idea that what choices we make define humanity. The responsibility for our choices and the awareness that they affect everything in time and space feels like a weight, and this heaviness is roughly equivalent to Sartre’s meaning of the word anguish. On the other hand, the Germans have an old saying, einmal ist keinmal, or, once is never. If something only happens once, it may as well have never happened at all. Kundera seems to champion the belief that life is a series of discrete moments with little connection to each other. Without these causal connections, there is no grand responsibility for the world, no weight. There is an incredible lightness, in which nothing we do matters because we are powerless to affect anything. Hence the unbearable lightness of the title.

Personally, I think lightness and weight are two extremes, and the truth is a blend of the two. There are certain clear causal links between my behaviour and the events in my life. However, I am not responsible for the choices of other people. Kundera only presents the two possibilities, that either events return and we always choose the same thing or events never return and every decision is irrevocable. I think that similar choices recur in our lives, so that we do have the opportunity to change our minds, to choose to be something other than we have always been. We are constantly recreating our identities, and if we want to be different, we can act differently and choose something new. I think this is what Sabina is getting at with her fixation with betrayal of betrayals; choosing something new that contradicts her choices in the past, she has a compulsion to do and be differently than she has done and been. She keeps in the middle between lightness and weight, and you notice she’s the only main character to live through the book.

As with philosophy, Czech history is not my forte. It’d be interesting to read this book in close juxtaposition with Milosz’s The Captive Mind and other books about the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century. Nearly all of my knowledge of European history comes through its literature, and, as with most novels, you don’t have to understand it all in order to follow the story, so again as with philosophy, I let the history wash through me and piece together a more complete understanding with time.

The aspect of the political situation that I identify with most strongly is the fear of observation. I’ve always been a little paranoid about being watched and judged, and living in a country with strict anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t help. I don’t want to overthrow any specific government; I think the whole idea of government is flawed, but it sure beats having to walk around with a gun all the time. I do object to being asked which books and films I bring into a country, though. Stories are very important to me, and I get heartily offended at the implication that some are unwelcome in an entire country.

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

Yes, all of this, yes. This was me as a kid, but I recognized the old-fashionedness of it because I read old-fashioned books. I went all out for it, with huge mutton chop sideburns and pocket watches and bowties and stuff. I don’t mind feeling a little anachronistic at times. The first time my ex saw me naked she said I looked like a Victorian gentleman.

Persons who are uncomfortable with sex should never read Kundera. Sex is very important to him, so he puts lots of it in his novels. Sometimes it’s very graphic, like the clockwork orgy scene in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I welcome it, but I don’t discuss Kundera with my mother. I may not have a ton of sexual experience, but I do have a vivid imagination and a tendency to think about it a lot. I analyze my experiences and fantasies to understand myself, and what things I’d like to try in the future. Kundera discusses the vision of Paradise in terms of unattainable ideals, but two of his characters have an experience that approximates mine. They laugh and suddenly the joke turns into sex.

What could have excited them so? A moment before, the hat on her head had seemed nothing but a joke. Was excitement really a mere step away from laughter?

Yes. My vision of Paradise is the memory of my favourite sexual experience. My laughter is often misunderstood because I don’t laugh at things that are humourous. At funny movies, I remain silent because I’m afraid of missing something. I laugh when I am delighted with the world, or a certain person in it. When I feel a rush of love for someone, I laugh because I’m so happy. Sometimes that makes it seem like I’m laughing at their problems or distress, as at funerals, but that’s really not it at all. So one night I was so happy leading into sex that I started laughing for no apparent reason, and the ex started laughing too, then suddenly we were fucking hard and fast, and when it was over we burst out laughing again. My vision of perfection is this combination of love and joy, where the partner is a source of intense physical and emotional delight, perhaps not constantly, but regularly. Lately I’ve been meeting guys who seem really great and delightful, but once they take their pants off they become violent. I’d prefer to sleep with someone who’s not going to call me a bitch, slap me around, or choke me. That doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal, but it is proving harder than it looks.

As I move through the world gaining experience, I realize more and more just how separate love and sex really are. Our culture tells us that they’re the same thing, or that one is a sign of the other, and we even refer to sex as making love. It’s all a big lie. I prefer to use the phrase ‘making love’ in the sense that Jane Austen uses it, when two people talk to each other with the purpose of inspiring or encouraging positive feelings between them. Love can be accompanied by physical actions, but we hardly have sex with everyone we love. With nearly all the people I love, I would feel extremely uncomfortable with the implication that they desired a sexual relationship with me. I try to love all the people I come into contact with, so there’s usually at least some involved when I have sex, but I can’t say that I’d want any of my partners back again. I wish them well in future romantic endeavours, so long as they don’t involve me. Love is a patterned emotional response, but sex is a behaviour. It’s great when the two come together, but they don’t always. Intellectually, I can understand the behaviour patterns of the characters in the novel, but I don’t envy Tomas his promiscuity. When two people commit to sexual fidelity, I think they should honour that commitment. I see marriage as a promise of faithfulness; if you’re going to live with one partner while following several others, I say don’t get married. His affairs upset me almost as much as they do his wife.

One of the differences between characters is how they define themselves. What makes me different from other people? How do I know that I am uniquely myself? Tereza has a real problem with her body; she sees the physical bodies of all people as being roughly equivalent, so she only feels herself when clothed. Her self is her soul, that difficult-to-define entity. Her unique combination of intellectual and emotional patterns, I guess you could say. But those are so tied into the body, electrical impulses moving through biological matter, that I don’t see the distinction. Soul and body are so much a part of each other that I can’t imagine a realistic post-death life where they are separate.

For Tomas, on the other hand, a woman’s individuality is made clear in her sexual behaviours. When he meets a woman, he wonders,

How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her? How would her sighs sound? How would her face distort at the moment of orgasm?

Even when I meet someone I’d like to sleep with, I don’t spend time on these questions. My concerns are a little different. Is he interested in me? Is he still going to be nice to me after I drop my pants? Is he going to kick me out immediately afterward? Would he be good with my kids? If we’re watching a video on the couch, would he rather put his arm around my shoulders or have mine around his? Will he let me kiss him in public? What would he look like in a kilt? It may seem as though I’m making moral judgments against Tomas, but I don’t feel that I am. According to the culture I was raised in, Tomas’s questions are much more masculine, and since I’m a man, I feel I ought to be somewhat more like him. But then I remind myself that I’d rather be me, and that I’m okay as I am.

Kundera defines kitsch several different ways in this novel. Art is inseparable from the discussion, but it encompasses the body, politics, and philosophy as well. Kitsch is an aesthetic mode that denies the existence of the unpleasant. The first unpleasant thing is shit. We do distance ourselves from our own feces, and consider it an oddity if someone makes a habit of looking at it. But what is shit? Indigestible material we’ve consumed, mixed with waste from the body. Our cells are constantly replicating because they are also constantly dying and being expelled from the body: our shit is composed of the influences on our body that we can’t use any more. It seems like a healthy thing to me to examine what emotional or intellectual influences we’re holding onto and to release those that no longer serve our growth. What happens if we don’t release that shit? Blockages, cancer, regurgitating the same old shit again and again. Kitsch enables the eternal return of unchanging ideologies. Another unpleasant thing kitsch denies is death. We’re all going to die; that’s the only real end to any of our stories; it’s my evidence that nature always overpowers humanity eventually. Much of twentieth century art consciously distances itself from kitsch by embracing shit, death, and ugliness, which is why you rarely see it outside of specialist galleries.

But political movements rely on kitsch, perhaps not bad art itself, but the idea of it. We ignore the unpleasant realities of an ideology in order to convince people to join us; as such, there’s a kitsch for every ideology. Kundera calls liberalism’s kitsch The Grand March – a protest march with fists punching the air, slogans chanted in unison; all that’s missing are the uniforms and the goose-step. Those of us who find a comfortable home for our identities in the humanities can get easily sucked into it, and lose sight of the conformity we are demanding. Everyone should compost for their container gardens and recycle their identically low-BHA plastic bottles. Good ideas, of course, but people can be just as judgmental and controlling about liberal politics as they can be about conservative politics. Eventually Kundera calls kitsch the opposite of individuality. What makes us unique? Our shit, our death. Our faults and failures. What we discard. Perhaps what makes me me is which shit I am willing to forgive myself for.

A quick word on plot structure: This is not a linear story. Each part focuses on a specific person. Part I is for Tomas and is about the lightness and weight above. Part II is for Tereza, and covers approximately the same period of time as the first, but seeing the same events from her perspective instead of his. Tereza focuses on questions of soul and body. Part III is for Sabina and Franz and all their miscommunications. The exact timing re Tomas and Tereza wasn’t clear to me. During or after. Part IV we’re back with Tereza, mostly after Part II, and Part V is Tomas during the same time again. Part VI is Sabina and Franz, now separated, after Part III and at least partially during the time of Parts IV and V. Part VII is back to Tomas and Tereza but focuses on their dog, before the end of Part VI. So, don’t get upset when people die; you’ll probably hear more of them later anyway. If it seems hard to follow, take breaks between sections. We hear stories from people in real life this way, but not all at once. We constantly revise our understanding of people, sometimes based on things they do now, sometimes on things they did in the distant past. If something doesn’t make sense, it probably will after we have better information. Treat it with the patience that you do reality and it’s not too hard to follow.

This volume has three short pieces, each fifty or sixty pages in length, so they fall right on that line between short story and novel. Maybe they’re short novels, maybe novellas, maybe there’s no need to classify them based on length. It also reminded me of the buyer-beware aspect of used bookshops, since every page from 137 to 162 is torn neatly across from the edge into the binding [proof that it didn’t come from my two favourite shops, since they have such high standards that they always refuse around half the books I try to trade in]. The tears start close to the bottom of the page and move progressively upward, as if someone was trying to rip the book in frustration but got a bit twisted up. But nothing is missing, so after reading, I don’t think there’s any reason to be so angry at this little book. Porter’s delightful.


The story begins with a portrait of an ideal, Aunt Amy, and the two little girls who grow up in her shadow. Throughout their lives, everyone is compared unfavourably with the deceased Aunt Amy, who was apparently more beautiful, more charming, and more daring than any other woman anyone had ever known. In an era when women’s actions were carefully guarded, Amy did whatever she liked, bugger the consequences. She could bat her eyelashes and smile her way through nearly any situation, and when her brother shot at (or possibly just shot) a man to protect her honour and had to move to Mexico for a year, he was happy to go on an adventure for her. There are worse places than Mexico during the Old West for a Texan who’s just committed a violent crime on his sister’s behalf. There are some people who can get away with stuff and become legend while the rest of us learn to behave. My older sister was one, and I suspect that my middle son is becoming one. I was not – too much conscience, too little popularity. Examples: as a teenager, my sister once locked all of the adults at her summer camp in their cabin, and my son sang several verses of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” in McDonald’s when he was three years old.

And what happens when we meet the stuff of legend?

They had just turned their dollars over to the bookmaker for the fourth race when a vast bulging man with a red face and immense tan ragged mustaches fading into gray hailed them from a lower level of the grandstand, over the heads of the crowd, “Hey, there, Harry?” Father said, “Bless my soul, there’s Gabriel.” He motioned to the man, who came pushing his way heavily up the shallow steps. Maria and Miranda stared, first at him, then at each other. “Can that be our Uncle Gabriel?” their eyes asked. “Is that Aunt Amy’s handsome romantic beau? Is that the man who wrote the poem about our Aunt Amy?” Oh, what did grown-up people mean when they talked, anyway?

He was a shabby fat man with bloodshot blue eyes, sad beaten eyes, and a big melancholy laugh, like a groan. […] Miranda and Maria, disheartened by the odds, by their first sight of their romantic Uncle Gabriel, whose language was so coarse, sat listlessly without watching, their chances missed, their dollars gone, their hearts sore.

Like so many stories from the 1930s, this is a story of losing faith in ideals. We build up hopes and dreams, a Technicolor Oz of the imagination, only to wake up in gray Kansas. When Miranda follows in Amy’s footsteps, the family that laughed over the aunt condemns the niece. So. Not so ideal after all.


I find I don’t have much to say on this story, probably because it addresses one of the issues that is most emotionally laden for me – mental illness. There are aberrations on both sides of my family, and one of my deepest fears is that I’m going to stop perceiving reality accurately. When I was religious, I was into mystic experiences, seeing visions, hearing voices, and so forth. When I think of my life then, I’m relieved that I don’t hallucinate any more, and that I no longer feel like I ought to. Leaving off the delusions of grandeur relieves a lot of pressure, too. But if I were to have a traumatic experience like that of Mr Thompson, I wonder even now if I would do any better at keeping track of what is happening, whose hands are doing what, and what degree of responsibility I have for actions that turn out to be mine.

And what clue do we have of insanity? Silence. Mr Helton doesn’t say much. I don’t say much. The extreme verbosity on this blog is a way of compensating for the extreme silence in my non-virtual life. I seldom talk much, unless I am (a) in front of a classroom, (b) drunk, or (c) with people I know well, or more accurately, with people whom I feel know me well. Mr Helton’s silence seems perfectly natural to me without explaining it with madness; indeed, the behaviour of most mad characters in literature seems normal to me until the author tells me they are mad. Which is one of the reasons that I worry.


Whenever I realize that a story is set in 1918 and a character begins to catch a cold, my heart quails within me. There are some implications that this is our old friend Miranda from Old Mortality, now in her mid-20s and surrounded by bored soldiers and busy newspapermen. This is primarily the story of Miranda’s delirium, with some moments of lucidity. It reminds me of the Porter story I used to teach, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” though the titular Granny declines steadily instead of by fits and starts. She also doesn’t seem to realize how quickly she’s dying, while Miranda expects and welcomes death. An influenza patient in love with a soldier during a war; of course she’s reconciled herself to the coming death.

Miranda sighed, and lay back on the pillow and thought, I must give up, I can’t hold out any longer. There was only that pain, only that room, and only Adam. There were no longer any multiple planes of living, no tough filaments of memory and hope pulling taut backwards and forwards holding her upright between them. There was only this one moment and it was a dream of time, and Adam’s face, very near hers, eyes still and intent, was a shadow, and there was to be nothing more. . . .

“Adam,” she said out of the heavy soft darkness that drew her down, down, “I love you, and I was hoping you would say that to me, too.”

He lay down beside her with his arm under her shoulder, and pressed his smooth face against hers, his mouth moved towards her mouth and stopped. “Can you hear what I am saying? . . . What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”

For Porter, illness and death isolate us slowly, putting a gradual yet firm distance between the sufferer and humanity. It’s like when you’re trying desperately to stay awake but not quite succeeding, so bits of current sensory information mix with the coinages of the unconscious mind, all in a briary tangle of reality and dream-logic. Disorienting because you don’t know you’re dreaming and it’s just real enough to be utterly convincing.

I once asked a class if they didn’t think Granny Weatherall was a hoot, and they looked back at me in gaping silence until someone said, “But she dies at the end.” I replied, “Yes, but before that?” A story is more than its ending. The end can give a clue to an overall meaning, but the joy of the story is seldom concentrated there (it is in Catch-22, a few hundred pages of stagnation followed by five pages of unbridled joy, but that book is hardly representative). The joy is in the telling; it’s in the language, the moments, everything that makes up the middle. That’s where the important stuff is. That’s why there’s more of it.

So, to me, it doesn’t matter so much if Miranda lives or dies of influenza, if Adam survives the war or gets blown up by a mine, or even if he snatches Miranda’s influenza death from her like the sacrificial lamb she compares him to. For me, it’s a story of hating the war and narrating delirium in a stream of consciousness like Esther Summerson or Quentin Compson. People called it The Great War, but it’s not like it solved that much. This story is set in 1918 at the end of the war, first published in 1939 as the world was moving into the next great war, and this paperback was published in 1962, around the time we were not starting a great war over Cuba.

My grandfather did some very brave things in World War II, but without killing anyone, so he feels a little effete when his friends in the nursing home talk about their experiences. My father spent his war in Thailand, working on the radio most of the time and spending the rest of the war hauling his fellow soldiers out of prostitutes’ beds so they could do their work. After seeing a touring production of Miss Saigon, he spent the rest of the night in tears. And me? I don’t have a war. I don’t feel the lack of one either. I don’t doubt the possibility of there being another world war in my lifetime, I could be around for another forty years, but I’m far too much of a pacifist actually to get involved. And when I hear my students tell me about how they can’t quite get their brains to work right ever since they drove over that IED in Fallujah, I’m grateful that I have a disposition for peace. I also don’t mind having a president whose war record consists of caring for those who survived. I’d rather have someone leading a war who has a clear memory of lost limbs and fractured minds than someone whose mind was fractured and is still caught up in jingoistic rhetoric about the glory of war. There’s no glory. Just confusion, a fog of delirium in which people die. Kind of like an influenza epidemic.

So, three little stories about death, disillusionment, conflicts that cannot be resolved, and being Texan between 1885 and 1919. I suppose the volume is rather sad, but this too is life. None of us can expect an unbroken chain of affirmations; sometimes we have to let the ideal die and accept the world as it is, in which forces beyond our control shatter our dreams and leave us abandoned and dispossessed. But life is still worth living, and hope still flutters its fragile wings. I believe there are bright futures and new dreams to be had, despite the passing crepuscular present.

I feel that I should preface this discussion with a disclaimer. I am not well read in philosophy; my field is literature. What does this mean? Every discipline has a unique set of assumptions and specialized vocabulary. When Sartre uses the word project, I feel as if I ought to know more specifically what he means because it seems to have a different meaning than when I use that word. I also know Kant and Marx by reputation rather than by a direct knowledge of their works, so I feel like I’m on the edges of Sartre’s conversation instead of a direct participant. It’s like I’m eavesdropping on Sartre talking to someone else who has read the same books that he has. I feel a little rude, a little out of my depth, and almost entirely out of place. [To be better prepared, I should have read Kant and Marx, possibly also Gide and Comte.]

Ever since I was in high school I’ve been meaning to read more philosophy, only to be defeated by the incredible density of their texts. Long sentences, long paragraphs, intensely meaningful short phrases – for someone who reads primarily fiction, it’s daunting. I have to spend most of my reading time looking away from the book, working out what he means and deciding whether I agree with it. Fiction usually elicits a less rational response. However, this text is significantly more approachable than the philosophy I’ve tried to read in the past. The occasion for writing demands that it be so – this is the text of a speech Sartre gave to clarify his position for a non-specialist audience. Audience is particularly important for him here because he sees his audience as changing; philosophers of previous eras could write exclusively for other philosophers and the mass of humanity left them alone, while his ideas get into the common press and existentialism becomes a meaningless buzzword. When uneducated people start confronting his texts, he doesn’t assume they’re all morons and carry on writing above their level; he interacts with his audience as they are even though he can’t choose who they are. As an uneducated reader (in his field), I really appreciate the effort.

There were some things that I really liked about this text, and others I objected to. The primary difficulty I have is Sartre’s absolutism. He assumes that what is true for him is true for everyone, including the tendency to make sweeping generalizations about humanity based on what is true about himself. My ex has a similar tendency to universalize, and as I was reading I could hear echoes of her arguing at me: “Well then obviously . . .” followed by a statement about my motives or reasoning that was patently untrue. So, maybe my tendency to feel combative toward Sartre has nothing to do with him, but that’s not going to stop me.

I felt particularly combative when he referred to The Mill on the Floss. I think that Maggie Tulliver is more complex than “the very incarnation of passion.” Such a phrase will give modern American audiences entirely the wrong idea about her. But that’s not as bad as his characterization of Lucy Deane, whom he does not even name. She’s “a very ordinary young girl,” which may be true, but that doesn’t make her worth less than Maggie, nor does it mean that Maggie herself is so very singular. He also calls her Stephen Guest’s “silly goose of a fiancée,” which is ridiculous. Lucy Deane is an intelligent, capable woman, albeit with some ignorance of human psychology. She believes the best about the people she loves, and we can’t blame her if her manipulations backfire. Stephen and Maggie are very careful to hide their feelings for each other from her and from everyone else. Lucy is very trusting, but what experience does she have of deceit? If a girl’s society protects her from certain harsh realities, we can hardly condemn her for not noticing them.

According to Sartre, the essence of his thought is the idea that ‘existence precedes essence’; or in other words, we exist first, and then we determine what we are. To some extent this is true, but I don’t believe that any child is actually a tabula rasa. We all have to cope with biological, genetic elements that are beyond our control. For a long time, I chose a heterosexual life, complete with marriage and children; however, my body has a noticeable physiological response to the sight, smell, and thought of other men. In this case, no matter how much I wanted to determine my essence, I couldn’t alter my own biology. To give a less politically motivated example, I have an unfortunate genetically determined response to gluten. I identify myself as someone with coeliac disease every time I choose what to eat or drink. If I don’t, if I choose an identity that contradicts my biology, then in a couple of days I (and everyone around me) will notice a change in my brain chemistry due to malabsorption of essential nutrients: depression, anxiety, rage, mood swings, inability to concentrate, and night blindness. Therefore, I think that Sartre is only partially right here. We can determine a lot about ourselves, but I think that an important part of living happily is accepting the limitations that ‘the accident of our birth’ place on us.

My next disagreement is summed up in his statement,

We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.

First, we do not always choose the good. Some people, of the type of Sartre and my ex, always have to rationalize their actions to themselves before they can do anything. I don’t. My ex could never understand or quite accept this about me. I can do something that I know to be wrong and even enjoy the wrongness of it. She can’t. I suspect Sartre couldn’t either. Second, embracing my own homosexuality doesn’t mean that I think everyone should be gay. Accepting coeliac disease doesn’t mean that I want to ban wheat from supermarkets. I can see that heterosexual marriage makes my friends happy; I think that’s great. But it wasn’t the right thing for me. I see the value of bread for other people, even though for me it’s poisonous. Sartre’s combined statement seems to imply that hypocrisy is impossible, but I’ve seen enough to know that people are fully capable of acting one way and insisting that everyone else behave in an opposite fashion.

I think that Sartre uses the word hope imprecisely. This may be an issue of translation. When he is explaining anguish, abandonment, and despair, all he really means is that we accept responsibility for our actions and situations without expecting someone else to come save us. So while he says,

We should act without hope.

He means we should act within the realm of our own responsibilities instead of expecting a supernatural force to intervene on our behalf. It is the specific hope for a deus ex machina that Sartre is teaching against, not hope in general. I don’t believe any of us perform any action without hoping for a certain outcome. Sometimes the hope is very small indeed, but it’s still there. As such, I don’t believe that any human is in a condition of complete despair; even the man committing suicide is hoping for the end of his life, or hoping that someone will care enough to save his life. In another place, Sartre insists that existentialism is the most optimistic of philosophies, and I see his point. If I am responsible for myself, my life, and my choices, and if I determine what defines all of humanity, then I have far more power than I understand. I’m not so much an ant who occasionally has to dodge the focused rays of God’s magnifying glass, but a bull in the china shop of my own being. Therefore, it’s worthwhile for me to hold still and examine what I’m doing from time to time.

Sartre acknowledges that this emphasis on personal responsibility can seem harsh to people who don’t feel like their lives are successful. It does. I generally assume that I haven’t done shit with my life, particularly when I think about high school reunions. But then I tell people that I used to teach in the Middle East, or I did a couple years of mission work in Brazil, or I have three sons, and they always act like I’ve had the most amazing life. In some ways, I suppose I have. But I consider my step-brother. He’s always lived in the same area. He’s spent his life building houses, hanging siding, replacing windows, fishing, the type of work that produces tangible results. He can point to a concrete benefit in the life of every person he’s worked with. I envy that sort of career, even though it seldom gets the recognition it deserves, even though I’m not making any steps toward reshaping my life in that direction. I’m the type of person who likes staying home, and I don’t think that’s likely to change; instead, I move my home all over the place, scouring the earth for something familiar.

The author doesn’t spend a lot of time on intersubjectivity in this discourse, but this was a point where I metaphorically sat up and paid attention, even though there’s only one paragraph on it. You see, if every person redefines the human race according to his own self-perception, that would seem to imply that there are as many humanities as there are humans. But there’s only one. The definition of humanity is infinitely variable; we negotiate that meaning with the people we come in contact with. We work together to create meaning; while this is an essential part of my teaching philosophy in terms of working with text, I like the idea that it also holds true for identities, particularly the definition of our own shared nature. Sartre spends so much time distancing himself from Communism that he often ignores the necessity of living in communities. It’s possible that he explains more about that in other places, but most of this speech seems to champion a sort of Emersonian self-reliance that I find unrealistic.

My favorite part was the end. Sartre spends a lot of time insisting that existentialism is basically an atheistic philosophy, but that’s tempered in the conclusion:

Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God; rather, it affirms that even if God were to exist, it would make no difference – that is our point of view. It is not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the real problem is not one of his existence; what man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself, not even valid proof of the existence of God.

This demonstrates the problems that Sartre gets into by using words imprecisely. It is also the most succinct explanation of the personal philosophy that I have been shaping in the last few years. I once called it ‘apatheism,’ because I don’t find the question of God’s existence interesting or useful. In my opinion, the real question is not, Do you believe in God? Or, Have you been saved? The question is, What are you doing about it? How are you working at becoming your best self? Sartre would say that by becoming my best self, I’m helping to make all of humanity better. I think that personal integrity does inspire others to work toward the same, so maybe Sartre is right. But even if it didn’t, I would still try to be my best. I would still work on speaking the truth and acting in love. And regardless of personal creed, I think that’s a definition of human ethics that most of us can agree on.


Yes, I did reread Camus the other week so that I’d remember it well when I got to this article, which this publisher uses to pad the volume. But I do wish I had also read The Myth of Sisyphus because Sartre treats the two books as a single project explaining Camus’s ideas on the absurd, and seems to quote from The Myth a little more often. A clever publisher would bind The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in a single volume with Sartre’s article as the preface. I don’t know the copyright issues involved, but I’d sure spend ten bucks on a paperback of two Camus works prefaced by Sartre.

As before, I disagree with Sartre’s absolutist statements.

He was happy, he did as he liked, and his happiness does not seem to have been affected by any inner gnawing so frequently mentioned by Camus in his essay, which stems from the blinding presence of death.

I don’t see Meursault as happy. I wouldn’t say that he does as he likes because he doesn’t seem to like anything. I may be projecting my feelings onto him, universalizing as Sartre discusses in the lecture above, but I read Meursault as full of inner gnawing that he doesn’t choose to tell the reader about. What makes Sartre think that Meursault is such a reliable narrator? He occasionally alludes to a feeling or event and says, “But I don’t like to talk about that.” Which begs the question, what else is Meursault not telling us? Probably a great deal of suppressed emotional turmoil, which Sartre implies that Camus’s essay says ought to be in the novel.

Sartre says that this book is an exemplum of the absurd, and finally someone has defined that term for me. People throw it around all the time when they teach twentieth-century narrative, but they don’t always explain what it means. According to my understanding of Sartre’s interpretation of Camus, the absurd describes the struggle produced by the incongruity between a person’s worldview and the world he actually views. Yes, I would agree that the novel relies heavily on this struggle. Yes, I know that incongruity is often a source of humor. However, they aren’t quite the same thing; incongruity can be represented without actually being humorous. Presenting a series of images without explaining the causal connections is not a humorous technique unless what’s being left out is funny. There are some humorous moments in the novel, but Sartre and I disagree about which ones they are.

Sartre quotes someone as saying that The Stranger is like Kafka written by Hemingway, and I can appreciate that comparison. It also lets me know that the things I wrote about style last week are accurate to the original French and not just an accident of translation. I also really appreciate Sartre’s comment on the novel’s style as a method of representing silence, which I had not considered before.

On the whole, I’d say that my first foray into Sartre was a success. I don’t agree with him wholeheartedly, but I understand what he’s saying, and that’s a big step forward for me. I’d like to read more.

Is it possible to discuss this book without using the phrase magical realism? I don’t believe so, and now that I’ve used it once, you’ll forgive me for describing the phenomenon without reusing the phrase.

I also don’t believe that it’s possible to discuss the novel without mentioning the controversy around it. Some see it as a harmless work of fiction; some as a work of dangerous blasphemy. Not liking extremes, my point of view is somewhere in the middle. To those who do not see it as blasphemous, I must ask, Do you know anything about Islam? Do you know what blasphemy means? Rushdie achieves blasphemy in the first chapter when there is a miraculous intervention to save the lives of two unbelieving ex-Muslims (miracles are for the faithful), and then again in the second when he compares an actor, in terms of fame and public adoration, to God (nothing can be compared to God). Things run downhill from there, as the two protagonistic antagonists become avatars of the archangel Gibreel and the first djinn to refuse to submit, Shaitan (the concept of the avatar is Hindu; supernatural beings do not embody themselves in pre-existing humans). It’s a lot easier to be an angel, because you can fly and have light that emanates from your head, than to be a devil, what with the horns and the goat feet and the tail and all. Then, when Gibreel visits The Prophet (peace be upon him), dreaming himself back in time, the representation of The Prophet (pbuh) is not entirely complimentary. Showing him unfaithful to his own cause is blasphemy, and I don’t think that anyone who considers himself One Who Submits will enjoy it.

However, is blasphemy dangerous? I mean, there’s nothing insidious about it. To someone familiar with Islam, the blasphemy is obvious. Don’t read it if you don’t want to. Encourage others not to read it. If you sell books, don’t carry it. But deciding that the author has to die and that all copies of the book should be destroyed? No, I won’t go that far. I think that people should have a choice as to what they consume, and destroying every copy of the book robs people of their right to choose. Killing an author creates a martyr and draws attention to a book that may have otherwise subsided into obscurity. It’s not just wrong; it’s counterproductive. I can respect a plan that, if implemented, will actually achieve its goal, even if I think the goal is morally wrong, but killing an author for writing blasphemy is not such a plan.

Some examples of Rushdie’s blasphemy:

Gibreel commenting on his role as God’s messenger:

Being God’s postman is no fun, yaar.

Butbutbut: God isn’t in this picture.

God knows whose postman I’ve been.

And later:

Damn me if I know from where that girl was getting her information/inspiration. Not from this quarter, that’s for sure.

If every revelation that people claim comes from Gibreel doesn’t come from him, and if Gibreel isn’t always God’s messenger, then what does that say about the Qur’an? Blasphemy, that’s what.

The narrator (often implied to be the real Shaitan/Satan/Devil) commenting on the tactics of God:

Question: What is the opposite of faith?

Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.


The human condition, but what of the angelic? Halfway between Allahgod and homosap, did they ever doubt? They did, challenging God’s will one day they hid muttering beneath the Throne, daring to ask forbidden things: antiquestions. Is it right that. Could it not be argued. Freedom, the old antiquest. He calmed them down, naturally, employing management skills à la god. Flattered them: you will be the instruments of my will on earth, of the salvationdamnation of man, all the usual etcetera. And hey presto, end of protest, on with the haloes, back to work. Angels are easily pacified; turn them into instruments and they’ll play your harpy tune. Human beings are tougher nuts, can doubt anything, even the evidence of their own eyes. Of behind-their-own eyes. Of what, as they sink heavy-lidded, transpires behind closed peepers . . . angels, they don’t have much in the way of a will. To will is to disagree; not to submit; to dissent.

I know; devil talk. Shaitan interrupting Gibreel.


And again:

Then how unconfident of Itself this Deity was, Who didn’t want Its finest creations to know right from wrong; and Who reigned by terror, insisting upon the unqualified submission of even Its closest associates, packing off all dissidents to Its blazing Siberias, the gulag-infernos of Hell . . .

But this is a description of the Christian God, though I suppose parts of it could be applied to the Muslim One as well.

What happens if we disengage from the blasphemous magical realism for a bit, and focus on what really happens? This is a novel about the problems with racism and immigration in 1980s London. The focus is on the Indian population of Brickhall, but it’s clear that the problems Rushdie portrays affect all non-white populations of the city, possibly of the nation. Police brutality, white gangs, the dehumanization of immigrants, all of which leads to an explosion of violence in a very hot summer. Rushdie places some of this conflict at the level of language:

“But how do they do it?” Chamcha wanted to know.

“They describe us,” the other whispered solemnly. “That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.”

And the immigrants become literal monsters. Or:

But you bastard you rummage in my drawers and laugh at my stupid poems. The real language problem: how to bend it shape it, how to let it be our freedom, how to repossess its poisoned wells, how to master the river of words of time of blood: about all that you haven’t got a clue. How hard that struggle, how inevitable the defeat.

As demonstrated above, he plays with the hybrid, immigrant, pidgin nature of the English language and represents authentic speech patterns of the Bombay/London population. The language is used against them, but it doesn’t remain unchanged, ideal, pure. If his characters don’t have complete control over their own language, the author certainly does. Language and accent represent national identities, and contact produces change. As much as Rushdie destroys the credibility of faith in God, he also destroys the credibility of faith in an incorruptible England. It’s quite a blow for an American liberal; we tend to see Europe as the haven of liberal values and a lifestyle healthier and more integrated with history and with the future than what we live in the United States, and since England is the part of Europe most easily accessible to us, who have such a poor record of language learning, we tend to exalt the Britishness our ancestors fought so hard to divest themselves of. There’s a reason BBC America is so popular. Seeing that they have the same social issues, the same riots, the same violence that we do, is kind of like finding the birth control in your parents’ bedroom: you gain a more realistic view of people that you had previously seen primarily as ideals or concepts. Heroes become human, and we realize that the ocean between us is really just a pond.

While the ethnic Indians are represented as individual and diverse, the tendency is to flatten the British populace to a single identity, one of imperial guilt mixed with racial intolerance devoid of national pride.

For a man like Saladin Chamcha the debasing of Englishness by the English was a thing too painful to contemplate.

The few Americans don’t come off much better:

The incident struck him as Darwin’s revenge: if Dumsday held poor, Victorian, starchy Charles responsible for American drug culture, how delicious that he should himself be seen, across the globe, as representing the very ethic he battled so fervently against. Dumsday fixed him with a look of pained reproof. It was a hard fate to be an American abroad, and not to suspect why you were so disliked.

Dumsday is a creationist scientist bent on disproving Darwin in favour of the Biblical narrative of geological history, which has always struck me as quixotic at best. He loses his part of his tongue in an accident and doctors replace it with flesh from his behind, so that for the rest of his life he is literally talking out of his ass. But he is a good example of one of the things to enjoy about this book: the minor characters are so delightful. Rushdie really pays attention to the details, with great one-liners like

The world is finite; our hopes spill over its rim.


You can’t judge an internal injury by the size of its hole.


Like, anyhow, a character in a story of a kind in which she could never have imagined she belonged.

And aren’t we all that, at least occasionally?

There are a number of other excerpts that were touching and important, including a couple on the subject of exile that became poignantly ironic when this book led Rushdie into exile, but I’ll limit myself to just this one, when the Gibreel who isn’t sure if he’s a Bollywood actor or the archangelic representation of God’s power makes a decision about London.

 Gibreel enumerated the benefits of the proposed metamorphosis of London into a tropical city: increased moral definition, institution of a national siesta, development of vivid and expansive patterns of behaviour among the populace, higher-quality popular music, new birds in the trees (macaws, peacocks, cockatoos), new trees under the birds (coco-palms, tamarind, banyans with hanging beards). Improved street-life, outrageously coloured flowers (magenta, vermilion, neon-green), spider-monkeys in the oaks. A new mass market for domestic air-conditioning units, ceiling fans, anti-mosquito coils and sprays. A coir and copra industry. Increased appeal of London as a centre for conferences, etc.; better cricketers; higher emphasis on ball-control among professional footballers, the traditional and soulless English commitment to ‘high workrate’ having been rendered obsolete by the heat. Religious fervour, political ferment, renewal of interest in the intelligentsia. No more British reserve; hot-water bottles to be banished forever, replaced in the foetid nights by the making of slow and odorous love. Emergence of new social values: friends to commence dropping in on one another without making appointments, closure of old folks’ homes, emphasis on the extended family. Spicier food; the use of water as well as paper in English toilets; the joy of running fully dressed through the first rains of the monsoon.

Disadvantages: cholera, typhoid, legionnaires’ disease, cockroaches, dust, noise, a culture of excess.

Standing upon the horizon, spreading his arms to fill the sky, Gibreel cried: ‘Let it be.’

And as for Rushdie’s novel, Let it be. I must confess that I rather like blasphemous magical realism, the implication that beliefs affect the mundane world and are no less real. We shape our reality by what we choose to allow to be true about it. I’m also strongly attracted by the idea that God is not the exclusive possession of a few ascetics who hide from what the world has to offer. The world is a big and wonderful place, full of pleasure, pain, and beauty. Hiding in the desert doesn’t strike me as the best way to honor this diverse creation.

I don’t know if God is there. If [insert pronoun here] is, I don’t know if The Almighty cares much about the blasphemies of a book [iph] permits to continue in existence. But I do know, that The Satanic Verses is a well-written book that deserves its praise, and its condemnation. Like a person, it’s part angelic and part demonic, good and evil all mixed up together, funny and sad, theological, scatological, offensive, beautiful.

I was reading this on an airplane, and an older gentleman from Boston leaned over and said, “Camus? Wow. He’s really good.” Unfortunately, he killed any credibility he may have had when he pronounced Camus as if it rhymed with Seamus.

When discussing the style of a translated work, things are a little tricky. How much of the sentence structure is the original author, and how much is the translator making sure the sentences end up grammatically correct in English? In some Romance languages, they write these incredibly long run-on sentences with no subjects, just a list of verb-plus-object-phrase madness; as student translators, we make these into series of simple sentences, and it doesn’t have the same kind of impact. Camus’s narrator, Meursault, says that he is a young man little given to self-reflection (though now that I think of it, I may have projected the youth onto him since I first read the novel when I was 22). In the translation I read, his sentences were short and clipped, like Hemingway. There’s not much in the way of figurative language, so on the rare occasions it comes, it’s very striking. Like,

Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.

Books that end up as trial narratives always seem to begin with the most inconsequential things. This is no exception. The novel begins with the death of Meursault’s mother, and it seems to progress with his refusing to grieve. An unclear number of years ago, he gave up studying to take care of his aging mother, and then when she needed full-time care and he couldn’t afford to hire a nurse, he put her in a home. He never admits to depression, but it seems pretty clear that he lives with it. He’s convinced himself that nothing matters much; he’s detached from the people and events around him; he’s detached from his own emotions; he only ever feels a kinship with the earth when he thinks of it as indifferent to all human matters. I can accept the idea that he doesn’t want to share his grieving process with the reader, but his actions make it clear that he is definitely not dealing with losing his mother, or the guilt of putting her in a home, or the anger at giving up his life for her.

It seems to me that he spends the first half of the book trying to insist on life and control death. He gets a new lover and tightens a couple of friendships. The girl seems good for him, but he’s not good for her. He’s willing to give a commitment, but as long as she understands that the relationship lacks an emotional connection. He’ll get married, but he won’t love her, or pretend to. One of the friends loses his dog, and Meursault finally seems on the cusp of making some kind of connection with another person as they bond over the loss of loved ones, but he stops short of actually bridging that gap between himself and the rest of humanity.

The other friend presents some trouble. Raymond is with this Arab girl he thinks is cheating on him, so he gets Meursault to write her a really scathing breakup letter. Then she shows up and they have a pretty major row; the police get involved and everything. Her brother and his friends start stalking Raymond, even following him out to the beach on a weekend getaway. There’s a one-knife fight and Raymond gets cut up a bit because Meursault asked to hold the gun during the fight (thus giving him the deadliest weapon, the most control over life and death). Later, Meursault is walking alone on the beach and finds the nameless Arab, also alone. The Arab brandishes his knife a little, and Meursault knocks on the door of unhappiness.

Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a novel about the fear of death, and there’s an idea in the book that there are only two types of people, those who kill and those who die, with the implication that you can stave off death by becoming a murderer. I think this is the real reason that Meursault kills the Arab. He’s trying to avoid death by taking that power into his own hands. If he has the power of death, proven by killing someone, then he can prevent that power being used against him. The idea is patently absurd, but Meursault is not really given to self-reflection.

I identified most strongly with Meursault when he’s in prison. He stays in his cell all the time, losing track of what day it is, and whether it’s day or night. Time seems to stop. Some change is marked by the times he talks to lawyers or goes to the trial, but he exists in a vague fog without any motivation to do anything. A few years ago, I made a huge change in my social identity, going from an apparently content husband and father of three to an obviously lonely gay bachelor. I needed some time to deal with this, so I took a job in a foreign country where I lived on an isolated compound. Unlike Meursault, I am very prone to self-reflection, sometimes obsessively so; therefore I dealt with my issues, but a lot of it was the same as he describes. I lost track of day and night, and somehow only got hungry when all the stores were closed. I couldn’t settle into a recognizable sleep pattern, though I never reached Meursault’s feat of sleeping for sixteen hours. But I did pass most of my days in the near-catatonic stupor he describes. The main difference is that I had a television to stare at. There were other people on the compound, and I didn’t have to spend so much time alone, but depression and anxiety can be as effective jailers as the Algerian prison system.

Meursault’s trial focuses on the issue of his soul, which probably made more sense in the 1940s than it does to me now. What is a soul? In the sense that the lawyers use it, the word soul seems to refer to a person’s relationship with his own past. When the prosecutor says he has no soul, he’s referring to Meursault’s lack of emotional connection with his own past experiences. He moves through life living in exclusively in the moment. He enjoys what this moment has to offer, but he doesn’t connect it with past or future. In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver asks Stephen Guest, “If the past is not to bind us, where does duty lie?” Meursault answers the question: nowhere. He doesn’t feel any obligation to do other than what he wants. The people around him see causes and effects everywhere, they realize the implications of actions, but he just floats along refusing to see it. He doesn’t feel connected with the world, or with other people, or even with his own past and future selves. In this sense, narrating this book is the most uncharacteristic thing he does.

I really don’t like the translation of the title of this book. L’Étranger could mean The Stranger, but it has other meanings too. Meursault isn’t really a stranger; he has a loose community of friends and acquaintances. I think it would be better translated as The Foreigner, or The Alien. What is at issue is not familiarity, but difference. Meursault’s inability to connect makes him unavoidably foreign even in his hometown; he’s alien, in some sense to the entire human race.

I don’t remember clearly everything that Said said about this book in Culture and Imperialism, but I agree with him that Meursault’s national identity is very important. So the book takes place in Algeria, a French colony in the Muslim world. He’s quick to label people as Arabs, and seems to look down on them for being Arab, but he also points out Raymond’s white skin and looks down on him for it. He’s really happy with his own skin color, which he describes as brown, but where does he fit in this society? Maybe his inability to connect with people comes from not having a place where he belongs.

Coming out devastated my social circle, which mostly consisted of conservative Christian couples with children. My ex didn’t get on well with my family or with the friends I had before we got married, so after having been with her for eight years I felt disconnected from everyone. Finding a place in the gay community was hard because unlike Christians, they don’t all get together a few times a week to talk about how happy they are to be gay. Leaving the country seemed a better option than sticking around. But this summer I’ve been traveling around to see my friends and family – people I knew before, during, and after my marriage – and I’ve been amazed at the response I’ve gotten. Maybe we all just needed some time to process things, or maybe I was so depressed back then that I couldn’t see that people really did care about me, or maybe I was so fragile people were afraid of me. Whatever the cause for the break in the past, this summer I feel like I’ve been given my life back. All of my past has returned to me, as a source of strength instead of guilt or loss. That period of Meursault-esque isolation from people and from my past is over. No longer a stranger, I am happy to close this book.


There are established forms and methods for discussing The Holocaust. Imre Kertész ignores them and writes about what I must believe are his own experiences as a teenager in a concentration camp. For example, here’s the closing bit:

But one shouldn’t exaggerate, as this is precisely the crux of it: I am here, and I am well aware that I shall accept any rationale as the price for being able to live. Yes, as I looked around this placid, twilit square, this street, weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises, I was already feeling a growing and accumulating readiness to continue my uncontinuable life. […] there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally, and keeping a watch on me on my journey, like some inescapable trap, I already know there will be happiness. For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps.

And this is precisely what he does. Instead of writing about people dying, he writes about people living. This is a novel about how to survive disasters, not how to be delivered from them or how to be ground into the dust by them.

Only in Zeitz did I come to realize that even captivity has its mundane round; indeed, true captivity is actually nothing but a gray mundane round.

In this sense, most of us do live in captivity, and I drew some parallels to the difficult experience of living on an expatriate compound. We aren’t being starved or forced to work beyond our strength, obviously, nor are we beaten or shot at, (to limit myself to what we read in the book) but the monotony, the emotional starvation, and the uncaringness of the supervisors I can readily identify with. I also quickly sink into this listless mental paralysis that I think deserves a stronger name than boredom. At one point, he imagines hell as a place where it is impossible to get bored – this is his defense mechanism; his strategy for survival is to dissociate the mind from the suffering. Indeed, the mind sometimes severs itself from reality altogether, floating in a near-senseless limbo state. And this is why I watch too much television.

So it makes sense to me that when the camps are liberated, it takes a while for him to care. In the films, there are always American soldiers rushing in and carrying children or the wounded out of the camps immediately, as if they were shepherds returning lost lambs to the fold. Not so here. He’s in a camp hospital, and he hears some noise during the day, and then notices that his dinner is late. Some people get on an intercom and announce freedom in many languages, but . . .

However hard I listened, though, all I heard of from him, as from everyone before, was about freedom, but not a single word about or in reference to the missing soup. I was absolutely delighted, quite naturally, about our being free, but I couldn’t help it if, from another angle, I fell to thinking that yesterday, for instance, such a thing could never have happened. The April evening outside was already dark, and Pyetchka too had arrived back, flushed, excited, talking thirteen to the dozen, when the Lagerältester finally came on again over the loudspeaker. This time he appealed to the former members of the Kartoffelschäler-Kommando, requesting them to resume their old duties in the kitchens, and all other inmates of the camp to stay awake, until the middle of the night if need be, because they were going to start cooking a strong goulash soup, and it was only at this point that I slumped back on my pillow in relief, only then that something loosened up inside me, and only then did I myself also think – probably for the first time in all seriousness – of freedom.

Freedom is an important concept for me as an American; we’re taught to think of it as the most important thing ever, the concept that defines our nation. Yet, when I think of our behavior over the last fifteen years, or if I’m being perfectly honest, the last seventy, I wonder. Given the constraints of economics, education, and other factors, how free is the average American? Is this a Land of Opportunity? We clutch the word freedom in our mouths while giving away the genuine article with both hands.

When discussing concentration camps, it is only acceptable to discuss Jews. Even Bent, a gay romance set in a concentration camp, is about Jews. [How on earth did I think this would be a good movie for me to watch? Where is the possibility of a happy ending in that?] I would like very much to see a timeline for the camps—which types of inmates were brought in at which times, when all the pink triangles were dead, that sort of thing—because it always seems to me that the Jews were latecomers. That’s why they get rescued at the ends of their books/films. Protagonist-with-the-forgettable-name gets sent off in the middle of 1944, and while I don’t mean to diminish his experience, why don’t people talk about the ones who were taken earlier? The camps were efficient and heartless because the guards had been trained to be before the Jews in the films showed up. They cut their baby teeth on the political dissidents and homosexuals, so I imagine the experience of being in a camp in 1940 would have been very different.

The Jews in Holocaust films also tend to be all the same. They aren’t very orthodox, religious pragmatism/assimilation appealing to American audiences as it does, but they’re all keenly aware of their racial identity and derive a large part of their sense of who they are from their Jewishness. Not so, with our protagonist. Yes, he wears the yellow star at home and the yellow triangle in the camp, but his national identity as a Hungarian is much more important to him than his Jewishness. Before he goes to the camp, he has this conversation with a girl:

Then again, I had also read a book, a sort of novel, not long ago. A beggar and a prince who, leaving that one difference aside, conspicuously resembled each other both facially and physically, to the point they could not be told apart, exchanged fates with each other out of sheer curiosity, until in the end the beggar turned into a real prince while the prince became a real beggar. I asked the girl to try and imagine the same thing about herself. It was not very likely, or course, but then all kinds of things are possible, after all. What could have happened to her, let’s say in very early infancy, when a person is not yet able to speak or remember, it didn’t matter how, but suppose she had somehow been swapped or got mixed up with a child from another family whose documents were in perfect order from a racial point of view. In this hypothetical case it would now be the other girl who would perceive the difference and of course wear the yellow star, whereas she, in view of what she knew, would see herself – as of course would others – as being exactly like other people, and she would neither think about nor recognize any difference. As far as I could tell, that had quite an impact on her. At first she merely fell silent, then very slowly, but with a softness I felt as almost palpable, her lips parted as if she were wishing to say something. That was not what happened, however, but something else, much odder: she burst into tears.

I think this is true of socially constructed identities in general. Yes, racial characteristics are genetic; yes, sexual preference is marked by observable physiological responses; but this is only a scientific basis for society to categorize us. The physical fact of race and gender are not as important as the identity society builds for us around them. You’re Jewish? You must be clever, greedy, and argumentative. You’re gay? You must like dance music, shopping for clothes, and adopting the gestures and speech patterns of sassy African-American women. All of these are arbitrary social constructions. But when we adopt a social construction as an identity, it can be hard to have that pulled away from us.

Like de-emphasizing nationality. The Germans took Jews from several different countries, told them that Jewishness was their most important identity, and put them all in camps together. But they don’t all speak Yiddish, and when left to themselves, they tend to reassert the primacy of their national identities. For Protagonist, this is generally a difficult process because there are so few Hungarians, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, and he doesn’t identify strongly with other Jews.

That day I learned that the discomfiture, the skin-crawling awkwardness which at times took hold between us was already familiar to me from back home, as if there had been something not quite right about me, as if I did not quite measure up to the proper ideal, in short as if I were somehow Jewish – a rather odd feeling to have after all, I reckoned, in the midst of Jews, in a concentration camp.

He’s a Jew among Jews, cast out of the outcasts for not being Jewish enough. At some point in our lives, we all struggle with the conflict between socially constructed roles and our personal identities. I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I was growing up African-American boys were discouraged from getting too interested in their education because that was characteristic of whites. There was a certain style of dress that was accepted for them – I’ve seen the prices, those clothes are just as expensive as the ones popular for white kids, so this isn’t an economic issue. But collectively, our society has decided how black people (gay people, women, people with disabilities, fat people, etc) should dress, act, and speak, and woe be unto the teenager who tries to be free from that.

But I’m ignoring the happiness of the concentration camps! Protagonist arrives at the hospital and talks with the doctors, who are also prisoners, but of ten or twelve years. They ask him what he did to wind up in Buchenwald, and he describes getting taken, and they’re shocked that it was done without his parents being consulted.

In the end, I found that people on all sides were looking at me, heads shaking, and with a most singular emotion on their faces, which was a little embarrassing because, as best I could tell, they were feeling sorry for me. I felt a strong urge to tell them there was no need for that after all, at least not right at that moment, but I ended up saying nothing, something held me back, somehow I couldn’t find it in my heart to do so, because I noticed that the emotion gratified them, gave them some sort of pleasure, the way I saw it. Indeed – and I could have been mistaken of course, though I don’t think so – but later on (for there were one or two other occasions on which I was similarly questioned and interrogated) I gained the impression that they expressly sought out, almost hunted for, an opportunity, a means or pretext for this emotion for some reason, out of some need, as a testimony to something as it were, to their method of dealing with things perhaps, or possibly, who knows, to their still being capable of it at all; and in that form it was somehow pleasing, for me at least.

They need to be able to pity someone. They can bolster their happiness by looking at the suffering of others. No matter how bad things are, at least I wasn’t in a concentration camp at age sixteen. They can look back on their own happier youths and contemplate the present with more strength. Things might be awful now, but they could be worse, and there are always the memories of better times to relive. There’s also music, as in this scene from shortly after intake:

That day I also saw the women too for the first time. A group of men congregating and excitedly swarming around by the barbed-wire fence pointed them out: there they were, true enough, though I found it hard to pick them out in the distance, on the far side of the clayey field that stretched before us – and, above all, to recognize them as being women. They scared me a little, and I noticed that after the initial delight, the excitement at the discovery, the people around me here all fell very quiet. Just one observation, which rang hollow and a little tremulously, reached my ear from nearby: “They’re bald.” In the big hush, I too picked out for the first time, carried by the occasional wafts of a light summer-evening breeze, thinly, squeakily, and barely audibly, but beyond any doubt, the soothing, joyous sound of music, which, combined as it was with the sight, somehow hugely astonished everyone, myself included.

Yes, bald women in concentration camps can still sing. For some, I imagine it’s a necessity. Protagonist goes on about stubbornness, but having read the literature of the civil rights movement, I’d be more likely to classify it as resistance. With all of the Germans’ attempts to dehumanize the prisoners (like removing their names – I really shouldn’t continue doing that here: Protagonist’s name is György Köves), they are determined to remain themselves, to hold onto their sense of personal identity, whether that involves religion, nationality, or just a good voice. In the men’s camp, there’s some singing too, but the resistance seems to come more and more from passivity. Indeed, that’s what impresses me the most about Protagonist and the people he lives among: their passive acquiescence to circumstances. I suppose it’s not that different from Americans today, but . . . the herding, the starving, the beatings. I’d like to think that we wouldn’t put up with it, though I have no way of knowing.

Every so often, though, the stubbornness reveals itself in action. In this scene, a few prisoners are being executed for having escaped and been recaptured.

The customary punishment squad assembled, then, after a further wait, the representatives of the military authorities made their appearance, after which everything went ahead in due form, if I may put it that way – fortunately, up front near the washroom, far from where we were, not that I watched anyway. My attention was drawn rather to my left, from where all at once came a sound, a muttering, some sort of song. In the row I saw a slightly tremulous head on a scraggy, forward-stretched neck – little more, in fact, than a nose and a huge, moist eye that, right at that moment, was somehow swimming in a crazy light: the rabbi. Soon I also picked out his words, particularly after others in the row had slowly taken them up from him – all the Finns, for instance, but many others as well. Indeed, though I don’t know what the mechanism was, it somehow passed across to nearby groups, the other blocks, spreading and gaining ground as it were, because there too I observed a growing number of lips in motion and shoulders, necks, and heads cautiously, almost imperceptibly, yet distinctly rocking back and forth. Meanwhile, the muttering was just about audible here, in the center of the row, with a continual “Yitgaddal ve-yitkaddash” being sounded over and over again, like some murmur issuing from the ground below, and even I knew that this was the so-called “Kaddish,” the Jews’ prayer of mourning for the dead. It is quite possible that this too was sheer stubbornness, the final, sole, and perhaps, I could not help realizing, in some ways slightly forced, I might almost say prescribed and in a certain sense fixed, so to say imposed, and, at the same time, useless mode of stubbornness (for it altered nothing up at the front: apart from the last few twitches of the hanged men, nothing moved, nothing wavered at these words); yet all the same, I could not help somehow understanding the emotion in which the rabbi’s expression seemed almost to dissolve, and even his nostrils quivered so strangely. As if it was only now that the long-awaited moment were here, that moment of victory whose coming he had spoken, I recollected, back at the brickyard. Indeed, for the very first time, I too was now seized, I don’t know why, by a certain sense of loss, even a touch of envy; for the first time, I now somewhat regretted that I was unable to pray, if only a few sentences, in the language of the Jews.

In the films, every prisoner suffers alone, or with one close friend. We do not see the communal experiences like this. We don’t think about the power that we give to a group identity when we place all the people who share it in one place. Hitler was the first person in modern times to gather the scattered Jews, and while this was contrary to his intent, the act of gathering them gives them power. It is one thing to pray alone when your heart is troubled; it’s a bit like dancing by yourself in your room. It is entirely different to either pray or dance with a huge crowd of people who are doing the same thing in unison. Your individual identity fades in importance and you merge with the crowd, experiencing all of their individual joys or sorrows with your own. We transcend ourselves and merge with the collective consciousness. There is a joy, a catharsis in this act of voluntary surrender, even when praying for the dead in a Nazi death camp. By gathering the Jews, Hitler united them in a way they had not dreamed possible for thousands of years.

I’m sorry if it offends you that joy can be found in Buchenwald. I’m sorry if you’re bothered by my facility for finding the good in bad situations. But I believe that the capacity for joy is an essential quality to living, and this is a book about survival, not death. Protagonist might not understand a soft bed or kind treatment after being in a concentration camp for a year, but he still enjoys them. He still notices when a man’s face is handsome. In fact, he notices the attractiveness of good health more when he’s surrounded by starving prisoners.

In the final chapter, Protagonist argues with someone about the role of fate. He sees fate as being the exact opposite of freedom. Having been liberated from a concentration camp, he doesn’t feel the need to say that there was an omnipotent impersonal force that made this tragedy happen; he knows that it came about because of the decisions, actions, and apathy of millions of people. I don’t think he blames the people, but he doesn’t agree that the Holocaust was inevitable. So, ultimately, the title of the book is synonymous with Freedom. Freedom is also another way of understanding the stubbornness and nonviolent resistance of the prisoners. If they can’t be free from their situation, they can find ways they are free to make their own choices and act for themselves. Or at the very least to think for themselves. This is a novel that resists the urge to Americanize the Holocaust, to make the prisoners like ourselves, to make our nation the liberating hero, but if freedom defines the United States, then this is a book about the concept that gives us an identity. Freedom, its consequences, and (to use the popular phrase) its price.

America doesn’t have the monopoly on freedom. I think the search for it is a human trait, the exercise of it a basic right. And sometimes, we need a book like this to remind us how important it is, what opportunities we have to pursue it, and how easy it is to hand our freedom to an authority figure. It’s important to cling tightly to our freedoms; it’s even more important to respect the freedom of others. I would like to live in a world with neither prisoners nor guards (one compels the existence of the other), where we can be truly free and in peace.