Posts Tagged ‘brazil’

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

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Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

This is a short collection of short pieces, some of them very short. When I finished, I honestly felt as if I hadn’t read anything; the most characteristic quality of the text is evasion. It’s a book about the inability to express oneself, so by the end I felt as if she hadn’t. I mean, one of the longer pieces is a transcription of conversations overheard as people pass by a spot in Kew Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. It could be the beginnings of a story, the source of a novel, but in isolation, it feels as if there’s no story at all. When we sit in public and eavesdrop, it may pass the time, but it doesn’t satisfy. We get a few seconds of dialogue with no context; we may invent a story for them, as Woolf does again in “An Unwritten Novel,” but it feels fake. I once tried to get a Brazilian to tell me the Portuguese word for eavesdropping, but the best he could come up with was “lack of education,” their way of indicating “bad manners.”

Of course, this is Virginia Woolf, so there are some things we know to expect, like beautifully descriptive passages:

Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks—or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint—truth? or now, content with closeness?

Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.

But they don’t really go anywhere, here. The heron doesn’t lead us to truth. Monday or Tuesday is like having dinner with a famous writer when she really has nothing to say.

The most famous piece from this collection is “The Mark on the Wall,” a stream-of-consciousness essay in which Woolf stares at a mark on the wall and wonders what it is, letting her attention wander down different paths but without reaching any destination. She always returns to that mark, which might be a bit of soot, or a protruding nail, or a snail that wandered in out of the garden. She says a number of things that are right and true and beautifully expressed and almost instantly forgotten.

The piece that hangs in my memory most firmly is “A Society,” Woolf’s version of Rasselas. A group of women decide to infiltrate the institutions of men to determine if they produce good men and good books. Some have to go undercover; one of them ends up pregnant. But the end is alarming, and disappointing.

But more significant than the answers were the refusals to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside, or pressed at extreme risk to the asker.

It seems clear to me that men don’t answer because it would expose their privilege in uncomfortable ways; indeed, privilege-exposing is one of the ways people use the internet a lot, but it doesn’t seem to gain them any friends. I have one friend that I felt close to in high school who frequently makes me feel ashamed of myself for white cis-male privilege, even though some of that privilege is canceled by poverty and homosexuality. And that’s a weird identity to have; spending time with the gay community makes it seem like coming out is a luxury of the wealthy. And yet Woolf’s women don’t speculate on male privilege, or how their incomes and ethnicity make them privileged as well. [Mental note: check on immigration figures in the early twentieth century. How much exposure would Woolf have had to Asians or Africans?] I can’t say for sure why these women stop talking; all I can say is that the answer to their questions, are men good and do they produce good books, eventually becomes unsayable. I suspect that the answer is no, but they don’t say it. The more Woolf’s women know, the closer they get to the sources of power, the less comfortable they feel criticizing ineffective social institutions. In this story, education and experience do not give women a voice the way that modern readers expect; they rob women of their speech. Maybe they do see their privilege and don’t yet have a vocabulary for it; maybe they see their privilege and don’t yet have a solution for creating a more equal society. Or maybe they don’t want to implicate people they’ve grown to love and respect. They say that innocence and purity are hardly worthwhile goals, but ignorance can feed self-satisfaction in a way that education and experience cannot.

Stranger still, after Woolf died, her husband rereleased this collection and cut “A Society” from it. The more I think about things, this fact seems stranger and stranger: the author of A Room of One’s Own at some point changed her name because of a man. Maybe she loved him, maybe she wanted to get out of her father’s house (when I try to think of what I’ve read about the relationship between her and her father, I get it confused with Maria Edgeworth), maybe society dictated and she acquiesced, I don’t know. But for a woman who writes so passionately for women’s voice and independence, it seems strange. Maybe it would have been just as strange to call her Virginia Stephen, since her maiden name is a man’s first name [Try starting a sentence, “Stephen says that women . . .”].

It’s a weird collection. They’re not quite stories and they’re not quite essays. They don’t really seem to fit well together. It’s like one of those Russel Stover samplers – here are some little bitefuls of Woolf. We hope you like them.

Enfin, here’s a bit from the end of the “Kew Gardens” piece:

Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.

 

I feel sort of bad, like I should apologize to the author, but I really feel like when he says

Self-conscious and didactic, it was not a successful work.

he’s talking about his own novel. I mean, a few of the critics call it a thriller, but it doesn’t have anything scary in it. There are a few moments of mild excitement, but not even cheap thrills. It is very learned, with an advanced vocabulary and heavy with allusion, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good read.

How many times have we done the fallen priest novel? I wasn’t that fond of Graham Greene’s, but I haven’t found one better. As is often the case, the priest, who is a Father Whatawaste, falls in love and has sex. The physical contact drives him into questioning everything he’s ever believed, because if you can have sex without being dragged to hell immediately, then obviously God doesn’t exist.

Within he wonders what he has wondered for much of his life but has rarely allowed conscious space to: is there a being, transcendent or immanent – either will do – that one might call God (or Dio, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Bog, if it comes to that) and if there is such a being, does he (He?) care one jot or tittle for the spiritual or physical life of this speck of dust crammed into tourist class on an Alitalia flight to London, Heathrow? He reads his breviary, possibly for the very last time. His question remains unanswered, but his body (embarrassingly: he has to shift in his seat to make things comfortable again) answers all to readily to the persistent vision of Madeleine, which exists in a separate but simultaneous part of his mind and has by now opened its legs.

Leo Newman’s conundrum is complicated by the fact that he’s a researcher; once he and his girl (diplomat’s wife) start doing it, he gets tapped to translate a newly discovered scroll. It’s authenticated to earlier than any preexisting gospel narrative, and claims to be Judas Iscariot’s account of the life of Jesus. So, he didn’t kill himself after the crucifixion. Worse, he says that he, Nicodemus, and Saul of Tarsus stole the body and hid it where no one could find it, but that he, Judas, has seen the decomposing body of Jesus, so the resurrection is a fraud. First the scandal about him and Madeleine hits the papers, and then there’s the to-do about the Judas scroll. Everyone sees him as a betrayer, as worse than Judas himself. And they do have a point; betrayal is sort of this guy’s stock-in-trade.

There’s something oddly Victorian about the whole thing; a priest who has Jewish blood and Jesuit training unravels Christianity, and yet the attempt is made to present him sympathetically? Who wrote this novel, Thackeray? I mean, the author seems to struggle between a conscious acceptance of the inevitability of sexual desire and a prurient rejection of its expression. I don’t think of sex as failure or disease; I rather believe it’s a success.

And that was the moment when something turned inside him, something visceral, like the first symptoms of a disease. That was what made it all the more disturbing, that it seemed so profoundly organic. The cerebral he could deal with. The cerebral he could battle against, had long ago learned to battle against. Mental images were things he could chase from his mind like Christ chasing the money-changers from the Temple (an incident that is generally accepted by the most skeptical of New Testament scholars as genuine, indeed pivotal). But when it was the temple of the body that was under assault, the dismissal was not so easy. No easier to dismiss a cancer. And her glance at him as they sat at the long dining table beneath the benevolent eye of Jack and the agonized eye of Saint Clare Contemplating the Eucharist, School of Guido Reni, seemed to plant the first seeds of some disease in his body.

Twined around this story, we flash forward and backward, into his past and his present. The story of his present, living with an artist named Magda, is sort of dull, even when compared to the uninteresting main story. It provides some foreshadowing, and I believe Leo is eventually sort of happy. In my opinion, the interesting part of the book is the story out of the past.

Leo’s parents were German Nazis stationed in Italy during World War II. His mother has an affair with an Italian Jew, gets angry, and turns him in. I mean, it may not be the most original story in the world, but it was a lot more interesting and affecting than the story of their son’s life of betrayal. I suppose there’s an element of “the sins of the fathers being visited on the heads of the sons,” and parts of the story of Frau Huber and Checco parallel nicely with Leo and Madeleine.

“You are a Jew. What can you know of God?”

“I thought we invented him.”

She chooses her words deliberately, as one chooses a weapon that will do the most damage: “You may have invented God,” she says, “but you also murdered him.”

How can this poor kid help betraying everyone and everything around him? His father was a Christ-killer, and his mother was a Holocaust-denying Jew-killer.

“Tell me what it is like . . .” he asks as they contemplate a Venus standing in the long grass. The Venus gestures with half an arm, like an amputee. Her face, part ravaged by time, still contains within its worn features a strange modesty. Her thighs enclose her glabrous pudendum tightly, so that men may look but not see.

“What what is like?”

“To be a woman.”

She laughs. “How can a woman explain that to a man?”

“Tell me how it feels when you make love.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Or when you have a baby.”

“Painful. You’re being idiotic.”

“I want to understand you.”

“Men cannot understand women.”

“Italian men can. Maybe not German men, but Italian men can.”

“German men are no different from Italian men.”

“They are very different. German men murder children.”

“They do not!” Her voice has risen now. The ghostly, mangled Venus has ceased to matter. She is suddenly angry, her face flushed, her nose, that not-quite-classical nose, sharp and white with a kind of tension. “That is a disgusting thing to say!”

He is grinning at her reaction. “Oh, but they do. Jewish children.”

“Lies! I will not have you saying that kind of thing!” Momentarily, guiltily, she thinks of her husband.

I’d like to say that there’s some interesting stuff about gender, but this is the only passage that moves in that direction. And there are a couple of references to homosexuality, but all of them as something to be avoided in a priest. Back when I was a Mormon, preaching in Brazil, one of my friends said, “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man; if you look twice, you’re not a missionary.” Newman’s fellow priests have the same attitude: it takes a celibate heterosexual man to do God’s work. Anything else is the devil’s work. Mawer recognizes that lifelong celibacy is fucked up, but he represents sex as an inevitable evil, proof of betrayal. Judas and Jezebel, cut from the same cloth, dyed with the same blood. Blood soaks through every symbol and allusion in the book, odd since there’s so little physical violence.

It’s an unfortunate book. I’m sure there are some who like it, and it’s self-consciously literary enough that at one time I may have pretended to, but I’m certainly not one of them.

According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.

The concept here seems pretty simple. Ransom Riggs went searching for a bunch of old-timey novelty photographs and made a story out of them. Lest you think the pictures themselves are made up, cracked.com is fairly obsessed with old-timey novelty photographs, and we all know that they are the best source for historical fact. Despite its somewhat gimmicky nature, the story is pretty solid, and Riggs’ descriptions are vivid enough that his book would be interesting without the pictures.

Our protagonist is a sixteen-year-old boy. That doesn’t necessarily make it a teen novel, but the simple vocabulary and sentence structure, the absent parents, the discovery that he has magical powers, and the coming-of-age that involves abandoning his family and former life for a group of friends he just met, do. Ditto the narration that lacks any sort of commentary longer than a single sentence, and the way that the story sidles up close to emotional moments and then runs off to hide in the corner when we get too close. I’m making it sound worse than it is; I don’t mean to. I’ll read the sequel.

So. Jacob Portman is an unpopular kid (Teen Novel Requirement #7) with exactly one friend, a six-foot-five redneck with green hair who disappears fairly early, which is too bad. I thought Ricky had some interesting potential. Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather tell these crazy stories about growing up in an orphanage for circus freaks in Wales and saving the world from monsters. One day his grandfather dies horribly, and Jacob sees the monster who does it. He spends quite some time in therapy, then talks his parents into letting him go to Wales to see the orphanage. When he gets there, he finds the peculiar children, who are kind of like the X-Men, if they were all between six and fifteen years old, and if Professor X were a time-manipulating bird-woman keeping them trapped in a perpetual childhood. They’ve been living in a time-loop for seventy years, so that the bomb the Nazis dropped on their island wouldn’t kill them all. Well, the monsters show up, the Nazis show up, and eventually Jacob goes off to save 1940 from bog-wights and Nazis. Come on, it’s a first-person narrator, you knew he was going to survive, and that he was going to choose to stay where he was accepted instead of going back to twenty-first century Florida.

I pictured my cold cavernous house, my friendless town full of bad memories, the utterly unremarkable life that had been mapped out for me. It had never once occurred to me, I realized, to refuse it.

I grew up in a small town in the South, kind of like the one Jacob is from. When your childhood is unhappy, you don’t see the possibilities for happiness that life can offer. There’s an age when you know everything you need to know for your life, and there isn’t anything other than what you already know. I’m glad that I got out of that town and have discovered that the world is larger, scarier, and more wonderful than I had thought. I’m glad I was wrong, and I didn’t need a magical sideshow to convince me of it.

I slammed out of the Priest Hole and started walking, heading nowhere in particular. Sometimes you just need to go through a door.

I’ve also found this to be true. Sometimes I head blindly through doors simply because they happen to be open, and I need to get away from the current situation. It’s how things get better. I wouldn’t say my life is perfect, or that anyone should take it as a model, but it’s a damn sight better than it was.

Another requirement for the teen novel is the inexplicable crush. I didn’t get these as a teenager, so I think they’re overrepresented in teen novels, but I did get one just a few months ago, so maybe not. I do like the description of what the initial mutual attraction feels like:

I didn’t know what to call it, what was happening between us, but I liked it. It felt silly and fragile and good.

There’s one phrase that I’m really glad he didn’t use, ever: waiting for his life to start. I get frustrated over this phrase because it implies that we don’t live during our childhoods. Each of our lives began back before we can remember; all that stuff when we didn’t have control over our lives continues to inform our actions and attitudes forever.

I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.

When I think about all the different things that happen to children and young adults, I’m amazed any of us reach thirty-five. Sometimes I need to be reminded, but my life is a miracle. I should have died of pneumonia back when I was a toddler. There are a few other times I thought I was going to die; there’s also my childhood paranoia that my older siblings were trying to kill me. Then there’s that annoying habit I had for a few years of falling asleep while driving. I once wandered into a Communist rally in a foreign country, and I’ve done things that would get me beheaded in this country if I were to confess them in the right places. Yes, life is scary. But it’s also wonderful. I’ve seen more beautiful places and people than a poor white boy from Down East has a right to expect. I’ve looked at the Sahara Desert from the air, where the patterns in the sand look like giant trees, and climbed mountains in Brazil to find the giant crosses that overlook the cities there. I’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame and seen the Pacific Ocean from a highway in Canada. If the world were as merciless as some people think, I would never have left rural North Carolina.

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.

This is a phenomenon I’ve often noticed and tried to explain to people. For Jacob, it was his grandfather dying. For me, the first was going to college for the first time. Then there was getting married. Then the birth of my first child. And the second. And the third. And then the separation from them. It always seems to me that everything in my life has been preparing me for whichever transcendent experience happens next. I’ve had enough of them that I fully expect to keep having them, these moments that alter the way I see myself and the world so profoundly that I feel ripped in half.

Someone once told me the story of reading The Lord of the Rings as a kid, when she had to wait between books. How nerve-wracking. I mean, think of the ending of The Two Towers. Sam, convinced that Frodo has been killed by the giant spider, takes the ring and the magical elven flashlight and sets off to throw the ring into the mountain alone. The movies make this moment easier by not ending there. Miss Peregrine ends on a similar journey-beginning moment, and the reviewers on Amazon say that the second one does too. If you’re into that, could be a good thing. I think it’s only good if the author keeps writing stories in the series (cough cough — Fathom’s Five — cough cough), and ends on an ending note when he loses interest/inspiration/momentum. We’ll see how Ransom Riggs does in the future.

Oh, and it’s been turned into a graphic novel, if you’re not as fond of . . . words.

A year or so ago, I was doing a reading exercise with some students, and I learned that one of the best-selling poets of all time is this Lebanese guy who wrote partly in Arabic and partly in English. I thought it strange that someone so apparently well-known was completely unknown to me, so when I saw one of his books in a used shop in the US, I picked it up. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Kahlil Gibran was born in the part of the Ottoman Empire that is now Lebanon. He was a Levantine Christian, so Islam was also a big influence on his religious thinking. He wrote poetry in Arabic in the nineteen-aughts, then emigrated to the United States and switched to English. It’s the sort of genre-bending mystical . . . my inner optimist calls it meditation, but my pessimist calls it bullshit . . . that was popular in the 1920s, and then again in the 1960s, and is having a resurgence now. It has the same sort of vague spiritual guidance that appeals to the readers of Paulo Coelho, but with less pretense of story. I can understand why there are busts of this guy in public parks all over Brazil. The only people who have sold more poetry are William Shakespeare and Lao Tzu.

The Prophet is prose poetry, so it’s spaced to look like poetry with Whitmanian long lines, but no attempts at rhyme or meter, nor much in the way of obscure figurative language. The similes and metaphors are pretty obvious, and they’re meant to be. For example, this bit about marriage:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

This is pretty close to the opposite of how the ex viewed marriage. For her, love was a bond, one that tied us together rather tightly. For someone who had been through twenty-three years of never having been in love, it was exciting. Someone actually wants me around all the time? Someone wanting me around at all was a novelty. After seven years, though, I just wanted to sit still in my own house with no one touching me for about half an hour a day. Too much. As for that moving sea, we were the perfect example of how the friction of plate tectonics creates continental drift. Two plates start out with a more or less complete joining, but as new stuff comes up between them they change shape and push each other away. With more space between us, we could have grown and changed without needing to drift apart. I’m not saying that the divorce was her fault, I’m the one who’s a homosexual, but there was a lot of unhealthy stuff going down that had nothing to do with my coming out.

Gibran’s meditations extend over much of what constitutes society and our lives in it, like this bit about justice:

And this also, though the word lie heavy upon your hearts:
The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,
And the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured,
And still more often the condemned is the burden bearer for the guiltless and unblamed.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.
And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.

In the West, we’ve been blaming the victim for far too long. I don’t think that is what Gibran is driving at here. I don’t think he’s blaming rape on short skirts, or victims of theft for leaving the skylight unlocked. He’s pointing out that crime is evidence of systemic problems, not one genetic mutation that has no bearing on the entire society. When a rape happens, yes, blame the rapist, but also examine the cultural ideas that led him to that action. The article is not in the current edition, but about fifteen years ago Rereading America had a piece that examined the attitude toward women on college campuses, and the authors discovered that one-third of male college students would rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it. And that’s based on the response on an anonymous questionnaire; the real number is probably higher. So we’ve been focusing on giving women rape whistles and that dreadful-looking device that women can wear inside them that works like a car boot but on a dick, but are we really creating a society where women are sufficiently respected? Does society give men power over their lives, so they don’t try to regain that sense of control through sexual violence? Do we train people in nonviolent conflict resolution, so they know how to manage their issues without hurting someone else? We focus on keeping them from getting away with it instead of teaching them not to rape. It’s like when Donne said that no man is an island; we’re all connected, so the crime of one person reflects the ideology of the entire society. We put all of the blame on either the victim or the perpetrator without thinking about how we who are not directly involved encourage crime. American movies and music have glorified crime for rather a long time, so now we have more people in prison than live in all of Latvia. Or about fifteen times the number of convicts that England sent to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

Gibran is speaking about the balance within a person, but I think that this extends to all of society. Our problems come about because we insist on this us-them attitude; we believe that some people have no place in our society. It seems that most criminals feel that society has a vendetta against them, and when you examine the facts of their lives, they can present some pretty compelling evidence. If we build a society where everyone has a place, where there is no outer darkness where we thrust the undesirables, if we stopped seeing our fellow human beings as undesirable, maybe we wouldn’t have so much crime. I’m drifting into a Foucault rant. Let’s stop.

Your daily life is your temple and your religion.
Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.
Take the plough and the forge and the mallet and the lute,
The things you have fashioned in necessity or for delight.
For in revery you cannot rise above your achievements nor fall lower than your failures.

One of the problems I have with the faith I was raised in is their idea of sacredness. Some objects and concepts are sacred, and others are not. Some places are sacred, some times are sacred, others are not. You should always take communion with your right hand because the right hand is more sacred than the left. I think it’s ridiculous. I took communion with my right hand because I’m right-handed; it’s the same hand I use to wipe my ass with. I also use it to shake strangers’ hands, strum the guitar, eat apples, handle my . . . hm, I do just about everything with it. Is there something about a church that suddenly sanctifies the hand I wank with? For me, the important religious concepts are awareness and love. Church buildings and services don’t necessarily help me with those. I feel my awareness expanding and heightening in the woods or gardens, seldom indoors; I feel closer to a perfect love when I’m having pizza and beer with friends than when I’m reading psalms in unison with a roomful of people I don’t know well. A grateful, loving awareness of the earth and people around me can make any time or space sacred. Which means that aesthetic appreciation is as close to godliness as I get.

Going along with this pantheistic theme, here’s a bit about the use of money:

And if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.
For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

I’ve heard people talk a lot about leaving a financial legacy for their children, securing property of lasting value, that sort of thing, but I think it’s a crock of shit. My parents only showed love by buying us stuff, but we were so poor that we only got stuff at Christmas or birthdays, and most of the year it was dried beans and the one kerosene heater that wasn’t really intended for indoor use. Looking back, I’d rather have had fewer toys at Christmas and a stronger conviction that I was loved and valued. Possessions are not the same thing as love. Let’s put money into having good experiences, going to a play or a concert; they may be fleeting, but the relationships we build around them endure longer than any piece of dross we can purchase. When I look at acquaintances who lose their parents, no one seems comforted by the size of their inheritance.

So yeah, Gibran encourages all of my most extreme hippie tendencies. If you don’t have any, or distrust the occasional temptation to wear headbands and tie-dyed shirts, handle this book with care. If, on the other hand, you kind of wish they had elected McGovern back in ‘72, get this book and keep it close to your heart.