Posts Tagged ‘choice’

Once on a Time (A. A. Milne)

This is a fantasy book written for adults (now probably considered YA). Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything inappropriate for children here, merely that they are not the primary audience. There are people who are bad and unhappy because they are miscast, and Milne makes sure we understand that – a good leader can be an underhanded, manipulative follower, and a good swineherd can make a careless, aggressive king. The difficulty in life is to figure out what people’s strengths are, what they are truly well-suited to, and then putting them in those roles. I’m seeing a lot of that in my management class, but it’s true here as well. Magic kingdoms that are somehow excessively small, transformations, foolish men, women who don’t actually need help – it’s a great book.

The Biology of Luck (Jacob M. Appel)

I read this book in unhappy circumstances, sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck, but I don’t think I’d care much for it in the best of contexts. Protagonist writes a book for the woman he loves, recounting the day that he finally gets the courage to ask her to marry him but from her perspective, and then he waits for the day he has the letter from the publisher either accepting or rejecting it to ask the big question. So, we see the day from his side, as he gets his letter and tries to hang onto it during the course of his day as a tour guide. We also read the book he wrote, telling the day from her side, but the two stories keep intertwining, so Protagonist predicted the day accurately, with its deaths and disasters and everything. A better writer would take a little time to speculate on the nature of reality, whether Protagonist is trapped in his own story or whether he is influencing future events in which he is not involved, whether free will exists or we are all pawns in some cosmological plan that he got an accidental glimpse of, but Appel ignores it all. There is no meditation on the fabric of events because Protagonist is completely obsessed with this girl Starshine. She doesn’t think of him at all. He fills the same role in her life as the gay best friend, only without being gay. I’m really confused as to why he would portray the woman he loves as a manipulative bitch, but he does. The common folk would call her a cocktease – she holds the possibility of sex in front of men in order to get them to do what she wants, but she prefers not to actually let them touch her. The boyfriend she meets for lunch is fabulously wealthy and wants to take her away to Europe; the boyfriend she meets after lunch is fabulously sexy and wants to take her away to Europe as well. The first one is young and entitled, the second is older, muscular, and revolutionary. Sleeping with two men is enough; she doesn’t need more sex in her life, but she still presents herself as available to other men so they will donate to the nonprofit she works for or do whatever else she wants. Why does protagonist love her? He digs all into her psyche, but I can’t find anything there to justify his feelings for her.

This book is another example of how New Yorkers think that a book is good, interesting, and important simply because it is set in New York. There’s nothing else to recommend it.

The Witching Hour (Anne Rice)

I first picked this book up in the staff room at my workplace ten years ago. I read through the first chapter, and I knew that this book could completely take me over, so I put it down and decided to leave it alone. Until now. There’s something about Anne Rice’s writing that feels real; it didn’t feel like reading fiction at all. It was a complete experience for me. Which is good, because at over a thousand pages, it took me nearly three weeks to get through it.

This is really two books. Nestled in the center is an epistolary multigenerational Gothic novel, along the order of Daphne du Maurier, about a family of witches. In seventeenth-century Scotland, a girl named Suzanne was a local healer. She slept with a witch hunter who told her all sorts of stories about witches are supposed to be able to do, so she went outside and called forth a spirit who whipped up a storm. She named him Lasher. He guides, protects, and supports her descendants for the next three hundred years. Lasher picks up various tricks from them over the years. The witch gene doesn’t stick with only female children, though, so he gets the idea to breed them for magical talent the way a puppy mill inbreeds for floppy ears and gentle dispositions. There’s some gay content here, but since the gay men in the family also tend to fuck their sisters/aunts/daughters/mothers/nieces, it’s not as gay-positive as I’d prefer. The Talamasca is a group of scholars who try to learn about the paranormal and protect the Mayfairs from their own witchcraft. They provide some genetic material for the line as well.

The frame story, the second longer book, is about the newest witch, Rowan Mayfair. She’s a neurosurgeon sworn never to see the family in New Orleans, who rescues a hot drowning guy and falls for him. He’s a poor Irish from New Orleans as well, so just her type. He gets some psychic powers after his near-death experience, as well as a driving mission to help the Mayfair witches. Not the ones living now, all the dead ones. Lasher’s in on it too, glad to have finally found a Mayfair who understands enough about anatomy to give him corporeal form. I’ll admit that my attention started to flag sometime around page 850, but I pushed through and things got intense there at the end. It’s a good book, just very long. The other two books in the trilogy are of a reasonable length.

The Consumption of Magic (T. J. Klune)

This is the third in the series about the magically bitchy twinks who gather dragons to put down the Rising of the Darks. When we finished A Destiny of Dragons, Sam hadn’t quite forgiven his mentors for concealing some details from him, but he gets over it here. Things are getting too dangerous for him to pass up allies, and this is a book about reconciliation. Even Gary and Kevin get back together, and we’re all glad we don’t really have to imagine what unicorn-dragon sex looks like. Knight Delicious Face is still dashing and immaculate, though once Sam starts telling his own secrets things change a little. Prince Justin is a bit less of an asshole than he has been, so maybe Sam’s charisma is winning him over at last. As ever, Klune’s writing is a joy and a delight, and if I knew him I would be begging for a beef injection. I love this series so much. This isn’t the end, and this installment finishes on an Empire Strikes Back sort of a note.

 

I know that I usually discuss books in the month that I read them, but it’s the afternoon of March 2 and I’ve already finished two more, so I’m going to go ahead and discuss these as well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)

I’ve heard people say that this series takes a dark turn in the fourth book, that the death of Cedric Diggory changes the series in less pleasant ways. I’d disagree – things get really dark here in Book Two. I know the movie makes him look like a Pixar chihuahua, but Dobby the Self-Harming House-Elf is really disturbing. Far from being the friendly sidekick, he’s one of the primary antagonists, despite the way he gives himself severe burns and bludgeoning trauma. It’s a miracle he hasn’t had any amputations. Then two fourteen-year-olds steal a car, only to have two twelve-year-olds steal the same car a few chapters on. Fortunately for it, the car goes feral and hides in the Forbidden Forest. Then there’s the giant spider, and the even gianter snake who kills on sight. Hagrid continues to be incredibly irresponsible with the children, even though it’s strongly implied that he’s sixty-three, so I feel like he should be more mature than he is. How long do half-giants live? How long does it take them to grow up? There’s also a great deal of cynicism in relation to celebrity culture and government authority, which will persist throughout the series. Bring on the darkness.

Prater Violet (Christopher Isherwood)

I read this book in about twelve hours, and most of those I was asleep. It’s the fictionalized account of Isherwood’s involvement on a motion picture in 1933 and 1934. The book focuses on his relationship with the Austrian director. There’s a lot of talk about politics, Hitler, and preparing for war – writing in 1945, Isherwood knew where things were going so he makes a big deal out of it, but the character Isherwood doesn’t know that World War II is just around the corner and just tries to keep the peace. The real meat of the book, for me, is in the last ten pages, where Isherwood starts thinking about what the experience means. What are we living for? In the midst of a worldwide economic and psychological depression, why do we bother to keep ourselves alive? It’s an expensive business, stuffing food and water in your mouth so that the cells keep replicating. It’s an interesting and intense burst at the end of the book. It got me thinking – he talks about how he takes lovers to hide from his fear and depression and hopes that eventually he will reach a point where he doesn’t need a man’s body to distract him from his terror and despair. I wonder if that’s what I’m doing. Why am I still with this guy? And if I do shake him off, how long will I stay single? Am I into relationships for the sex, or am I using men to avoid facing who I am and how I feel? Am I so in love with being alive that I really think it’s better than the alternative? Haven’t I always wanted the sort of adventure you never come back from? How aware am I of what’s going on in Venezuela, and to what degree does that make me complicit? Maybe I am just a stupid American, using more resources than an entire village, taking up more space than anyone has a right to, foolishly optimistic about the future and so not working to stop war or climate change. I’m hearing the girl from The Last Five Years, singing “I suck! I suck I suck I suck!”

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Okay, so I’m still not Hindu. That being said, they do have some good ideas.

A man should not hate any living creature. Let him be friendly and compassionate to all. He must free himself from the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ He must accept pleasure and pain with equal tranquillity. He must be forgiving, ever-contented, self-controlled, united constantly with me in his meditation. His resolve must be unshakable. He must be dedicated to me in intellect and in mind. Such a devotee is dear to me.

I am very much in favor of eliminating hatred, starting with the hatred I find in myself. I also agree that we need to get over the idea of possession, that certain things (or people) belong to us and that they cannot be taken from us. Everything is temporary, including ownership of houses and books and significant others. Refusing to let go causes suffering, so when the universe takes something, we have to learn to let go willingly, or at least submissively. If something is unpleasant and can’t be helped, it’s best to give in to circumstances. Now, if it can be helped, yes, go fight for what you love; I’m just saying that our identity is not based in possessions or relationships. We are who we are, no matter what we have or who we’re with.

The enlightened, the Brahman-abiding,
Calm-hearted, unbewildered,
Is neither elated by the pleasant
Nor saddened by the unpleasant.

His mind is dead
To the touch of the external:
It is alive
To the bliss of the Atman.
Because his heart knows Brahman
His happiness is for ever.

In one way of looking at this, it may seem that Krishna is praising the clinically depressed – those who can’t feel emotional responses to external stimuli. I’m not sure if that’s what’s going on, though. As I’ve been working through this, I think it has more to do with identity and how easily we are shaken. It’s great when good things happen, but I can still love myself when they don’t. It’s sad when bad things happen, and I can still love myself when they do. It’s about having a core of self-regard and belief that withstand the temporary influences of this life. In this sense, it’s like when St Paul was going on about how he can do all things in Christ. We can get knocked down, but that doesn’t mean we’re defeated.

Yet, I’m still troubled by the idea in the previous quotation of self-control. That wording seems to imply an antagonistic relationship to the self that I’m not comfortable with. Every person has impulses that are socially unacceptable, and I’m not saying that we should indulge them without question. When we want to do something we feel is bad, I think it’s best to understand the emotion that prompts the impulse and work toward healing ourselves. And if there’s an antisocial behavior that is not rooted in causing pain, then I don’t understand why it isn’t acceptable to do it. Sometimes I want to go outside and scream, so I do.

Once more I shall teach you
That uttermost wisdom:
The sages who found it
Were all made perfect,
Escaping the bonds of the body.

In that wisdom they lived,
Made one with my holy nature:
Now they are not reborn
When a new age begins,
Nor have they any part
In its dissolution.

And there isn’t a good way to deal with this concept either, in my opinion. It starts from the assumption that the world is a bad place, and I will not believe that. Suffering exists, but so does joy. I mean, what is the point of learning how to deal with suffering if your goal is to go somewhere that it doesn’t exist? And if you live with the belief that death is temporary, why would you want to make it permanent? At the beginning of the story, Arjuna looks at two opposing armies and tries to become a pacifist and Krishna (representation of deity) talks him into fighting because for the Hindu, death is temporary and therefore unimportant. It’s okay to kill people in a war because they’re going to be reincarnated in a happier time. But the reward for enlightenment is that you get to stay dead, which doesn’t seem like a reward to me. People make it sound like such a miserable thing to be reincarnated as a horsefly, but think about it. How much suffering do insects really have to go through? They’re liberated from the money economy, so they’re free to run around and meet their basic needs without interference.

I’m being faced with decisions right now – whom to date, where to live – and in the past, I’ve only ever been given one option at a time, so those decisions were simple. But now, given the choice between two options that are both good, I’m not sure what to do. I suppose if they’re both good choices, then it doesn’t matter which I choose, but that’s not helpful. I mean, what do I really want? I’m not sure. I’ll need to take some time to work on that.

This book was prepared as two separate volumes, but Buber was later persuaded to publish them together. In honor of the author’s original intent, I’m going to read and write about these book at different times – meaning, the second part of this entry will probably be written a week or so later than the first, and a lot can happen in a week. [It only ended up being two days. I didn’t want to wait to finish reading.]

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RIGHT AND WRONG

This book is an interpretation of five Psalms: 12, 14, 82, 73, and 1. In that sense, it felt very familiar to me as textual commentary, both as a literary critic and as a former believer. Buber has the erudition of an academic combined with the closedness of a religious adherent. It’s a little like reading while walking through a very large room – you’re moving in a straight line, but every now and again you bump into the wall of “But God can’t possibly desire to harm anyone,” so you strike off in a different direction. These bumps are rare, but they do happen. It makes me think of what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë, the sudden jerks of the narrative when her need to express the injustices of society on Victorian women overcomes her desire to tell the story of plain Jane Eyre and short-but-hunky Mr Rochester. [Much as I’d like to see Hugh Jackman as Edward Fairfax Rochester, he’s far too tall and good-looking for Brontë’s description. In my imaginary film starring him, Kelly MacDonald plays Jane.]

In the preface Buber speaks of these psalms as representing a progression, the path a person takes to reaching true goodness. However, he offers very little in the way of transitional material or conclusion, so it feels more like five disparate essays instead of a single unit. Another disconnect has to do with the translation. Buber doesn’t list the full text of the Psalms, so I pulled out the Authorized King James Version to read along, but the translations are very different. Buber implies strongly that he is reading in German with some knowledge of the original language (Hebrew?), and I think that our translator from German to English stayed with the literal translation of the German translation instead of looking back at commonly used English translations of the original text – my opinion here is based on the fact that the book was published in the early 1950s, and I believe that the Authorized King James Version was the most common English translation in use at that time. I’m happy to be corrected on that point. What I’m saying here is that reading your KJV Psalms won’t be all that helpful in understanding Buber’s interpretation of the text.

As I understand things, for Buber, evil comes from being divided against oneself. Psalm 12 introduces the idea of the doubled heart, where we create a second heart in order to interact with the world in dishonest ways. It feels similar to the idea of the social self, or Freud’s ego – to protect ourselves, we only show the rest of the world one part of ourselves, a part that can sometimes contradict or betray the rest of the self. [I’m thinking of the French nihilist in I Heart Huckabees.] The source of evil then is hiding who we are from the rest of the world, living in a closet.

A late interpreter of the Psalms like myself cannot be satisfied, as the Psalmist was, with a simple division of Israel, just as I could not be satisfied with such a division of the human world. We see the rift between those who do violence and those to whom violence is done, the rift between those who are true to God and the apostate element, running not merely through every nation, but also through every group in a nation, and even through every soul. Only in times of great crisis does the hidden rift in a people become apparent.

I still have the rift. When I came out, I was trying to reconcile the two hearts, the hidden part of me and the social self. But looking back, it didn’t feel like healing, and in many ways I’m still wounded. Coming out felt like it created more rifts instead. I watched 50/50 yesterday, and I realized just how angry I am at my mother, still. When I told her about my great crisis, it created so much of a crisis for her that she couldn’t help or support me. She was too busy tending her own wounds to help me with mine. Which is sort of what happened when she got divorced, too – her emotions overpowered her and she couldn’t guide her children through the experience. Or even provide basic emotional support. If I did get cancer like the guy in the film, I’d chase my mom away too. I suppose I don’t yet have the empathy to understand people when they are hurting me that deeply. I felt abandoned by all my family and friends, and while I know that that feeling wasn’t true, it was real, and in some ways still is. Just to be clear, none of the people I felt close to during the last year of my marriage continued to feel close during the first year of my separation; I became much closer to friends I had known before, and to some I hadn’t known that well, so I was never as alone as I felt. But six years later it’s still hard to feel close to people who responded to my coming out with shock and dismay.

While coming out blurred the line between inner and outer selves, it created new divisions between past and present, between skepticism and belief. For the last six years I’ve been denying the part of myself that loves faith. For a long time I even insisted to myself that mystical experiences were a sign of mental illness, and while I’m not saying I’ve always been healthy, I don’t think that skepticizing all of my religious experience is healthy either. If I want to heal my divided self, I have to embrace the part of me that believes in the unseen. Christianity is probably not a good fit for me right now, theistic religions as a whole may not work for me, but whether I like it or not I am a person who believes. I’ve been nearing this through the occult, so that may end up being what makes sense to me. The transfer and sharing of emotional energies matches up with my experience better than deity belief. I’m seeing this as a process of discovering what resonates with me rather than of choosing what to believe, because I tried choosing what I believed for thirty years and it didn’t work. It created that divided heart, the source of evil.

It may seem odd that I would talk about opposition to myself as one who believes, given my temptations toward Islam in Saudi Arabia and toward inclusive evangelicalism in Texas, but in both those faith communities I was looking for community, not faith. At least, not consciously. Men in the closet are better at hiding from themselves than from others.

In a few other passages Buber says that evil is denying one’s own existence. I spent thirty years denying the part of me that loves; I don’t want to spend the next thirty denying the part that believes.

In the verse of the Psalm of which I am speaking [1:6], however, there is something particular added, which is said only here, and it is this. The Psalm does not say that God knows the proven ones, the pious, but that He knows their way. The way, the way of life of these men is so created that at each of its stages they experience the divine contact afresh. And they experience it as befits a real way, at each stage they experience it in the manner specifically appropriate to the stage. Their experience of the divine ‘knowing’ is not like any experience of nature, it is a genuinely biographical experience, that is, what is experienced in this manner is experienced in the course of one’s own personal life, in destiny as it is lived through in each particular occasion. However cruel and contrary this destiny might appear when viewed apart from intercourse with God, when it is irradiated by His ‘knowing’ it is ‘success’, just as every action of this man, his disappointments and even his failures, are success. O the happiness of the man who goes the way which is shown and ‘known’ by God!

The way that Buber is talking about, is the same thing that I mean when I talk about story, stories being a more meaningful metaphor for me than paths. My story is generally about wandering off the path. But it reminds me of the time when I kept a God-journal: you write a conversation between you and God, being honest about what you hear being said to you. I got really angry and stopped because the God-voice told me that he loved my story, and at that time I hated everything about my life. Now that I have a different perspective, I’m okay with that. My story is still on its way out of the dark, but I’m close enough to light to appreciate the dark days I’ve been through. Stories are parabolas, and the only way to get to a happy ending is to hit the bottom halfway through.

Another important aspect of evil Buber discusses is in one’s attitude. Evil is refusing to see the good in our lives. As in Persuasion, the elasticity of mind, the disposition to be comforted, the willingness to be happy, is Good. I haven’t always seen silver linings, but I’m going to be more careful to look for them. The universe is here for my good, and if I can’t see the good, I shouldn’t blame the universe for that. It’s doing the best it can.

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

In the first two parts of this book, Buber discusses Hebrew and Iranian myths about the creation of evil, or at least about humanity’s descent into evil (I’m not wholly allied to the spatial metaphor here, but Buber likes it). In the third, he synthesizes the two and sets forth his idea about the nature of good and evil. As with many literature students, I think he loses clarity when he gets farther from the text, but taken as a whole, I find the book to be comprehensible.

According to Buber, the different groups of myth are sequential in our lives, though they were probably contemporaneous in their telling. Hebrew first. We remember the story of two people in a garden, with a snake who deceives the woman. Many people have tried to argue that the Fall had nothing to do with food, but with sex. Buber explicitly disagrees; he’s remarkably sex-positive in his description of Eden. He sees the story about humanity’s shift in perception – before the Fall, things just were as they were, and after, we learned to see the world in terms of binary opposites, with of course one side being privileged. Does this imply that intersex and genderqueer individuals represent a prelapsarian innocence, and that they remind us how far we have fallen from nature? Yes, it could. Into this newly binary world we introduce Kain, the first man to choose evil. Adam and Eve couldn’t choose evil because it didn’t exist until after they’d eaten the fruit. Kain makes an offering that God denies, and then he murders his brother, who was accepted. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario: Did Kain kill his brother because God refused to accept his offering, or did God refuse to accept Kain’s offering because He knew he was going to kill his brother? Then there’s the story of the flood, where the imagery of people’s hearts have become evil. We learn evil, then we choose it, then we imagine it continually.

I wasn’t clear where he was going with this until he started synthesizing, so I’m skipping around a bit in my explanation. The Hebrew phase represents the evil of indecision. We’re born, we start to grow up, and around our teenage years the world seems full of possibility, and while to me that sounds exciting, to Buber it’s terrifying. He sees us caught up in a tornado of options with no idea which is the right or natural course of action for ourselves.

The soul driven round in the dizzy whirl cannot remain fixed within it; it strives to escape. If the ebb that leads back to familiar normality does not make its appearance, there exist for it two issues [possible results]. One is repeatedly offered it: it can clutch at any object, past which the vortex happens to carry it, and cast its passion upon it; or else, in response to a prompting that is still incomprehensible to itself, it can set about the audacious work of self-unification. In the former case, it exchanges an undirected possibility for an undirected reality, in which it does what it wills not to do, what is preposterous to it, the alien, the ‘evil’; in the latter, if the work meets with success, the soul has given up undirected plenitude in favour of the one taut string, the one stretched beam of direction. If the work is not successful, which is no wonder with such an unfathomable undertaking, the soul has nevertheless gained an inkling of what direction, or rather the direction is – for in the strict sense there is only one. To the extent to which the soul achieves unification it becomes aware of direction, becomes aware of itself as sent in quest of it. It comes into the service of good or into service for good.

So, in other words, in this tornado of options there are really only two: do what is natural and right for you to do, or do something else. Kain chose to do something else. In the story, God sees the doubleness inside Kain; he’s offering his work to God, but not for the stated motive of glorifying God. Kain has the double heart that leads to evil, the division between his interior and exterior selves. God’s not going to support that. Good comes from a unified psyche, a singleness of character that makes one’s course of action clear. This is what makes life so terrifying: if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know what course is our good, so we will inevitably choose evil. To make another film allusion, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, someone asks Dorian Grey what he is, and he answers, “I’m complicated.” This complication is both evidence and source of Dorian’s evil, and he does turn out to be one of the villains of the piece. Both here and in Wilde’s story, Dorian Grey is evil because he chooses to live in that whirlwind of choices, grabbing at every thing presented to him instead of accepting himself and the limitations of being human. Of course he has to put half of himself into something external, like a portrait; from the time Basil paints the picture, Dorian rejects his true human self.

A quick word on nature and multiplicity: Buber doesn’t equate ‘natural’ and ‘good’ the way that I’m doing here. That’s all my own interpretation. He situates our origin in the divine story, created by God, and I situate our origin in the more mundane mechanics of sexual reproduction, created by nature. But I think for the purposes of this discussion the result is the same: Buber and I both find good in being who we were created to be, and evil in denying the person we naturally are. The thing is, moving onto the next topic, that every one of us is created differently, so we each have different goods and evils. It would be evil in me to eat a piece of wheat toast because I would be denying my identity as a person with coeliac disease, but it’s a good decision for people who don’t have my autoimmune response to gluten. It was evil of me to marry a woman because I wasn’t being the gay man that I am, but there are many heterosexual and lesbian marriages that are rooted in good because they are the true expression of the identities of the couple involved. I’m not embracing moral relativism completely – I don’t think the true expression of any person’s identity is to hurt someone else, which is to say that I don’t think there are natural born killers – but I don’t think that any one path, any one faith, any one story, is right for all of humanity. As I say to religious people, If there were only one path to God, we’d all start from the same place. And while Buber is Jewish and speaking from that perspective, he leaves room for other gods and other narratives.

The Iranian myths represent the evil of decision. Remember, we’re speaking of a pre-Islamic Iran, so think of Zoroastrianism. Once upon a time, the highest god, the Wise Lord, began to have doubts, and in his doubt he conceived two primal forces: the one that says Yes, and the one that says No. As before, evil is a turning against oneself. Here, good and evil are equally balanced opposite forces, both of which are contained in or encompassed by the Wise Lord. The second story is of an ancient king, who sought the gods for all sorts of benefits for his kingdom – immortality, prosperity, power to control demons, the standard sort of wish-fulfillment Garden-of-Eden stuff. But after a few hundred years, he forgets the gods’ place in his happiness and he tells himself that he did all this by himself, without divine help. Immediately his power leaves him and he starts a gradual process of isolating himself in evil and eventually being consumed by the demons he had once ruled.

The identical term lie is used in the Vedas, at times, to designate the uncanny game of hide-and-seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself. […] Being-true, however, ultimately signifies: strengthening, covering and confirming being at the point of one’s own existence, and being-false ultimately signifies: weakening, desecrating and dispossessing being at the point of one’s own existence. He who prefers the lie to the truth and chooses it instead of truth, intervenes directly with his decision into the decisions of the world-conflict. But this takes effect in the very first instance at just his point of being: since he gave himself over to the being-lie, that is to non-being, which passes itself off as being, he falls victim to it.

Circling back to my own identity issues, all evil is a form of closet. It’s based in lying to yourself about who you are, rejecting yourself, trying to destroy the person you were made to be (Dorian stabbing his portrait). Because it consists of self-destruction, evil is choosing not to exist. And the evil in me echoes out into the world around me, like ripples in a pond. The good in me also spreads itself around me, which is what makes the world such an interesting compound of good and bad.

What is essential in this second phase is that we aren’t flailing in the vortex of option any more. This sort of evil is related to preference and choice. The question isn’t, Are you living a lie? like it was with the Hebrew myths. The question is, Do you like living a lie? Once you find yourself in a closet, repressing and denying aspects of your real self, do you stay there? Do you hate yourself so much that you prefer living as someone else?

I believe that creation is continuous. We weren’t born fully formed, and we continue to grow and change, to shape our creation, until the day we die. And possibly beyond that. Humans are not static beings; we are in a constant state of becoming. Two good friends of mine have spent this last year splitting up, and as I was talking with one about the decisions the other is making, I mentioned this idea that I don’t think our friend is being careful about who she is becoming. The one present asked why I would phrase it that way, and I couched it in terms of science fiction, multiple dimensions of reality, and Douglas Adams’s Probability Axis, but it comes just as much from my belief of what it means to be human, rooted in philosophy and religion.

I want to create wholeness in my life. I want healing between the parts of me that have been in conflict. I want to be good. I think Buber’s right; goodness starts with a person’s relationship with herself. Buber describes the process of unifying one’s psyche as conversion, and that section about the first book that I wrote on Sunday felt like that type of transformation, as dramatic as coming out of the closet as a gay man. As at any moment when a new field of living opens itself, there’s the vortex of indecision again, but I have a little more self-knowledge than I did as a teenager, so I’m considering fewer options. And I’ve learned how to tell when something is right for me and when it isn’t. Moving forward, I expect to read more religious and philosophical ideas, as I try to understand the shape of my own belief. I may end up worshipping the elephant-faced Ganesh, or I may call down the moon with a local coven, or I may just decide that my religion is kissing trees. But whatever it is, it’s going to be mine, and it’s going to be good for me. I’m not going to internally mock or belittle myself or call myself crazy for believing, and I’m going to do my best to love the me who loves faith.

Reading through the title story, I got the impression that it was meant to stand on its own, but ended up shorter than expected, so this is a collection of five fairy stories. The first four are rather short, but that fifth one is no less delightful.

“The Glass Coffin” is very Grimm-ish, with magical transformations being undone by someone who is kind and simple. “Gode’s Story” is about two young people who fall in love but don’t end up together. I wanted it to turn into a ghost story, because that’s where handsome young sailors who like to dance with snobby rich girls can find happiness, but no. It’s one of those stories about how class pride keeps people apart, and how we can choose to make ourselves and others miserable. In some ways, it’s a warning about love unspoken. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” goes back to the Grimm mythos, but the girl recognizes her position in a story, rebels against it, and makes her own choices. Again, there’s a strong emphasis on kindness, but also on the fact that life isn’t perfect, even in a fairy tale. Even when you know you’re in a fairy tale. It’s also an important reminder to me that we are not ruled by fate; even in the face of certain doom, we make choices and it is our choices that steer our lives, not some impersonal force or omnipotent deity. “Dragon’s Breath” is about destruction and loss, and how the stories of real tragedies can in time become legends and fairy tales.

djinn

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is about a modern woman who finds a djinn. When I say it like that, it sounds like most of the story is about her and the magical creature, but she doesn’t find the djinn until halfway through the story. Byatt studies stories, so she knows how they should be assembled. Finding the djinn isn’t the spark that initiates the action; it’s the story’s crisis, the turning point. It would be more correct to say that this is a story about a modern woman who goes to Turkey to speak at a conference on the nature of stories, and then goes sightseeing with an old friend. It’s about retelling the stories of Chaucer’s Griselda, Scheherazade and Prince Camaralzaman of The Arabian Nights, and The Epic of Gilgamesh. It touches on belief and deities and fertility and superstition. And then halfway through, the djinn comes out of the bottle and changes everything. Not quite everything, really, externally Gillian’s life carries on as normal. He gives her a body she is pleased with and a love that satisfies her, but the real gift is just his existence. She spends her whole life studying stories and becoming trained to draw a boundary between types of stories, so that reality and fantasy don’t mix. But I believe that the fantastic is real, and the djinn’s intrusion into Gillian’s real life breaks down some of the limits she had set on her perception of the world. And the djinn tells stories too, of his life, and she tells stories of her life, so that there is a real proliferation of narratives held within this frame.

Byatt’s collection gives me the feeling that she has so many stories inside of her, but she hasn’t had anything to do with them, so now they’re bursting out in all directions. There’s an excess, a riotousness in the way the narratives burst out of each other, that only makes sense to me in the context of containment. At the same time, she was already well established by the time these stories were published. Two of these stories were part of her novel Possession, so I’m probably misreading some things. The lavish feeling here could come from any number of sources, and I don’t know enough biography to speak authoritatively, and I’m feeling somehow shy about speculating.

This is a great book, as well-written and smart as Byatt’s always are. The stories are adult without being graphic, fantastic without being unreal, true without being factual. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves stories.

Yes, this is a book about the pace of modern life. Partially.

We begin with Kundera and his wife driving out to a castle-turned-hotel for the evening. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about the modern tendency to road rage (yes, I’m pointing at myself) and our insane hurry to do everything. After they arrive, they enjoy a quiet evening and go to bed early. So, for most of the book, he’s imagining it, and his wife is dreaming what he imagines, like their minds are in the same vehicle but he’s driving. Every now and again she’ll wake up and comment on the story, or a piece of music that he mentions. This is the frame.

Because this is a Milan Kundera novel, he moves quickly to the subject of sex. He thinks that our sex lives must be as hurried as the rest of life, and he finds this unfortunate. He remembers a short erotic story from the eighteenth century, Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain. This is a real story; you can read it at Project Gutenberg, if you read French. Denon was more famous for his Egyptology; his travel book on Egyptian archaeology fueled the orientalist fads of the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, which sort of culminated in Aida – because why not set an Italian opera in Egypt – or possibly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – because why not send an American teacher to fight Nazis in Egypt. Frankly, if you’re looking for eighteenth century smut, Fanny Hill is much more detailed, with less not-sex. A young man sees a married friend of his mistress, and she takes him out to her home in the country (the same castle Kundera is staying in, of course). Over the course of the evening, she works a slow seduction, the type designed to end in sex but in such a way that the man thinks it’s his ardor leading the charge. There are a few changes of scenery; she leads him all over the garden. She flirts him in a little, then pushes him away with that classical French pout. Finally she takes him to a secret room in the castle and they do what she brought him for; the next morning he runs into the guy she’s been fucking and he reveals that the whole night was just a smokescreen so that her husband would focus his jealousy on Young Protagonist instead of on the real lover.

So of course Kundera reimagines the story in the modern world (twenty years ago, before we all had cell phones). Kundera’s pal Vincent is at the same hotel, attending a conference of entomologists. He meets Julie, some kind of admin assistant working the conference. They bond over the fact that they both feel young and undervalued, so they abuse the other attendees over a few drinks and decide to go up to her room. They get sidetracked by the new swimming pool, so they swim naked for a bit and do it poolside. Then she runs away all flirtatious-like and he follows her but not quite fast enough (A lady clutching a dress to her nude front is all right, but a gentleman ought to put on the trousers in his hand). He can’t find her, so for both young men, the love affair has no tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be sad about that, but a one-night stand is one of my favorite memories, so I’m really not.

Because this is a Kundera novel, there’s also a socio-political element, this time focused on performance. Some people grow and expand like a rose blooming when they have an audience. So they play to that audience; Kundera calls it dancing, and he has quite a lot to say about dancers. Most of it not great. We wear masks in public, and sometimes we confuse the mask for the real self. People who don’t even know a person’s real self can reject a mask, but the rejectee feels it in the real self. The good politicians and academics know how to manage their personae to get ahead. Čechořipsky is less skilled in this area. He may at one time have been a brilliant entomologist, but he failed to ingratiate himself with the Soviets when they took over Czechoslovakia. He tries to see it as a successful rebellion now, but at the time it was just cowardice. So he’s spent the last twenty years as a construction worker, not studying bugs. He’s so emotionally overwhelmed at the conference he forgets to present his paper, and when he realizes his mistake he feels like a big idiot, so he comforts himself by thinking of his physique. Working in construction like that, he’s stronger than any of these guys who have spent their lives in laboratories. Boys have always comforted themselves for the fact that they’re not comparatively smart by asking themselves who would win in a fight. But the other scientists don’t see him as buff or hot or anything. They seem to see him more as a Quasimodo figure.

So he goes down to the pool to do some lengths and feel better about himself, and he sees these two people fucking next to the pool, and he thinks what a strange and wonderful country France must be, where lovers can do that in public without drawing unwanted attention. What he doesn’t realize is that Vincent’s dick is not at all engaged. It’s in its resting state, dangling about but not actually inside her. This sex act is a performance. Vincent and Julie are each performing their rebellion against society for an invisible audience, possibly each other, so there’s no need for them to actually touch. Just like in Denon’s story, where the lady takes the young man to prove to her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about the man she’s sleeping with habitually – it’s all performance. Our lives are full of performance too; we’re all dancing about in front of the cameras, hoping to get our pictures taken. Our cultural conversation insists that fame is ephemeral, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for it. Kundera points out that we all think we are the elect, and that we will somehow get our image preserved forever. It’s hard for us to cope with our equality; we believe we’re special, that we somehow deserve nice things even when no one else has them. Or maybe I’m just talking about me, who secretly never gave up his dream of becoming a rock star. Even though he’s 37 and has only a basic musical talent and a complete disdain for autotune. It makes people sound like robots.

So, to complete this book on fame and sex (and the informal spaces where the two interact) and pacing, there’s this weird little apostrophe on the last page that doesn’t seem to fit with the novel.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.

Is that really what the whole thing has been about? Happiness? and Hope?

What does it take to be happy? What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Against my expectations, I’m reminded of a bit of St Paul, where he says that external circumstances don’t matter to him because his contentment comes from within (Phil 4:12-13). Much as I dislike supporting Paul, this one makes sense. The characters in this book are mostly unhappy, but it’s primarily themselves they are unhappy with. Vincent and Julie and Čechořipsky and the other dancers are all acting out their obvious insecurities, while the characters he borrows from Denon seem happy, even the young man who was manipulated and used. I guess that makes sense, according to the codes of the time he protected a woman (read weak, defenseless creature) from the vile aspersions of her husband (however true they may be). I guess people like being helpful, even if the help is kind of strange. In context, though, I think Kundera would link their happiness to their slower pace of life. Their actions are more deliberate: Julie takes the opportunity when it comes, but Madame de T creates the opportunity and orchestrates the entire experience. My modern self wants to be special, unique, not so easily predicted, but Denon’s lad finds happiness in the utility that comes from being so utterly conventional. Less individuality, less fame, but more happiness.

As I’m sitting here considering times I have been both happy and slow, I think that the connection has to do with the amount of control I feel I have over my own life. If I let modernity have its way, I get swept into the rush of things. When I can control my life, I slow it down. When I feel in control, I feel happy. And frankly, reading seems to play a large part in all this. He got me an iPad a month or two ago, and it’s a nice toy for checking my friends’ facebook posts, but when I try to read an article they share, the ads load very slowly, so I read a few sentences and the screen goes blank to reload the next ad, so I find my place and read a few more words before the screen goes blank again. If I get through an entire paragraph and have to scroll down, when the screen goes blank it will leave me at the top of the page again. It’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had because I’m forced to rush. But reading an actual book is wholly different. The artifact is already intact, so I don’t have to wait for ads or buffering. It’s always immediately available, and it never reloads. There’s no pressure to hurry before the words disappear. Any pressures are purely internal, so I’m in control of the experience. I can choose to read quickly if the book is exciting, or I can slow down if the writing is complex or beautiful. With a printed book, I can make choices because there is so little technology mediating my experience of the text while I’m reading it.

Choice might actually be a better way of thinking about this than control. When I make choices, I’m happiest if I can take them slowly. Modern life does have a way of insisting that choices be made immediately, whether the matter is actually urgent or not. It’s better to have time to deliberate, weigh the options, think on it for a bit. The slower pace gives me confidence that I’m making a good choice. So. Slow is good. Taking time with/for people shows them that they are important to you. Taking time is how we escape from that twentieth-century French conviction that everything is meaningless. Slowness makes things matter.