Posts Tagged ‘justice’

This author was recommended to me as something completely different, something that could shock me back into myself. I’ve been feeling disconnected from myself, and a shock could be what I need. As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve realized that I need to get back to the piano. Playing music is important to me, but I’ve been neglecting it. I suppose part of this is that he isn’t in favor of having a piano in the house. I know they’re heavy, but they’re also meaningful. Meaningful things should have weight.

The thing that has struck me about Tagore is not his difference, but his similarity. His title points to the parallels between the domestic and public spheres, which I’ve been fascinated with for more than ten years. Think Sense and Sensibility. In fact, I tend to keep a strict delineation between the two. Which is why I don’t invite people to my house. Living with a family is challenging for me because I have to share decision-making and it’s difficult to have a physical space that is only mine. For instance, we took his daughter to a theme park yesterday, but he doesn’t like roller coasters. I was there to spend time with him, so I didn’t ride them. Do you know how dismal and dull theme parks are if you don’t go on the rides?

There are three narrators, but Bimala is the one I find most important. She’s stuck in a triangle with Nikhil and Sandip. Nikhil and Bimala have been married for nine years. He’s an intellectual, seems to be some sort of magistrate for the district, which is in Bengal, the northeastern part of India. A good bit of Bengal is now Bangladesh. Sandip is Nikhil’s friend, who is working for an independent India. Sandip comes over for a day or two, but he decides to extend his visit because Bimala is a special person. She’s not presented as especially beautiful, but she has something. Nikhil has been trying to encourage her to become his equal, but it’s not working. She just keeps being a traditional Indian wife, which to her means complete submission. The women tend to live separated from men, and Nikhil wants to spend more time with her. It’s countercultural, but it’s not illegal or irreligious. He pushes gently, and she remains unmoved. Her job is domesticity, and that means following strict conventions.

And then Sandip notices her. He doesn’t want some weird blurring of society’s gender roles. He doesn’t really want to bring her into a man’s world. To him, Bimala is a goddess. With him, she feels like the divine embodiment of the nation. She gains confidence, not by being invited to share her husband’s life, but by being put on the culturally approved pedestal. Sandip is really good with her (NB: I didn’t say ‘to her’). The prolonged seduction goes very well for a while; he’s a great manipulator, but not even the best can keep it up indefinitely. Eventually he has to make a direct demand, and she sees what he is but is in too deep to turn back.

With Sandip, it’s all about The Cause. His cause is the country. Under British rule, European goods have been flooding into the country. A vital part of claiming their national identity is rejecting foreign goods. Sandip and his followers use Any Means Necessary – if only one guy is still transporting imports across the river, you sink his boat. It looks like a nonviolent protest, but it’s not really. These people are ruining the lives of the very people they claim to want to save. So when Sandip asks Bimala for money to finance the cause, he asks for too much for her to get on her own. When she has to steal for The Cause, she knows she’s gone too far and starts trying to pull herself out.

Nikhil is very much an All Lives Matter type of guy. I don’t mean that he denies the importance of fighting against discrimination, I mean that he really values all lives. India is not as important as Humanity. He’s sort of a stand-in for Tagore, someone who believes that you can’t take away someone’s livelihood without giving him a life of equal or greater value. Home rule for India is important because of the systematic oppression of the Indian people by the English, not because it’s an inherent good. He has a strong value for people, while Sandip cares more about principles. And Sandip’s principles are ethnocentric and misogynistic. He tells people that he only cares about the country, but he’s really in this for himself. He found a way to rise in caste, so he is taking advantage of the personal benefits without being overly concerned about the Motherland.

My theory of life makes me certain that the Great is cruel. To be just is for ordinary men—it is reserved for the great to be unjust. The surface of the earth was even. The volcano butted it with its fiery horn and found its own eminence—its justice was not towards its obstacle, but towards itself. Successful injustice and genuine cruelty have been the only forces by which individual or nation has become millionaire or monarch.

That is why I preach the great discipline of Injustice. I say to everyone: Deliverance is based upon injustice. Injustice is the fire which must keep on burning something in order to save itself from becoming ashes. Whenever an individual or nation becomes incapable of perpetrating injustice it is swept into the dust-bin of the world.

Sandip is concerned with his own greatness, and he doesn’t care who suffers, because he sees it as his right to be unjust to everyone. The only thing that matters is that Sandip remains comfortable and rises to the top. And yes, his sexual politics are as bad as his public policy.

We are men, we are kings, we must have our tribute. Ever since we have come upon the Earth we have been plundering her; and the more we claimed, the more she submitted. From primeval days have we men been plucking fruits, cutting down trees, digging up the soil, killing beast, bird and fish. From the bottom of the sea, from underneath the ground, from the very jaws of death, it has all been grabbing and grabbing and grabbing—no strong-box in Nature’s store-room has been respected or left unrifled. The one delight of this Earth is to fulfil the claims of those who are men. She has been made fertile and beautiful and complete through her endless sacrifices to them. But for this, she would be lost in the wilderness, not knowing herself, the doors of her heart shut, her diamonds and pearls never seeing the light.

Likewise, by sheer force of our claims, we men have opened up all the latent possibilities of women. In the process of surrendering themselves to us, they have ever gained their true greatness. Because they had to bring all the diamonds of their happiness and the pearls of their sorrow into our royal treasury, they have found their true wealth. So for men to accept is truly to give: for women to give is truly to gain.

As things progress, our three narrators start to realize that they don’t understand each other, but while they phrase it as a gender problem, I think it’s bigger than that. Does any person really know another? There are depths that stay hidden. We are always growing and changing, and even people who know each other well have to ask each other what they’re thinking. There is something isolating about being in existence.

There’s more going on. Think about Burke and Austen – there is no distinction between private and public spheres. Sandip and Nikhil represent their ideologies, the revolutionary new India and the colonial establishment. Bimala is the nation, caught between the two. In Tagore’s schema, the revolution doesn’t care about the individual lives of the poor; it only pretends to so that the leaders can enrich themselves and acquire power. The conservatives try to protect and take care of people. The poor may have only partial freedom, but the boundaries of their lives are invisible, like Pierre’s Ambiguities. The purpose of the maharaja is to make sure they don’t feel the ties that bind them, and Nikhil is good at it. Not good enough to stop Sandip’s influence, but good. His rule is sufficiently relaxed that disorder can grow up fairly quickly because Nikhil will not infringe on the revolutionaries’ right of self-determination. So long as they’re not hurting someone else. Sandip isn’t opposed to hurting others, and he ends up damaging himself in the process. Not physically, but he is disdainful of Nikhil’s intellectualism even though he spends more of his narration time on abstraction than Nikhil. Nikhil is interested in realities; Sandip is interested in justifying his self-centeredness.

So. Passionate manipulator vs intellectual idealist? It reminds me of the current presidential race in America. Sandip is Mr Trump, fighting to advance his position even though he’s unsuited to greater power, and destroying everyone he comes into contact with. He’s like the Russians who engineered a Communist revolution to concentrate an entire nation’s resources in the hands of a select few. Nikhil is like President Obama, idealistic and hopeful, struggling to guide people into happiness without the success he’d like. It’s difficult to make people both free and well behaved. I think Trump’s entire campaign is utter lunacy. The fact that the Republican Party chose a candidate that has no experience in diplomacy is baffling, and the fact that enough Americans admire him that he actually has a good chance of winning the election is proof of massive ignorance. People are afraid, so they trust the one who tells them they are right to be afraid.

In both the book and in reality, Muslims are an issue. For them, there is something more important than national identities or the rights and wrongs of politics. The world is full of suffering, but it’s possible to rise above the suffering by submitting one’s will to God. All kinds of suffering. The flavor of the suffering is immaterial, since suffering is temporary and God gives us the strength to overcome it. Accepting suffering is essential to submission and brings glory to God. These ideas are inimical to revolution, even the type of revolution Trump is working toward. Minimizing one’s own suffering thus is important and healthy, whether a belief in God is involved or not. Minimizing the suffering of others is dangerous and can lead to fanaticism. When a person believes that causing suffering that others submit to brings glory to God, that person is dangerous and the world needs him to have as little power as possible. Causing suffering is bad, I’d even say evil, and people who do it carelessly do not deserve to become President of the United States.

Tagore may not have been shock therapy, but it has gotten me reading again. I’m grateful for the suggestion; it’s provoked the response I needed. Thanks, E.

I read this on Project Gutenberg, which leads me to distrust the ellipses. I read a book on PG once that had whole paragraphs missing. This is a good book, sort of sad, but beautiful. And it’s a warning. Electing Trump will give us the worst case of Buyer’s Remorse in American history. Don’t do it. Do whatever you can to prevent this, even if it means voting for a woman you don’t really believe in. He must be stopped. Some people talk about moving out of the country, but will that be safe? Is there any corner of the world that will be safe if DT has access to the American military?

Sometimes I read something and I think, Why? Why did I just read that? How was that necessary to life?

Eliot’s account of Thomas à Becket’s murder is like that. It’s an abstract expressionist play which first casts Becket as a Christ figure, then explains and absolves his murderers. Weird, as a drama by T. S. Eliot absolutely ought to be.

One of the things I appreciate about it is the reminder that people who aspire to become martyrs have the worst type of pride. Kings only want power and love while they’re alive; saints are revered for the rest of time. As long as the Church lives, so do its saints. Even films that have been approved by the Catholic Church make their saints seem horribly unpleasant people, too beatific to have any empathy for or usefulness in daily life. No one likes the sort of people who make them feel inferior.

Becket started as a young libertine who made friends with the future king. He became chancellor when his friend came to power, and the two of them actually ruled pretty well for a while. But when the king made Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury, the new priest dove into his new role feet first. He submitted to the Pope with Catholic grace, and defended the Church against all encroachers, including his former friend the king. Only one thing to do: kill him.

Sudden religion does not seem to benefit people very much. It certainly doesn’t increase the love among their less religious friends. New adherents often get twisted away from their true natures, and become more adamantly twisted than those who were raised in faith. I guess a slow growth of faith doesn’t hurt people too badly, but snap conversion seems harmful. I mean, look at St Paul. He argued with the disciples who had actually known Jesus and spent the rest of his life traveling, preaching his own version of the faith and screwing things around. Some people blame him for all the excesses of Christianity over the last two thousand years.

Becket’s martyrdom was actually sort of effective, if all he had wanted was fame. Two hundred years later, Chaucer was writing about traveling to Canterbury to get a supposedly authentic vial of his blood to ward off illness. Eight hundred years later, Eliot’s writing a drama about it. There was even a film (not of Eliot’s play, of Anouilh’s, but on the same subject). And here I am, 846 years afterward, trying to find meaning in a twelfth-century murder.

I’m not sure if Eliot comes to any conclusions or not. Perhaps it’s that even good people have to be killed sometimes, though as morals go, that one is rather awful. Maybe that’s the point; murder is inherently immoral, even if it’s initiated and condoned by the state. A person can always justify his actions, but that doesn’t always make them right or understandable.

I must confess, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I’m always a little behind the times. Some of my students are reading this with their regular English teacher, though, so I read it in case I need to field any additional questions. It’s very well written; I’m not really clear on how creative nonfiction developed as a genre, but this seems like it should be one of the monoliths of twentieth-century American nonfiction. (You know the monoliths; monoliths of British literature before 1750 are Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, for example).

This is the story of how two paroled criminals broke into the Clutter family home and killed them all, followed by the longer story of how they were caught and eventually executed. Sorry to give away the ending, but these are historical events. It’s all on public record.

The first part, telling about the day before the killings, has a similar feel to it as Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain.” It’s almost like fate impelled these two groups of people to interact in predetermined ways. I say almost, because things could easily have happened differently. When I was teaching composition at a community college, I’d ask the students to write a short autobiography. They came from all over the country, and several from other countries, to end up in our rural Southern town, studying various things for various reasons, but the cumulative effect of reading all those stories was that I started thinking of the town as a black hole that sucked people in from all over the place and refused to let them leave. It’s not true, of that or any other town, but when we know the end of the story, all the steps before it seem preordained instead of governed by human choices. Capote focuses on the seemingly fatalistic nature of the story, perhaps as a way to exculpate the murderers:

But the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger – with, rather, a measure of sympathy – for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another. Dewey’s sympathy, however, was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy. He hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged – hanged back to back.

And Perry in particular, as in this comment on his family:

Strong character, high courage, hard work – it seemed that none of these were determining factors in the fates of Tex John’s children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense.

If this book has a protagonist, it is Perry Smith. Capote lends him the most sympathy, perhaps because he needs it the most, being the man who pulled the trigger. Or maybe he just liked him the most; it could be a gay thing.

Homosexuality is, in my opinion, one of the most significant issues in the book. What can you say about it in print in 1965? How did people live that in 1959? Growing up in the rural South, I was taught to see the 1950s as an unspoiled Eden, where people were safe, prosperous, and happy. This apparent paradise came at a cost, though, and I only learned the price of conformity later. It seems to me that if he were alive today, Perry would be gay. Think of the evidence in the book: he claims that the queens just won’t leave him alone, yet the homosexuals I know would only continue bothering him if he liked it, or were really good at it. He was a sailor and a soldier, two male-only environments at the time, and later he got sent to prison, another opportunity to be with only men. He looks down on men whom he perceives as unable to control their sexual desires, which usually seems to mean they are up front about their interest in women. One of Perry’s most prized possessions is a scrapbook filled with pictures of bodybuilders that he’s taken from magazines. He and his former cellmate call each other romantic endearments, and while I’m not entirely up on the Bro Code of the 1950s, I know that straight men today don’t call each other those names. Perry’s most intense friendship is with someone he says is queer, and the idea of seeing him again makes Perry break his parole and return to Kansas.

And what is the life of a gay man in the 1950s? One of constant evasion. He hides in periodic, short-lived relationships with women, but he hates himself for what he sees as an insuperable character flaw, an evil that cannot be eradicated. In liberal areas, large cities and artist colonies, for example, he might find some support and friends he can be out with, and some gay men even found necessarily secret communities and lifelong lovers. But for someone who’s poor and rural, like Perry, these comforts are permanently out of reach. As my friends like to say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Why is it that when I really like or identify with someone in fiction, that person always turns out to be either evil or crazy? Like in the new Point Break, which is full of bearded ecowarriors with foreign accents (aka, sexy as all get-out), but it makes them the bad guys, and they all die. Perry is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the end of the book, which makes me have to remind myself that I’m a mental illness hypochondriac and not actually a paranoid schizophrenic. I spent most of the book thinking he was the good one, and even after I know he was the murderer I still have the most sympathy for him. Perry feels like the world is out to get him, which makes perfect sense when you consider his experience with the world, but I think his most important problem is that he doesn’t have an emotional response to the suffering of others. I don’t remember if this makes him a psychopath or a sociopath, but certainly it’s something pathological. And it’s something I clearly don’t have; I feel other people’s pain rather more than other people admit to.

Perry’s partner, Dick, is not much like him. He’s much more integrated into his family and has fewer homosexual tendencies. Capote implies that he’s using sex to manipulate Perry, and whether he’s using sex or not, Dick does see Perry as a tool instead of a person. After Perry is released on parole, Dick’s new cellmate tells him about the Clutter family. Dick hatches the plot of robbing and murdering the whole family, but he needs Perry to put it into action because he thinks Perry will be able to kill them if Dick can’t. Dick is a pedophile, so his real goal is to rape the sixteen-year-old daughter, but Perry stops him (another reason I like him – I am also opposed to raping teenage girls, or anyone else. Rape is bad). There are two versions of the story, so we don’t really know whether Perry killed all four Clutters or only the two male family members, so it is possible that Dick didn’t have what it takes to kill after all. I suppose an inability to kill is not really a negative trait, but if you’re going to make this type of plan, you should be willing to do it. Don’t ask someone else to do something that you’re not ready to do yourself.

I suppose the victims are sort of important too, but the book isn’t really about them (once they’re in the ground, they’re out of the story). The Clutters exemplify the Edenic sort of life I was brought up to assume was characteristic of the time. Hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious, they are also kind and helpful. Nancy Clutter is precisely the type of girl the culture tells us everyone should want to be, be with, or both. Her little brother is always building or inventing something, and her mentally ill mother keeps out of the way of the successes of the rest of the family. One of the things that Dick doesn’t understand about families like the Clutters is that not all of their prosperity is proven by actual cash on hand. On a farm, success is shown by the system’s ability to perpetuate itself, so wealth is recognized as goods that the farm can use, such as grain for the animals or preserved food for the humans. To make matters worse, Herb Clutter is famous for never using cash; he writes checks for everything. Yes, Dick is an expert at writing bad checks, but he doesn’t think through all of this. He doesn’t have enough information to get what he wants: to rape the girl, and then to commit the murders and robbery without getting caught.

I’m actually more interested in their community. People are more forgiving than I imagine people today to be, or maybe people are more forgiving individually than in a group. For example, Nancy’s best friend:

Anyway, I don’t much care who did it. Somehow it seems beside the point. My friend is gone. Knowing who killed her isn’t going to bring her back. What else matters?

A local pastor:

I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.

Their peer group:

The aristocracy of Finney County had snubbed the trial. “It doesn’t do,” announced the wife of one rich rancher, to seem curious about that sort of thing.”

And their governor:

The late George Docking, Governor of Kansas from 1957 through 1960, was responsible for this hiatus [in carrying out executions], for he was unreservedly opposed to the death penalty (“I just don’t like killing people”).

And yet, when confronted with the jury, Perry thinks

Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom.

Why? It could be the paranoia, I suppose. But I think that it’s because people are there for the show. The trial is entertainment, as the justice system has always been. Think of the broadsheet heroes that Foucault talks about in Discipline and Punish; they boast and swagger all the way to the gallows, with the crowd laughing, cheering, jeering, and hissing. Maybe they only care insofar as it affects them, and they’d feel personally betrayed if the murderers went free. If you start a mystery story, you want to know the end; you want closure – you want to feel that the world works in clearly understandable ways, and that every problem has a solution. But (circling back), in some ways, now that The People have replaced the monarch, that feeling of betrayal is justified. But I think this bit about the post office might be an accurate representation of their attitude in general:

The people of Holcomb speak of their post office as “the Federal Building,” which seems rather too substantial a title to confer on a drafty and dusty shed. The ceiling leaks, the floor boards wobble, the mailboxes won’t shut, the light bulbs are broken, the clock has stopped. “Yes, it’s a disgrace,” agrees the caustic, somewhat original, and entirely imposing lady who presides over this litter. “But the stamps work, don’t they? Anyhow, what do I care? Back here in my part is real cozy. I’ve got my rocker, and a nice wood stove, and a coffee pot, and plenty to read.”

And, there’s this bit from Perry’s friend Willie-Jay:

What could be more conventional than a housewife with three children, who is “dedicated” to her family???? What could be more natural than that she would resent an unconventional person.

In some ways, it feels like Capote is the unconventional person resented by the conventional masses; Perry has that in common with him, and I feel something similar about the ex, who defines herself as a stay-at-home mom who is not only dedicated but devoted to her children. She wasn’t that interested in being a housewife; before the kids were born, we were content to ignore conventional gender roles, but afterward, it was all skirts and submission and OccMan has to go get three jobs because manliness means voluntary misery.

One of Perry’s dreams, toward the end, seems just like an episode of The Twilight Zone; I’d love to see it onscreen.

His favorite old theatrical fantasy, the one in which he thought of himself as “Perry O’Parsons, The One-Man Symphony,” returned in the guise of a recurrent dream. The dream’s geographical center was a Las Vegas night club where, wearing a white top hat and a white tuxedo, he strutted about a spotlighted stage playing in turn a harmonica, a guitar, a banjo, drums, sang “You Are My Sunshine,” and tap-danced up a short flight of gold-painted prop steps; at the top, standing on a platform, he took a bow. There was no applause, none, and yet thousands of patrons packed the vast and gaudy room – a strange audience, mostly men and mostly Negroes. Staring at them, the perspiring entertainer at last understood their silence, for suddenly he knew that these were phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted – and in the same instant he realized that he was there to join them, that the gold-painted steps had led to a scaffold, that the platform on which he stood was opening beneath him. His top hat tumbled; urinating and defecating, Perry O’Parsons entered eternity.

It’s not a bad way to go. Singing, dancing, playing music . . . I’m still drawn to an audience, even after all these years away from a stage. I hope that in his last moments Perry found some peace, recovered some self-regard. I think that Capote’s nonfiction novel, though it came after his death, gives Perry the acclaim that he always wanted.

CAPOTE

I just rewatched the film about the writing of In Cold Blood, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. I must say, the view we get from the film is completely different than the one in the book. [Apparently there was another Capote film called Infamous, with more star power but less adherence to historical fact.] First, Perry looks as white as they come instead of having the coloring of his full-blooded Native American mother. Then, there’s the way Capote is a self-promoting manipulator who will do anything to get his next novel written, even getting someone killed. In the book, he’s so self-effacing that you don’t notice the author/narrator’s personality at all. But there again, I may be projecting myself onto him. I took one of those facebook quizzes a month or two ago, How Evil Are You?, and I discovered that in most ways, I’m not very evil at all. However. Apparently I have a manipulative/Machiavellian side, and it’s not so much a side as it is two-thirds of my character. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t befriend and possibly encourage some amorous contact with someone just so that I could write a book about the worst thing he’s ever done, and then try to conceal the fact from him until he’s been executed for it. I’d also like to think that Truman Capote didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. I have no idea how much truth is in the film, though for that matter I don’t know how much truth is in Capote’s book. All I can say is, these two texts present the same period of time very differently. And it’s likely that something terrible happened either to or within Truman Capote, because he lived for another twenty years and didn’t finish another book. Yes, think of DeLillo’s Mao II, but also think of watching Perry get executed, knowing that it’s the perfect ending to your book and also knowing that you really care for this person and want him to live. A breakdown makes sense.

I come from a large family of people who are not especially kind. When I was young, I got angry quite easily, but I recognized how powerless I was to vent my frustrations on my older siblings, so I’d grip my little hands into fists and turn red and grit my teeth until smoke poured out of my ears. Those older siblings enjoyed the show so much that they spent all their leisure time making me angry for no other purpose than to watch me get angry. What does a child learn from this? First, he learns to conceal his feelings. I was so adept at this that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling for most of my life. Now, I’m shy enough that when people meet me, I seem not to have any personality at all, so they project their opinions, desires, and prejudices onto me as if I were a tabula rasa. It gives me a chance to try being different people, but the real me always surfaces eventually, often to jarring effect.

Second, he learns that the world is an unfair place, inimical to his own interests. Those with power make others suffer with impunity, and those who are responsible for keeping him safe are either too busy with other matters, too indifferent, or too powerless to do any good. Life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As I got older, I’d occasionally try to create some sort of justice, but I quickly discovered that I have no sense of proportion. Any attempt of mine to right the scales of justice leaves them leaning too far to the other side. When you don’t expect the world to be fair, you don’t try to make it fair. When injustice is normal, justice no longer seems like a goal worth reaching toward. As I’ve gotten along, I’ve tried to supplement my deficient sense of justice with moral rules, but everyone knows that rules only really matter in board games. This is why I try so hard to be kind; there’s a baseline of fairness that makes it possible for us to live in a society, that I am lacking. Though I often apply the principle inconsistently, I find kindness easier to manage, and I also find that people don’t mind if you’re unfair if you’re unfair in their favor.

I’ve enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s fiction for quite some time – The Blind Assassin was new when I first loved it – but this is the first nonfiction book of hers that I’ve read, and it is quite good. The reading goes very quickly, and the book takes stories and concepts that we are familiar with and presents them to us in a new light. Five chapters, forty pages each, but they don’t feel that long. If it were a novel, I’d try to read it as an Elizabethan drama, but it’s not a connected story. Well, maybe it is.

Part one, Ancient Balances. Humanity’s earliest laws governed the balancing of accounts, as did our earliest religions. The Egyptians believed that after death, a human heart was weighed against truth, and justice claimed the soul for either good or ill. This belief spread through the other pagan religions, as well as into Judaism and its descendants, Christianity and Islam. In fact, it seems to have predated our evolution into human beings, as primates also have an acute sense of justice. The interesting thing about justice, though, is that it’s always represented as being female. I think that it’s because our sense of justice comes from our mothers, the primary caregivers in most societies. My mother had too much of a temper to manage her children effectively; sometimes punishments were excessive, sometimes they were insufficient because they had been excessive, and sometimes they were nonexistent. I guess it’s easier to love some children if you don’t look too closely at what they do. The ex-wife is also a woman of quick temper who loves babies, but she has a rather extreme sense of justice, which occasionally makes me uncomfortable. By getting divorced, we kept her from having more children than she can manage, so hopefully my children will be more emotionally healthy, more human than I have been.

Part two, Debt and Sin. As we saw with the Egyptian scales, the things we do in this life are often seen as a series of moral debts and credits, that great accountant’s ledger in the sky. I’ve mentioned before how incomplete this metaphor seems to me, how easily it can be used to justify acts of great evil by balancing them with a series of small charitable donations. However, Atwood points out that it’s not only the debtor who is seen as the sinner; the creditor is also morally damaged by the lending of money. Think of our culture’s opinion of pawnbrokers, a career so questionable that it seldom appears outside of Dickens novels or TLC programs. We see them as profiting by taking unfair advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, as if the pawnbroker forces them into sin. As if the act of borrowing money itself were a sin. My own debts make me uncomfortable; I’ve taken on a second job to try to pay them off. But they were also necessary; when I moved here, I needed some money for a security deposit on an apartment, and I was also in need of food. I got a new credit card because I couldn’t make it on my own. It’s like this: if I have a skillet, I can make healthy food for a few dollars a day. If I don’t have a skillet, I can eat unhealthy fast food at a rate of eight to ten dollars a day. So, it makes sense for me to buy a skillet. If I don’t have the money for a skillet, I’m stuck eating expensive food. I could decide not to eat for three or four days and so save enough money to buy a skillet, or I could borrow the money. I chose to borrow it. I don’t think that makes me a sinner, just a human being who values his health.

In this section, Atwood also talks about the importance of record-keeping. Remember Fight Club, when Jack/Tyler’s plan was to destroy all the credit card records? Apparently that’s a historical trend. Erase the record of the debt, cancel the debt without paying it. It’s what all we debtors really want, isn’t it? And what we refuse to do when we become creditors. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Part three, Debt as Plot. As Cecily points out in The Importance of Being Earnest, memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels one encounters. Specifically, memory of debts. The nineteenth century novel is full of debts and repayments. In graduate school, I once wrote about how Wuthering Heights is a rewriting of Byron’s “The Giaour,” where money has replaced religion. One of the strongest examples that Atwood uses is one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss. She also discusses the imaginative power of millers generally. In Eliot’s novel, life is a matter of inheriting and settling accounts; Maggie Tulliver tries to create a world where relationships are built on more than debts, and it eventually kills her. The next logical step is

Part four, The Shadow Side. Revenge. A good portion of this is about Shakespearean tragedy, which revolves around vengeance. There’s also The Merchant of Venice, which covers a humanized Shylock and his overgrasping vengeance. Atwood mentions a production that used a Native American actor for Shylock, which I think must have been quite compelling. For me, though, thoughts of Shakespeare generally turn to Twelfth Night, the play most interested in giving gifts, and the debts that gift-giving creates. Indeed, it’s a play about unwanted debts, where people become creditors against their will. Years ago, I decided that I would never lend money to a friend. I will gladly give, and if they want to return it that’s their choice, but I won’t give money to someone if I need it back. This practice can lead me into trouble, like when I gave money to someone who was a bad risk, and then he moved to a different continent while promising to pay it back. It would have come in handy a year later, when I was getting a new credit card instead of buying a skillet with my own money. Así es la vida.

I prefer to pay my debts off, but I will forgive any creditor who comes my way. Even those people who have repaid my love with violence and neglect. Let debts go, even those of emotion and soul. Let there be love and peace. Let forgiveness overcome our desires for war.

Part five, Payback. I believe that the human desire for payback leads to more unnecessary conflict than anything else. Jesus fuck, just let it go. It doesn’t matter if you have a right to exact vengeance; relinquish your rights and let it go. Clinging to your vengeance binds your debtor to you more closely. The only way to be free of him is to let go.

The bulk of this section is taken up by a rewriting of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, updated for our time. We can’t imagine a man so consumed by the love of wealth that he won’t spend on himself, so the Nouveau Scrooge does. But when he’s faced with the price of his wealth, the destruction of the earth led by the industrial age, he changes his mind and gives his money to support the preservation of nature. Atwood finishes her tale of human history with the renunciation of wealth, the reversal of the nineteenth century – a vision of a future where capital is used to benefit the earth instead of the individual, where species are saved, and we stop acquiring more than we need.

It may seem strange, to write a book about money and spend most of it talking about religion, fiction, and the environment, but it makes sense. Atwood has spent this book telling us who we are, what makes us human. Fair play, justice, getting into and out of debt, yes, but more importantly, we are the stories we tell. If we keep telling the story of capitalism, we will keep living in a world of more and more extreme capitalism. There are other stories to tell, though. Stories of community, stories of cooperation, stories of peace, stories of kindness. As the Barenaked Ladies once sang, It’s time to make this something that is more than only fair.

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.

If ever you see this book in a store, drop whatever else you’re holding and buy it immediately. I realize that this is rather a strong command, perhaps even invasive, but you’ll do me the credit to recognize that I don’t command this strongly very often. Of course, now there are several versions you can buy online, but shopping online steals from one the joy of discovery that is felt when shopping nonvirtually. When I was introduced to this book in 2006, it was out of print and unavailable anywhere except for the rare used bookstore. Looking at the reviews on amazon.com, it seems that someone at a publishing house scanned an old book without correcting the text – the negative reviews are for the product itself, not the story. If you can find one of the rare old copies, snatch it up; let no one part you from this book.

It’s sort of an allegory, sort of a fairy tale, sort of a myth. It’s about the stereotypical conflict between gender stereotypes; it’s about the role of thought in our lives. It’s beautiful and strange, delightful, wistful, earthily magical. There was a flourishing of Irish writers during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and Stephens may not be prominent among them, but perhaps he ought to be. James Joyce seems to have a precious jewel that he is proud of possessing, and equally proud of concealing beneath layers and layers of incomprehensibility. W B Yeats is best known for looking to the mythology of other places, sailing off to Byzantium or looking for the second coming of a Hebrew god fused to the Egyptian sphinx. Yeats does write about the Irish myths and legends, but those poems tend to get rather long, and they require a great deal of concentration, more than is consistent with pure joy. Stephens uses simple sentences that a child could understand to discuss abstract concepts that the wisest of adults will take time to ponder.

In the beginning, there are two philosophers and their wives:

In the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom. Their faces looked as though they were made of parchment, there was ink under their nails, and every difficulty that was submitted to them, even by women, they were able to instantly resolve. The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath asked them the three questions which nobody had ever been able to answer, and they were able to answer them. That was how they obtained the enmity of these two women which is more valuable than the friendship of angels. The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman were so incensed at being answered that they married the two Philosophers in order to be able to pinch them in bed, but the skins of the Philosophers were so thick that they did not know they were being pinched. They repaid the fury of the women with such tender affection that these vicious creatures almost expired of chagrin, and once, in a very ecstasy of exasperation, after having been kissed by their husbands, they uttered the fourteen hundred maledictions which comprised their wisdom, and these were learned by the Philosophers who thus became even wiser than before.

Then one of the philosophers and his wife decide to die, which simplifies things immensely.

Things start to happen when a cat kills a bird. The animals aren’t important in themselves, but the cat belongs to Meehawl MacMurrachu, and the bird is honored by the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora. The leprecauns take MacMurrachu’s washboard, and he goes to the philosopher to ask for help in getting it back. The philosopher tells him where to find their pot of gold, which MacMurrachu steals and hides in a place that is protected by all the fairy folk, including the leprecauns, who are now bound by their own laws not to recover their property. Instead, they go after their opponents’ children. They kidnap the children of the Philosopher, and it’s rumored that they’re the ones who sent Pan to ensnare Caitilin ni Murrachu. But you don’t fuck with a woman of the Shee, especially not if she has fourteen hundred curses, so of course they returned the kids to the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath.

Pan is the Greek god, the one who looks a bit like a satyr and nothing like an Irishman. His attitude doesn’t seem to quite match up with my understanding of him from the Greeks, but when you meet a mythical figure in a novel you accept the author’s interpretation. Pan represents foreign influences; he beguiles Caitilin with his music, but his philosophy is that hunger and emptiness are of the utmost importance and should be pursued for their own sakes. This deliberate choosing of unhappiness seems to me more closely allied to the monotheistic religions, but maybe it really is present in the Greeks and I’ve just been ignoring it. He also seems more closely related to the philosopher than to the other characters, since the ancient Greeks have dominated European intellectual thought since the Renaissance.

To counter Pan, the philosopher enlists the aid of Angus Og, one of the old Irish gods. He comes surrounded with joy and fullness, and Caitilin chooses him. In this conflict between two gods, I see the struggle of Ireland for its own cultural traditions. Will they assimilate with the rest of Hellenized Europe, or will they recover their own Celtic beliefs? It’s clear that Stephens prefers Angus Og to Pan, and if they really are as he portrays them, I quite agree. But once the children are all rescued, MacMurrachu still has the pot of gold, and justice must still be attended to.

Justice is the maintaining of equilibrium. The blood of Cain must cry, not from the lips of the Avenger, but from the aggrieved Earth herself who demands that atonement shall be made for a disturbance of her consciousness. All justice is, therefore, readjustment. A thwarted consciousness has every right to clamour for assistance, but not for punishment. […] It will, therefore, be understood that when the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora acted in the manner about to be recorded, they were not prompted by any lewd passion for revenge, but were merely striving to reconstruct a rhythm which was their very existence, and which must have been of direct importance to the Earth. Revenge is the vilest passion known to life. It has made Law possible, and by doing so it gave to Intellect the first grip at that universal dominion which is its ambition.

So the leprecauns give the police an anonymous tip about the dead philosopher and the Grey Woman buried under the philosopher’s house. The thought life of Ireland had its first obstacle with foreign influences, and now it is challenged by modernity. The leprecauns fight to free the philosopher from the police, but he just turns himself in the next day. Then, randomly, his children find the pot of gold and return it to the leprecauns.

How could they thank the children whose father and protector they had delivered to the unilluminated justice of humanity? that justice which demands not atonement but punishment; which is learned in the Book of Enmity but not in the Book of Friendship; which calls hatred Nature, and Love a conspiracy; whose law is an iron chain and whose mercy is debility and chagrin; the blind fiend who would impose his own blindness; that unfruitful loin which curses fertility; that stony heart which would petrify the generations of man; before whom life withers away appalled and death would shudder again to its tomb.

There’s a similar feeling of justice in The Scarlet Letter; people punish in order to make offenders suffer, but the punishments tend to drive the offenders further from society instead of reintegrating them into it. Hawthorne ascribes reconciliatory justice to God; Stephens to the Earth and the fairy folk. As an American, I have a troubled feeling about human justice. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. We have more people in prison than some countries have people. One third of the African-American men in my age group are in prison, right now. While other countries are closing empty prisons, ours are full to bursting. Part of this is a problem with the justice system, which tends to convict rather a lot of people (particularly nonwhite males) for fairly minor offenses. Part of this is a problem with the laws, which require imprisonment for something as small as having marijuana in the house. Part of the problem is that we can’t seem to think of any other method of punishment but to lock offenders away with other offenders, so that whatever diseases of thought that lead to crime grow and become even stronger. Part of the problem is that the prison industry sees tons of money changing hands, so lawmakers have no incentive to change a system that is actively harming the people it is supposed to be helping. Part of the problem is that American culture is strongly motivated by revenge, so most of the people I meet don’t see a problem with giving those punks exactly what they deserve. If they didn’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t have gotten caught. American culture also tends to valorize criminal activity; most styles of popular music celebrate some form of crime, and films and television tend to make law enforcement look ineffective or corrupt. The prison problem seems the natural result of a society based on the idea, “Fuck society!” The leprecauns have their pot of gold again, the natural order has been restored, so let’s free the philosopher! How un-American is that?

The Thin Woman goes on a journey to Angus Og, just as her husband did before, but she takes a different route and meets different people along the way. Well, one person is the same, but their encounters with her are vastly different. The Thin Woman and Angus Og call all the clans of the fairies to their aid. All the old gods (except the Sleepers, of course), all the leprecauns and cluricauns and Shee and anything else, all march together to break the philosopher out of jail. But there are no weapons or hatred or thirst for revenge – this section of the book is called The Happy March. They come singing and dancing, smiling and loving and joyful.

Down to the city they went dancing and singing; among the streets and the shops telling their sunny tale; not heeding the malignant eyes and the cold brows as the sons of Balor looked sidewards. And they took the Philosopher from his prison, even the Intellect of Man they took from the hands of the doctors and lawyers, from the sly priests, from the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass – the awful people of the Fomor . . . and then they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods. . . .

I’d like to return to the country of the gods. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’m willing to believe that might be it.

I find it difficult to explain precisely what about this book I love so much. It touches my heart in a place that is deeper than words, deeper than conscious thought. Maybe there are some genetic memories at play, these thought patterns echoing in the subconscious bequeathed to me. My face may proclaim the Dutch part of my heritage, but I have a whole clan of redheaded Irishmen behind me as well. I believe that this is why the Celtic myths resonate more strongly with me than the Judeo-Christian ones. I suppressed this feeling for a long time, but Christianity just feels weird and wrong to me. There’s an inexplicable rightness to books like The Crock of Gold, or Byatt’s Ragnarok, that I don’t feel in monotheism. I’m not saying that I’m becoming Druid, or Wiccan, or any of the earth religions, but the belief in one god seems as limiting as believing in none at all.

The primary lesson seems to be one of balance. Thought balanced with belief, struggle balanced with happiness, scarcity balanced with generosity. There are some of the misogynistic stereotypes to be expected from a story a hundred years old, but they’re balanced by equally reductive/destructive stereotypes of men. One of the things that I admire about Norse mythology is that everyone has a ‘heim,’ a home. There is a place where everyone belongs. Celtic myths seem to have this same inclusiveness. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an outcast, so an inclusive ethic appeals to me. Christianity tells its followers to put ‘the family of faith’ first; there’s an us/them, believers/damned binary opposition that runs through the center of it. Nature doesn’t have any binaries. There are always exceptions, slippages, creatures in the middle ground. Therefore, I trust faith systems that don’t rely on artificial binaries – God/Devil, good/evil, heaven/hell. Life is more complex and beautiful than that.

I’ve just finished four days of this program, one season per day. It’s been a bit rough, but I made it through. In some ways, this program fits the definition for addiction: the more I watch, the less satisfied I become with it, but I can’t seem to stop. I hate Game of Thrones spoilers as much as other people, so I’ll refrain from doing that here. Much.

I’m pretty rubbish at remembering people’s names, especially when I only see them on television. In a book, every time you see someone you read her name, but people don’t always say the names of the people they’re talking to. And the names on this show are usually pretty weird. I remember the names that are short and easily recognized, like Stannis, or the nicknames, like The Hound, or I call them functional names, like The King’s Bastard. It’s hard to know which names are important, because sometimes people seem like extras but end up being rather important recurring characters. Others seem hugely important, but only actually appear a small number of times, like Balon Greyjoy. They keep giving more details about Robert’s Rebellion, but I can’t remember most of the story because I get all those dead Targaryens mixed up.

Backstory. Fifteen or twenty years before the show begins, there was the Mad King, something-or-other Targaryen. He was obsessed with fire, and started burning people alive. Robert Baratheon led a rebellion against him, assisted by his very good friend Eddard Stark. Tywin Lannister, the Hand of the King, was also somehow involved. His son Jaime was the youngest member of the king’s guard, and one day Jaime killed the Mad King, saving thousands of lives. Forever after he’s known as The Kingslayer. Robert became king. He had been engaged to Ned Stark’s sister, but she died, so he married Jaime’s twin sister Cersei. During all the fighting Ned produced an illegitimate child, which he took home to his faithful wife. Catelyn Stark can forgive Ned for cheating, but she can’t forgive the boy for existing.

As the story begins, the King’s Hand, Jon Arryn, has been murdered, so Robert comes to the far north to ask Ned Stark to take his place. Ned is the last man in the seven kingdoms that Robert can trust. So Ned travels to the capital to serve the king, which means figuring out who killed Jon Arryn and why. Game of Thrones begins as a murder mystery set in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world. Unfortunately, as Ned learns how the structures of power work in King’s Landing, the mystery becomes less important and court intrigues take over the plot; they lead to a civil war partially based on the Wars of the Roses (Stark/Lannister, York/Lancaster). The war carries on through several seasons. Meanwhile, Danaerys Targaryen is across the sea, gathering followers, giving birth to dragons, preparing to recover the throne that belonged to her family. Also meanwhile, mystical snow zombies are marching south to destroy everyone. There’s a great wall that should protect them, but the people who live north of the wall (Wildings or Free Folk, depending on your point of view) are running scared, desperate to get to the other side but not desperate enough to abide lawfully.

Issues. The first that springs to mind is gender roles. Jaime and Cersei are twins born to the most wealthy family in existence; he is taught to fight, she is taught to smile. Gender is very rigidly defined, and those who would break the traditional roles end up in a heap of trouble. Brienne of Tarth, for example, is one of the best swordfighters in the show. She’s hugely tall and very strong. She wears armor and protects her king, but people are always making fun of her and she’s always saying either that she’s not a knight or that she’s not a lady. She’s kind of both, actually. I’m not sure what her relationship is to her own body, but she covers it more effectively than most women even when she’s not dressed for battle. There’s a bathing scene that’s kind of awkward; it feels like a violation to see her, even though we don’t see anything. Most of the named female characters are brave and intelligent, and many of them are more effective in achieving their goals than the males. Unfortunately, the unnamed female characters tend to be whores or kitchen wenches. Even those intelligent women often have to use their bodies to get their needs met, and after a while the screen nudity just becomes normal. I kind of went into breast overload and stopped reacting to them. Rape seems to be pretty common; people certainly talk about it a lot.

Men do their best to reduce women to a single trait, beauty. However, they do the same to each other; men are reduced to strength. At one point, a very large man and a girl are traveling through the countryside and he kills a farmer. She asks why, and he says that it is simply because the man is weak. Physical strength is generally the most important, but having powerful allies or a lot of money are also ways to avoid being killed. The pressure on men is most apparent in the portrayal of homosexual men. Yes, there are gay men with almost graphic sex scenes, so hooray for that. But, once a man is seen in bed with another man, he immediately becomes ineffective. Gay men are reduced to their sexuality; there’s very little else interesting about them, and they don’t win any fights. Once a relationship is over, they disappear. Male bodies are often displayed as completely as female, but less often. There is some full frontal action, if (like me) that’s what you’re into, but much less frequently than for the women. It’s almost like an afterthought or a mistake, even though I know it isn’t.

Servitude is also important. Danaerys wanders around Essos freeing slaves, which is great except for the unfortunate race thing, but I’m more interested in the attitudes in Westeros. Most of the characters seem to see their lives as meant for service; they get their identities and self-esteem from serving their masters well. There’s no shame in service, but the dependent attitude bothers me. I go to work eight hours a day, but I tend to think of that as the price I pay for living here. My real life is at home, where I don’t have any masters. I don’t think of myself as serving my employers, either. They do, but I don’t. I teach people to communicate, and in order to work contentedly I have to think of it in these idealistic terms. My teenage rebellion came a little late, when I was thirty years old, and I’m still too independent to be happy working for someone else just to get a paycheck. Almost all of the ‘good guys’ on the show insist on being servants, though, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Reputation is everything at court. It can be built on nothing at all, but it must exist. The world is full of spies and rumors, so it is vital to understand what is being said about you. The reputation for strength is more important than actual displays of it; win a couple of well-publicized fights and you never need to fight again, if you don’t want to. Loras’s grandmother can argue for the value of a little discreet buggery, but no repeated action is that discreet, and people saying tolerant things doesn’t stop jokes like, ‘He can’t be that great a swordsman. He’s been stabbing Renly for years, and he’s still alive.’ It would be very difficult for Loras to lead any kind of group because they’re too worried about what he does off the battlefield; therefore, he doesn’t. On the other hand, Petyr Baelish has worked his way up from nothing to the king’s Small Council; being called Littlefinger doesn’t seem to have damaged him much. As the owner and manager of one of the more exclusive whorehouses, he has a lot of other people’s reputations in his power as well. According to the show, ‘Men like to talk when they’re happy.’ Littlefinger isn’t the only one who rises almost to the top by keeping other people’s secrets.

Power is generally sought by those least suited to wielding it.

People on this show go on and on about justice, but I don’t see much of it. It looks more like revenge most of the time. Justice implies a certain balance, an order restored; there is no balance or order here. Just a lot of violence, some of it for no reason at all. People who watch the show talk about evil, but I think of evil as involving some form of malice that is either without motive or disproportionate to its cause. I’ve heard Cersei Lannister in particular called evil, but she doesn’t fit my definition. She’s selfish and cruel, but her motives are pretty clear, and everyone else’s hatred is on the same scale as hers. In terms of good and evil, she’s not that different from Arya Stark; she’s just in a position to do more about it.

The religion of people is interesting. There are old gods, and there are also several new gods. There’s a group of seven mentioned at weddings, Father Warrior Smith Mother Maiden Crone Stranger. The meaning of those words becomes more clear in Season Four when people start praying out loud, to all seven individually. [See the codification of gender roles in religion! The males are defined by profession, the females by age.] The other gods can be hard to keep up with; there’s a Flayed God and a Drowned God, and probably several more. There’s also a cult of The One True God, some kind of fire deity who demands human sacrifices and calls himself The Lord of Light. He’s involved in several supernatural occurrences, while the other gods aren’t. I think it’s the old gods who are involved in the tree at Winterfell – up north, there’s a species of white tree with red leaves that grows a pattern that looks like a face in its bark and oozes red sap. These trees are regarded as sacred spaces. My favorite religious statement, though, is from Arya’s dancing master: ‘There is only one god, Death. And there is only one thing that we say to Death: Not today.’

Death is one of the most important things in this series. Everyone dies. We all know that, but Americans try to ignore it. In this series, you can’t. Everyone dies. When you get attached to a character, that’s almost a surefire way to predict that he’s going to die. Bad people die, good people die, badass people die, people with nice asses die, everyone dies. It’s actually understandable; there are several dozen named characters, most of whom have their own story to live out, and it’s hard to follow that many plotlines. Solution? Kill people. Maybe they will have some closure, maybe not. But kill them all the same.

Some authors simply love their characters: Jane Austen and Piers Anthony spring to mind. They are determined to give as many happy endings as possible. I have never seen an author who hates his characters as much as George R R Martin. A boy likes to climb? Let’s cripple him. A man gets his identity from swordfighting? Let’s chop off his sword hand. Someone has the initiative, intelligence, deviousness, and proper family to rule the Kingdoms? Let’s make him a dwarf so that no one will listen to him. Someone’s trying to do the right thing? Let’s give him partial information so that his decisions have disastrous consequences. There’s a limit to my tolerance for dramatic irony. The Mad King died shouting, “Burn them all! Burn them all!” I sometimes feel like Martin is going to go the same way. No one is going to survive this series.