Posts Tagged ‘nietzsche’

It’s taken me five or six weeks to finish this book. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get through not quite three hundred pages, but the writing is just so dense. It’s like Berdyaev stopped to think for an hour in between sentences, so when reading I’m tempted to do the same. It’s not that I’m uninterested in his ideas, just that they come so thick and fast that the book demands more time than most novels.

This is the sort of grown-up Christianity that I would have loved eight or ten years ago, but it isn’t where I am now, and Berdyaev might take to account certain subsets of Christians, but the basic tenets of the religion are treated as self-evident, and while I love someone who loves his in-group, I’m not always convinced by his repeated assertions that ‘only Christianity’ has figured something out. I don’t see it as all that unique, doctrinally.

In his introduction, he explains a little of his theory – instead of exploring how we know things, he insists that philosophy (and thus epistemology) has to be rooted in the real world, in our lived experiences. I found this part to be exciting because it’s what I believe.

Philosophy is a part of life; spiritual experience lies at the basis of philosophical knowledge; a philosopher must be in touch with the primary source of life and derive his cognitive experience from it. Knowledge means consecration into the mystery of being and of life.

I think it’s important, when developing theories about life and the universe, to begin with what is known and experienced. It’s generally safe to trust the evidence of our five senses, so start there. Intuition is a good next step, but it’s hard to come up with sound ideas when you’re not weighing them against what you know of reality.

Because Berdyaev is a Christian, he sets this up as The Story of Man (I would say Humanity, but he really does seem to mean male humans when he talks about man and men). As such, we hit the four significant events from Christianity’s perspective: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment. And while that’s true, this is also a book about ethics, exploring the nature of good and evil. So. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no such thing as good and evil. They lived in a garden where those categories didn’t exist, or make sense. God Himself continues to live in this sort of reality, beyond that basic binary. It’s wrong to say that God is good because that distinction belongs to this world only. But then the two ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the universe was fractured. The Fall takes people out of eternity (the great and eternal now) and introduces time, as well as good and evil. The individual psyche also became divided as a result of the Fall, and we’re all still fragmentary as a result of that original sin.

The human soul is divided, an agonizing conflict between opposing elements is going on in it. The modern man has, in addition to his civilized mentality, the mind of the man of antiquity, of the child with its infantile instincts, of the madman and the neurasthenic. The conflict between the civilized mind and the archaic, infantile and pathological elements results in the wonderful complexity of the soul which scarcely lends itself to study by the old [pre-Freudian] psychological methods. Man deceives not only others but himself as well. He frequently does not know what is going on in him and wrongly interprets it both to himself and to others.

And that part I know is true. I’m seeking wholeness through self-acceptance, but it’s not a quick or easy process. I hide my internal conflicts from myself until they become too heated to ignore, and by that point I’m usually quite upset. This unity is a lifelong quest, not something that can be solved in a few months or a few years.

So then there was Moses and The Law, and what Berdyaev has to say about the ethics of law is quite in line with what most evangelical Christians say when they talk about legalism: it’s bad. Well, to be more specific, it’s only partially just because it ignores the person’s individuality and the effect of circumstances. Law is pitiless, applying the same reductive principles to every person and every situation. The ethics of law reduces us all to robots, cogs in a machine, and could easily be applied by a computer judge. We don’t have computer judges because we recognize the limitations of the ethics of law.

The ethics of law can never be personal and individual, it never penetrates into the intimate depths of personal moral life, experience and struggle. It exaggerates evil in personal life, punishing and prohibiting it, but does not attach sufficient importance to evil in the life of the world and society. It takes an optimistic view of the power of the moral law, of the freedom of will and of the punishment of the wicked, which is supposed to prove that the world is ruled by justice. The ethics of law is both very human and well adapted to human needs and standards, and extremely inhuman and pitiless towards the human personality, its individual destiny and intimate life.

For me, one of the problems with the American legal system is the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Collectively, we seem to think that putting people in prison is the only effective way to convince them that crime is bad. We ignore the roots of the problem, which often include poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. In Foucault’s terms, we transform people into delinquents and then imprison them for the delinquency we created. Law upholds the current state of society as the best possible reality and ignores the social problems that lead to crime.

Next is the ethics of redemption, which Berdyaev claims to be the Christian view. I think rather a lot of Christians are still focused on the ethics of law, no matter what they say. It’s one of the things people hide from themselves. The ethics of redemption focuses on the idea of vicarious suffering as a substitution for the law. We don’t have to worry about legal punishments because Jesus bore all the punishment for us, provided that we feel sorry for the bad things we’ve done and try to do good. As with the ethics of law, the ethics of redemption is an incomplete system, not yet what Berdyaev thinks God was really striving for. For example:

A false interpretation of ‘good works’ leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. ‘Good works’ are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. ‘Good works’ done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. ‘Good works’ as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

In other words, focusing on redemption keeps our attention on the division in the world and in ourselves, and I still agree with Buber that being internally divided against oneself is the source of evil. To heal those divisions, we have to try to get beyond good and evil, though Berdyaev has issues with the Nietzsche uses that phrase. He quotes lots of other philosophers, most of whom he has issues with, but he’s a Russian writing in 1931, so his research is dramatically different than it would be today. Lots of Freud, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and a long list of Russians who are unfamiliar to me (though I recognize Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky).

Fortunately, there’s a third system: the ethics of creativity. In order to become more like God and get beyond good and evil, we have to do the one thing we know that God does, we have to create. I never was an ex nihilo guy, I always thought there were materials that God used to make the world. Now that I’m not so religious, I still think that creation is important, and that I’m not quite myself if I’m not regularly making things. So, higher than law and redemption is the exigency of taking the raw materials of our lives and making something beautiful.

The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolical state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness. It is difficult to struggle against that boredom by means of abstract goodness and virtue. The dreadful thing is that virtue at times seems deadly dull, and then there is no salvation in it. The cold, hard-set virtue devoid of creative fire is always dull and never saves. The heart must be set aglow if the dullness is to be dispelled. Dull virtue is a poor remedy against the boredom of emptiness. Dullness is the absence of creativeness. All that is not creative is dull. Goodness is deadly dull if it is not creative. No rule or norm can save us from dullness and from evil lust engendered by it. Lust is a means of escape from boredom when goodness provides no such escape. This is why it is very difficult, almost impossible, to conquer evil passions negatively, through negative asceticism and prohibitions. They can only be conquered positively, through awakening the positive and creative spiritual force opposed to them. Creative fire, divine Eros, overcomes lust and evil passions. It burns up evil, boredom and the false strivings engendered by it. The will to evil is at bottom objectless and can only be overcome by a will directed towards an object, towards the valuable and divine contents of life. Purely negative asceticism, preoccupied with evil and sinful desires and strivings, so far from enlightening the soul, intensifies its darkness. We must preach, therefore, not the morality based upon the annihilation of will but upon its enlightenment, not upon the humiliation of man and his external submission to God but upon the creative realization by man of the divine in life – of the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The ethics of creativeness can alone save the human soul from being warped by arid abstract virtue and abstract ideals transformed into rules and norms. The ideas of truth, goodness and beauty must cease to be norms and rules and become vital forces, an inner creative fire.

This is hardly an original thought with Berdyaev. I’m thinking specifically of Wilkie Collins’s opening to Hide and Seek, where an energetic little boy is forced to stop playing and do nothing on Sunday afternoons because his overbearing father only sees goodness as not doing bad things. That also connects to John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist’s best friend realizes that he’s been defining his religion and therefore his identity by all the things he doesn’t do. People need something to do, something to create. It’s not that making things is good (though it does make me feel good), it’s that making things is beyond good and evil. Creativity, beauty, and love all come from a place that is beyond those distinctions, so let’s focus our attention there.

At this point, Berdyaev talks about some specific ethical problems, and this part ends up being a third of the book. I found it a bit unfocused, as he drifts from one topic to another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Another things that bothers me about this section is the way he elevates tragedy as the best mode of life. I don’t see tragedy as inevitable, and I don’t see it as good. I don’t see tragedy as inherently valuable. I agree with many of the things that he says here, like war creates a complicated reality when it comes to interpersonal violence. I also disagree with him on a lot of things, like homosexual love is unreal because it doesn’t result in the archetypal union of opposites that creates some mystical androgyny. As if people weren’t already inherently androgynous to some extent, or as if that were our goal in falling in love in the first place. To my ears, he writes about love like someone who’s never experienced it, even though he’d been married for quite a long time when he wrote this text. At least he destroys the ideas that marriage is indissoluble and that its purpose is procreation. I think many of his ideas are rooted in his time and place, so maybe if he were writing now he wouldn’t have such outdated ideas about women and gays. Speaking of his milieu, he is writing as an embattled Christian escaping the forced atheism of Communist Russia, so he says horrible things about atheists and communists. His progressive ideas shine brightly because of the dark background of conservatism they’re set in.

Finally, we reach the end, death and what comes after. I started reading faster at this point, maybe because I got better at reading the translation of his writing, or maybe because I didn’t have to work through so many dilemmas. Death is just a transition to another state of being, so Western culture’s erasure of death is toxic and unhelpful. Then he discusses hell, which I found really interesting. Berdyaev sees the discourse surrounding hell as reliant on our ideas about time – this life is a fractured bit of eternity, but for him it doesn’t make sense to punish someone in eternity for things done in time. Eternity isn’t infinite duration of time, it’s the absence of time. Think about that episode at the end of season six of Doctor Who, when River Song destroys time. All historical moments happen simultaneously, so everything is now. If time doesn’t progress in a line, if every moment is simultaneous, then how can it be just to punish someone in this timeless reality for something they did when reality was broken into time? Besides (and for Berdyaev this is an important point), we’re supposed to conquer evil, not build it a house and let it live next door. Good people create hell by condemning others as evil, even more than bad people create it through guilt. Believing in hell puts us back at the ethics of law, punishing people and reducing their entire complex selves to a few actions or attitudes that we find intolerable.

Berdyaev concludes with paradise. It’s not the good place where people go if they’re not in hell – it’s the place beyond good and evil that we all came from. The goal is not for good to defeat evil and cast it out, the goal is to get to a place where the distinction between good and evil is so unimportant it doesn’t exist. Again, this leads us to freedom, creativity, beauty, love, all those bohemian ideals that Shelley and Luhrmann explicitly claim.

There are two typical answers to the question of man’s vocation. One is that man is called to contemplation and the other that he is called to action. But it is a mistake to oppose contemplation to action as though they were mutually exclusive. Man is called to creative activity, he is not merely a spectator – even though it be of divine beauty. Creativeness is action. It presupposes overcoming difficulties and there is an element of labour in it. But it also includes moments of contemplation which may be called heavenly, moments of rest when difficulties and labour vanish and the self is in communion with the divine. Contemplation is the highest state, it is an end in itself and cannot be a means. But contemplation is also creativeness, spiritual activity which overcomes anxiety and difficulties.

In the traditional point of view, evil is defined as acting in opposition to God’s will, so human freedom is the source of evil. That’s why so many religions work at limiting people’s freedom. However, for Berdyaev, freedom predates good and evil. It’s part of the eternal world, the one piece of paradise that we brought with us. Freedom is not evil; it’s beyond those distinctions. As is beauty, as is the creation of beauty.

This year I’ve been making more of an effort to read nonfiction, and I have to say that I still find philosophy hard to read. Philosophers tend to use a specialized vocabulary, so I kept having to look up words like meonic and eschatological. They also use words in idiosyncratic ways, so the translator kept using the word personality when it would have made more sense to me to use personhood or individuality. The philosophers we read in English seldom wrote in English, so a good bit of the difficulty could be that of the translators. Whoever translates Michel Foucault does a fantastic job, and I think with better translators philosophy could be more approachable as text. I suppose then we wouldn’t need philosophy professors to explain it to us, which could put people out of jobs. But I’m not in favor of the elitism that surrounds philosophy, which is just one variety of nonfiction. Regardless of all that, Berdyaev has a lot of good ideas, but I’d like to see him be a little more critical of his own religion. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it can go unexamined, and if he had examined it a little more he might have been less prejudiced against people who are different than he is.

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This is the book I really intended to be reading this week. It’s short, but moves slowly. Philosophers tend to write very densely. I imagine that they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ideas but little time thinking about how to express them clearly. This essay explains concepts at the end that it discusses at the beginning as if the reader already understands them; it’s all very recursive. This is characteristic of academic writing in some countries, but not in mine. When academics from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, move here, they have to completely re-learn how to write an essay.

I was very interested in Derrida back in undergrad; fourteen years ago, I read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” over and over again until I thought I understood it. It takes a very specific mindset to understand Derrida, and I’m not sure if I had it this week. This essay was originally part of a collection (L’Ethique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don); it feels a bit like being in a class taught by Derrida, but in my case I didn’t do any of the advance reading. It reflects on and interprets an essay by Jan Patočka, but also includes references to Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Bible, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Bible and the Melville I get, but the others are sort of like Berlin. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it in films and news stories, but I’ve never actually been there. I don’t know it well enough to discuss it. I’d like to, but not yet. As a linguistic exercise, this essay is a bit dizzying. An English translation of a French essay that interprets a Czech essay, using philosophy written in German and applying it to a story written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, largely translated into Latin.

Let’s see if I can get to the heart of this. In the beginning, there was orgiastic mystery. People had transcendent experiences that led them to imagine divinity, and in the grip of these experiences they did strange things. Orgiastic mystery, what I usually refer to as mysticism, has never gone away. When Plato came along, he incorporated this type of mystery into his philosophy. He said that people had these experiences to point them (and everyone else) toward the Good. He dressed the mystical experience in abstractions to make it more accessible to the layperson, to introduce an ethical component to the divine madness. He rejected the mad elements of it, and incorporated the rest. It’s like when there’s an artist who advocates restructuring society; Americans will celebrate the shit out of her, ignore the really revolutionary elements of her art and create a sanitized version they can teach to fifth-graders in a unit on celebrating our individuality. It’s like reading Ginsberg with ninth-graders in a public school.

And then there was Christianity, which repressed and sort of covered over the mysticism that preceded it. Plato’s abstract Good became incarnated as God. An ethical response was replaced with a personal relationship. And, this personal relationship, this God, is all based on the idea of death as a gift, a specific death given with a specific purpose, one man dying for all mankind. Which is odd and sort of bollocks.

Every one of us dies. Every one of us will die. There is no escape from that. Someone can give their death to prolong our life, but no one can take our death from us. We will all experience death, and all in our own specific way. In Sense and Sensibility, people are placeholders for social roles and positions. When Edward’s inheritance is settled irrevocably on his brother, his fiancée drops him for Robert immediately. Edward Ferrars is not a man, he’s a destiny. Just as the three pairs of sisters are all pretty much the same, Elinor and Marianne, Anne and Lucy, Lady Middleton and Mrs Palmer, it’s a pattern that repeats, like wallpaper. In real life, we are all unique and irreplaceable, because our experience of death will be utterly unique. Death is what makes us who we are. It’s what we have to offer the world.

We are responsible for our actions. When our actions are bad, we deserve the bad consequences. According to Christians, Jesus gave his death as a gift to cancel the consequences of our bad actions. As the Holy Other, Jesus exists in a hierarchical binary relationship to humanity. He is utterly other, and always above us. Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t stop us from dying, our deaths being an integral part of our identity; it stops us from suffering afterward. It relieves us from responsibility. This is what that study realized, when they gave kids a test to see how well they shared – atheists behave more ethically than religious people because they have no mediator with their own consciences.

Derrida (and possibly the others as well) uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, though Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismail would work just as well. So, this angel tells the father to kill his son. He keeps this exchange secret, preserving the integrity of the orgiastic experience, being responsible toward God while committing a completely unethical act. Religion demands this sacrifice of all its adherents; God tells people to act in strange, unethical ways, ways that harm or at least confuse the people around them. They have a secret responsibility that supersedes their responsibility to their families and society, what Robinson Crusoe (and Gabriel Betteredge) called the Secret Dictate. Here in the United States, Jesus’s gift gives people the right to hate and persecute those who are different to themselves. Look at the resistance to gay marriage and abortion rights; look at the new laws determining which bathroom transgender people can use. I’d feel much less comfortable urinating in the same room as a person in a dress than a person in a suit and tie, regardless of who has a penis and who doesn’t. But American Christians have a habit of legislating their discomfort. Fuck ethics, we have a Secret Dictate, a responsibility to God to ignore the rights of fellow human beings. Now, I’m generalizing, I know that there are good Christians out there, but the reactionary laws still pass, and Donald Trump has secured the conservative party’s nomination, so the good Christians are either not numerous or not vocal enough. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I think Derrida’s right: in the wrong hands, religion destroys a sense of ethical responsibility. And most hands are the wrong ones.

Which leads us to the end, tout autre est tout autre. It looks like nothing, Everything else is everything else, but that’s not what he means. Everyone else is wholly Other. Yes, God is completely different than humanity (Wholly/Holy Other), but every human is completely different from every other human. God and other people are equally alien to us. Which means that that secret responsibility to God, understood properly, is also a secret responsibility to every other person. Derrida tends to see the world in terms of hierarchized binaries, which he then smashes apart or “deconstructs.” Self and Other is one of these binaries, and our natural impulse is to favor Self. But religion teaches us to value the Other above the Self, but every Other occupies the same role in the binary, so it doesn’t matter which specific one I’m thinking of, a two-thousand-year-dead Jewish carpenter, my ex-wife, or the new boyfriend I’ve been texting all week. Every other is the same as every other, Holy or Profane.

We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more – into the bargain, precisely – capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places. It is perhaps necessary, if we are to follow the traditional Judeo-Christiano-Islamic injunction, but also at the risk of turning against that tradition, to think of God and of the name of God without such idolatrous stereotyping or representation. Then we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, of speaking, that is, of producing invisible sense, once I have within me, thanks to the invisible word as such, a witness that others cannot see, and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once I can have a secret relationship with myself and not tell everything, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God – a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from “God calls me,” for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret. God is in me, he is the absolute “me” or “self,” he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity.

God sees without being seen, holds us from the inside, in secret, and makes us responsible for keeping that secret. Or in other words, God is a voice in our heads; creating a relationship with the divine is an activity of self-revelation, self-approbation, self-discovery. As in Yeats’s poem, we create God in our own image because our gods are in us all along. Walking with God is a way of loving and accepting oneself.

When I was at school, I thought of these two parts of my life as separate, the conservative religious “good boy” in one box and the liberal intellectual free-thinking academic in another. And here Derrida has deconstructed my personal internal binary, explained what I had kept secret, even from myself.

In the end, Derrida talks about what I had previously thought, religion-wise, only he has a much stronger background in philosophy than I do. Which is: Believing in God doesn’t mean shit if you can’t see God in the people around you, or in yourself. There are Bible verses I could use to back that up, but if you think I’m right you don’t need them, and if you think I’m wrong they won’t convince you.

So. Death as a gift. There are many people, including myself, who have considered Death as a friend to be welcomed, one we become impatient to see. To us, the suicides, I say: consider Death not as a person but as a gift. Give yours to someone who really deserves it, in a situation where the loss of you will have meaning. Most suicides are just a creation of an absence. Find a way to make yours matter. Your death makes you unique and irreplaceable; don’t waste it. Even if you don’t value your life, treat your death with enough respect to make it special. As I follow this vein of thinking, I begin to put more value into my life. Making a good death means living a good life. So let’s do that, shall we?

Three years ago, when I faced the fact that I didn’t believe in the church I had been attending my entire life, my friendly acupuncturist recommended this book to me. He had read it when he was younger, and it really helped him begin fashioning his own belief system. I read it then and really liked it, but as I was reading it these last few days, I realized that its time has passed for me. It’s a good book for beginning, but feels less relevant when you’re in the middle of the struggle.

It’s also kind of elitist. Sinclair starts the novel as a kid in school. He meets Max Demian and they talk about the biblical story of Cain’s mark. Demian sees it as some sort of retcon by the uninitiated: they saw something about Cain that was unsocial and extraordinary, so they invented the myth about killing Abel to explain it. The two friends spend the rest of the novel either being alone or hanging out with an intellectual ‘elite,’ until they go off to fight in World War I. There in the last few pages, Sinclair finally begins to see the beauty and dignity of ordinary men and ordinary lives.

Having read several of his books, I firmly believe that Hermann Hesse was a closeted homosexual. Possibly not closeted to close friends, but in terms of his public. This book leans pretty strongly in that direction. It seems obvious to me that Sinclair is in love with Demian but can’t admit it to himself. He feels a magnetic attraction that he can’t explain. He only infatuates himself with women who are completely unattainable and noticeably masculine. The big love of his young life is Demian’s mother, a more mature version of Demian himself, only with a gendered body that Sinclair will admit to being attracted to. When the book ends, Sinclair is in a war hospital seeing a vision of Demian kissing him. This vision seems to settle in his mind what relation he will have to Demian in future, using him as a sort of intellectual muse.

Part of the difficulty Sinclair has is one that I’m faced with too. He doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.

There was only one thing I could not do: wrest the dark secret goal from myself and keep it before me as others did who knew exactly what they wanted to be – professors, lawyers, doctors, artists, however long this would take them and whatever difficulties and advantages this decision would bear in its wake. This I could not do. Perhaps I would become something similar, but how was I to know? Perhaps I would have to continue my search for years on end and would not become anything, and would not reach a goal. Perhaps I would reach this goal but it would turn out to be an evil, dangerous, horrible one?

I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?

I still don’t know what I really want to do, professionally speaking. It doesn’t seem like an important question. What’s important to me is in my personal life – what sort of relationship I’ll have with my children, where I’m going to find the right somebody to love, what I will eventually discover myself to believe in. As long as my job gives me enough money to feed my kids and pay my bills, and gives me enough free time to work through the rest of it, I don’t care too much about what that job is going to be. I never felt a strong vocation to teaching; I majored in English and wanted to become a professor because that seemed the best way to prolong the academic life I was enjoying so much. But as I contemplate that now, I don’t think it’s the right thing for me. And I don’t know where that leaves me.

As one can expect from Hesse, this novel is about a spiritual journey. Of course, it starts by rejecting the conservative Christianity of the time.

But I have to tell you something: this is one of the very places that reveals the poverty of this religion most distinctly. The point is that this God of both Old and New Testaments is certainly an extraordinary figure but not what he purports to represent. He is all that is good, noble, fatherly, beautiful, elevated, sentimental – true! But the world consists of something else besides. And what is left over is ascribed to the devil, this entire slice of the world, this entire half is suppressed and hushed up. In exactly the same way they praise God as the father of all life but simply refuse to say a word about our sexual life on which it’s all based, describing it whenever possible as sinful, the work of the devil. I have no objection to worshiping this God Jehovah, far from it. But I mean we ought to consider everything sacred, the entire world, not merely this artificially separated half! Thus alongside the divine service we should also have a service for the devil. I feel that would be right. Otherwise you must create for yourself a God that contains the devil too and in front of which you needn’t close your eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.

I think that Demian is right here, but only partially. Yes, the common Christian conception of God ignores a significant portion of our lives, and demonizes the very drives that lead to the fulfillment of one of God’s first commandments, to be fruitful and multiply. Yes, either everything is sacred or nothing is. But I don’t see that these ideas mean that we need to continue to accept the traditional binary thinking. Instead of seeing God and the devil as dualistic opposing forces, look at nature, both human and otherwise. Every species ensures its own survival. Once that’s accomplished, they live in peace with each other. There’s a time and a place for destruction, just as there is for creation. It all exists in cycles. The divisions between good and evil desires are sometimes in place to ensure the survival of our species, but sometimes they’re fairly arbitrary. Instead of setting up a shrine to the devil (Aldous Huxley showed a worship service to the devil in Ape and Essence – not as fun or constructive as it sounds), I think it’s more worthwhile to revise our understanding of God, or at least of the conventional morality ascribed to him.

Conventional morality kind of sucks. It seems based on the idea that self-denial is intrinsically good. Of course some of it is, but there must be a reason we deny ourselves things, and that reason must be a good one. It’s easy to deny yourself things when you hate yourself. I spent a long time doing just that. Sometimes I still do. Denying myself luxuries so that I can more adequately support my children seems like a good idea, but denying myself basic necessities because I’m angry at the world and my place in it is a bad one. I don’t think that fear of hell is a good reason to do anything, either. Not only is it fairly ineffective, it transforms you into someone who lives in constant fear, and I think that fear is bad. I have a lot of experience with it, I’m comfortable with the fear I find in myself, but I try not to let it govern my quotidian experience of life on earth. The emphasis on fear and unnecessary self-denial turns a lot of people away from faith-based belief systems.

I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell. I believe I love that kind of music because it is amoral. Everything else is so moral that I’m looking for something that isn’t. Morality has always seemed to me insufferable. I can’t express it very well.

Sinclair doesn’t quite have the words for it, but Pistorius, the drunk church organist who teaches him for a time, puts it better.

I don’t mean that you should simply do everything that pops into your head. No. But you shouldn’t harm and drive away those ideas that make good sense by exorcising them or moralizing about them. Instead of crucifying yourself or someone else you can drink wine from a chalice and contemplate the mystery of the sacrifice. Even without such procedures you can treat your drives and so-called temptations with respect and love. Then they will reveal their meaning – and they all do have meaning. If you happen to think of something truly mad or sinful again, if you want to kill someone or want to commit some enormity, Sinclair, think at that moment that it is Abraxas fantasizing within you! The person whom you would like to do away with is of course never Mr X but merely a disguise. If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.

I’ve mentioned this concept a few times lately, with Gibran and Casariegos, but I think it’s important, and must be something I need to hear a lot these days. The key to happiness, holiness, whatever you like, you could even call it the Meaning of Life, is to accept everything about myself. Not do everything that occurs to me, but to accept whatever need my urges and ideas express. I also think it’s important to recognize that when something irritates me in someone else, it’s because that same thing is in me. Which means it’s a tendency that I need to accept instead of hating it. I think that hatred in general is a bad thing.

Throughout the book, Sinclair has a series of teachers, and at the very end (last page) he seems to have internalized the most important of them. These past few days I’ve been feeling the lack of a teacher. My beliefs are all tangled and confused and I’d like some help getting through this next clarifying stage of things, but I don’t know if there are any that I’d accept. Among the people around me now, the only spiritual teachers would lead me toward Islam, and I know that I don’t want to go there. I have a hard time with the idea of a silent God, one who spoke last to Muhammad and has expected all the rest of us to listen to that conversation fifteen hundred years ago. I’d rather not believe in God at all than believe He’s that indifferent to me. And this is part of my problem: I can easily say what I don’t believe, but it’s incredibly difficult to find a positive belief statement that I can agree with unreservedly.

When Demian first came out, it seemed to capture the attitude of an entire generation of young Germans who came of age during World War I. It was like the twentieth century’s Sorrows of Young Werther. I can see how it can provide a lot of hope to people who feel like they’re somehow different than the people around them, but can’t pinpoint in what way. I think that feeling is fairly common to adolescents. It starts us on a journey, but it doesn’t reach the end. I don’t feel like I’ve even hit the middle; on the last page, I still feel as if Sinclair is just beginning. I suppose in some ways that’s appropriate. I feel like life is a series of beginnings with no ends, like nothing is ever really finished or done. It’ll all keep circling back, in Nietzsche’s eternal return.

 

A few years ago, I had a lot of things going on inside me that no one else knew about. I needed to talk it out, but I didn’t have anyone I saw frequently that I felt comfortable talking with, so I started a blog instead. It was exactly what I needed. Writing for my own benefit helped me to realize what changes were happening in me, and where I was going with them. A few people read it, and we became friends. This past spring I realized that I wasn’t that person any more, and I didn’t want to hang onto a persona that I had outgrown, so I pulled that site down and started writing here instead.

Our protagonist Anton Mallick writes for a similar purpose. He’s writing a journal addressed to his multi-great grandfather, who left Hungary in 1830 and moved to Spain. Vidor Mallick has turned into a family legend, so he seems like a good confidential friend to talk to. Unlike me, though, Anton is not really that open. I’ll talk about anything. I’m trying not to keep a lot of secrets, but even without an intended readership Anton keeps his cards close to his vest. There are hints dropped from time to time, but there are some pretty important life events that he doesn’t mention explicitly until the book is nearly over, like the death of his little brother back when they were toddlers. Sometimes he even laughs at us, telling us that we’ll never know whether he went out to sleep with the blonde dog walker or not.

Our story begins in the middle of a panic attack.

Not for the first time, something happened to me today, something horrible and absurd, something that brought on another of my overwhelming anguish attacks. To begin with I was me but, suddenly, I wasn’t, I was someone else, and ended up in the strangest state of not-being-me and yet still being inside my body – all in the middle of a bookshop jampacked with people. Then, terrified, rooted to the spot, as the cashier stared at me uncomprehendingly, unsure whether she should scream or call security, the thought popped into my head that my Hungarian ancestor’s name meant “happy,” and, on top of that, that he swore he was indeed happy, and then I came back to myself, I was me again, Antón, and it was in that moment that I decided to overturn my woeful destiny.

Enough is enough. I don’t want to be a pessimist, or a victim, any more.

And from there we move forward and backward, as he tells us about the situation that led to the attack and his journey toward happiness, or optimism. I think these are separable states of being, but he spends most of the book treating them as a single goal. Why is he having a panic attack? Well, talking about that would give away a few too many of the secrets that generate the suspense that makes the plot interesting. A small part of it, though, is that he meets a woman he slept with once when he was too drunk and high to remember whom he was with, and there in the line at the bookseller’s she tells him that she’s pregnant with his child. That might seem pretty huge, but the situation is a lot more complex than that.

In order to become an optimist, he sets out reading books. He writes a little about the things that he reads, and after he’s read a book he uses quotations from it as chapter epigraphs. Or at least, he does this with the books he likes. At first he goes to his older brother Zoltan, a psychologist who’s hooked on his patients’ medications. Zoltan tends to lord it over his younger siblings because he was raised in the United States while Bela and Anton spent their childhood in Spain with Uncle Juan, and just because he’s the oldest. He gives Anton a number of insufferable self-help books. Anton reads them all, but hates them.

Fortunately, he mentions the quest for optimism to his sister Bela, and she sends him some much better books. Under Bela’s guidance, Anton makes a survey of Western philosophy on the subject of happiness, starting with the ancient Greeks and Boethius and running through Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Those last two are memorable because he likes them – he tends to hate most books about being happy. As he rightly points out, most philosophers are trapped in binary thinking, so instead of pursuing happiness they’re just trying to avoid sadness. Not-sad and happy aren’t the same thing. There are all sorts of gradations between those two extremes. As it is, most of the philosophy and self-help books promote this vapid sort of quietism, where the person doesn’t really feel much of anything, saving himself from sadness by forfeiting the chance for joy. That’s not happiness, it’s clinical depression.

Strangely, if I go back over what I’ve read up until now, from the pre-Socratics to Russell, the whole idea of happiness or optimism is a way out, a fleeing from reality, a juggling game – interesting or depressing, depending on the person putting it forward. My Annus Horribilis is about to come to an end, and I refuse to hide: I still want TO LIVE.

The Buddhists recommend beginning here, finding the things that make you suffer and eliminating them, but they also go on to recommend that you find the things that make you happy and do them.

What things make me happy, what do I enjoy a lot? Drinking half a liter of orange juice every morning. Putting things in order and throwing them away. Running. Going for a stroll. Cooking. I’ve found that I ought to rediscover my hands again, action, doing things, not just thinking of them. It doesn’t overly matter how well you do them, or if they seem ridiculous when you tell others about them, or they aren’t going to get me anywhere in the long term. It’s about enjoying the immediate experience. Maybe, that way, I’ll find a way (nothing of course definitive, but liberating, refreshing).

Orange juice doesn’t make me that happy. If it’s the cheap stuff, even one small glass can be acidic enough to give me stomach cramps for a few hours. And I hate the kind of running that he does – sprinting is fun, but the distance stuff not so much. I do enjoy putting things in order, which makes me feel effective and in control, and throwing things out, which gives me a clean, renovated feeling.

Nothing in the world makes me feel a charge of optimism like getting rid of a book I can’t bear, and feeling not a jot of guilt, only pleasure. Who ever said we shouldn’t throw books in the trash? Who ever said there’s anything that isn’t better off in the trash?

I like strolls and doing things with my hands. I haven’t ever trashed a dishonest private investigator’s apartment on Christmas Eve, but I can see how I might enjoy it as much as Anton does. Cooking is only enjoyable for me if I’m doing it for someone else. That’s something I run into a lot: I love doing things for people, but people rarely want anything from me. I end up giving lots of unwanted advice because my need to help is unsatisfied.

Along with all the turmoil in his personal life, Anton writes insurance policies, and he spends the duration of the book working on this policy for a satellite. I didn’t know that all the world’s Sputniks were insured, but it makes sense that they would be. This job requires him to travel from his home in Madrid to Paris, London, and New York – I really liked Paris and New York when I was in them. I felt an immediate comfort, a sense of belonging that comes more slowly in small towns. Anton also likes New York, but he gets into a little more detail about why he likes it so much.

To start with, if you’ve been there a few times, you come to believe that you own it. It reveals itself to you immediately, it guides you along her streets, her avenues, her symbols; it makes you believe it’s easy to read. It’s been called the lighthouse of the West. Rather, I think of it as the West’s best work of fiction, the most elaborately wrought. Like a good book, first of all it grabs you and then it deceives you, for your own good, leading you to a place where your horizons will widen and grow. It transmits life, and life just is, it can’t be questioned, much as we try to explain it. It can be read in infinitely different ways, and though it never ceases to transmute, in essence, it’s always the same, there’s no alteration to the text. Hers is the sweetest trap, because she doesn’t claim to provide answers, rather to make you ask yourself better questions. And that’s why, like good books, it can also destroy you if you aren’t ready to be alone, which is the one irrefutable truth. No book will ever make your dreams come true. No city will give you something for free. Not even New York, that work of fiction.

Maybe that line about aloneness can explain the strange contradictions in the New Yorkers’ sense of community. They seem to remain locked within themselves, oblivious of what’s going on around them, unless there’s something important going on. In times of tragedy, there’s no better place to be – all New York will hold you as you all suffer together. That shared identity pulls them through the really bad stuff, but during normal business hours it’s all group isolation, like a hermits’ convention. People just sit quietly, trying not to make eye contact. People talk about the dangers, but I once wandered home on an unfamiliar subway route at two am, drunk off my ass and clutching a paperback copy of Gone with the Wind, and no one messed with me. They actually kept their distance, though I am far from imposing and that high level of drunkenness makes me even less likely to initiate contact with strangers. That experience is probably one of the reasons I disagree with statements like

The world we live in pretends to be better than it really is. Countries, governments, businesses, products, people, everyone and everything only put their best foot forward (and all the same it’s appalling, outrageous, sick). Here on planet earth our prime concern is to sweep the shit under the carpet and carry on regardless. If we explained to future generations what life’s really like and then asked them if they still felt like joining us, none of them would choose to be born, or only the worst kind, the masochists, the dimwits, the scatterbrains, or the saints, who definitely come within this sorry confederation. And? Well might you ask, Vidor. Where’s this little speech of mine headed? I, a twenty-first century individual who’s already here, who was never consulted about wanting to be born, am making an effort to be an optimist, and the point I’m coming to is that maybe that isn’t so strange. It’s the appropriate, the elegant thing to do.

If we all put our best foot forward, isn’t that proof that we want the world to be a good place? And isn’t that enough to make it a good place? Yes, sometimes there are school shootings and suicide bombings, but I think those are aberrations, not the rule. And in all of these tragedies, there is one sick person surrounded by dozens of people who try to minimize the damage and heal the wounded. Even the bad things strengthen my belief that the world is a good place full of good people.

One of the things that I appreciate about Anton Mallick is his attitude toward homosexuals. He learns that someone he’s getting to know is a lesbian, so Bela offers to introduce him to her hot lesbian friend and her partner so that he can get some insight into the concept. He refuses, though. I think he’s right; Bela’s friends are fifteen years older than the girl he’s meeting, and even without the age gap, there’s no guarantee that any two people are going to have similar experiences of homosexuality. Sure, there are probably a few things that all lesbians have in common, but other than a taste for women, I’m not sure what they are. I’m friends with five or six, more if you count the bisexuals, and they’re all individuals who break stereotypes in one or more directions. Asking one about her life will not really give me useful information about another’s. Or, as Anton puts it,

“I find lesbians, as lesbians, neither interesting nor uninteresting,” I said. “I have the same thing with them as with heterosexuals, or with hermaphrodite insects, if you see what I mean. Individuals are what interest me. When it comes to Leia, I’m interested to know what she’s like, to see if we can get on. Full stop. Shall we go and catch a film?”

When I listen to the LGBT community, this seems to be what most of us really want: not to be seen as a label, but as a complete human being. Being gay is only part of that. It’s an important part, but still only a part.

One of the parts of myself that’s claiming more attention lately is the depression. I think that I’ve been thinking about it wrong. I think of myself as a hopeful, optimistic sort of person, just two red pigtails shy of being totally Pollyanna, but then there’s this weird thing with my body chemistry that makes me depressed. The depression feels alien to me, like there’s some large, dark mammal breathing heavily on my thought processes, so they sound like this:

I can’t and don’t want to think. I can’t sleep and I want to. I can take a pill and I don’t want to. I can drink a couple of whiskys and I want to and do. I can leave the house and go to a bar and look at the people and I don’t want to. I can’t run into the plump blonde dog walker and fuck her in the middle of the street and I want to. I can and I don’t want to, I want to and I can’t.

I’ve been thinking of the depression as an animal because I can see it fighting for its right to live. I think that exercise will help me feel better, so the depression keeps me from having that kind of energy for a few months. I think that getting enough sleep will help, so I spend all night dreaming of plane crashes. I try to eat right, but then I seem to be gaining weight, but only on the left side, so I’m all lopsided and weird, so it’s probably better not to eat and see if that evens me out. I try to play the guitar a bit, and I get frustrated with my still-low level of skill. I try to apply for a new job, and the internet crashes for an entire week (I can’t blame that on my depression, but sometimes the universe seems a bit spiteful). Think that getting on some meds might help you? Ha! Now you’re terrified of any (legal) drugs that affect the brain, and a little afraid of all the others for good measure. The more I fight against this mental beast, the stronger it gets.

I think a better solution will be to stop thinking of depression as a foreign element. Okay, so yes I am naturally disposed to optimism and happiness, but if depression is caused by body chemistry, then that’s natural too. Anton eventually finds peace in accepting and integrating the different parts of himself, letting himself grieve for those who are dead, accepting relationships as they present themselves, accepting his own desires instead of feeling guilty for them. He even accepts the fact that he’s a pessimist, and after he finally stops trying to force himself to be optimistic he’s a happy pessimist. I don’t think that we can be happy by partitioning and rejecting various parts of the psyche. I can’t hate the part of me that is depressed and still love myself. I need to accept that my depression is mine, and maybe if I stop attacking it, it won’t fight back so much.

Cloud Atlas is structured as a series of interrelated novellas, but upon reading it this time, I believe that it tells one story, about how corporations destroy the world. Some of the people quoted on the cover seem to wonder how it was possible for one man to have written this. I think it’s pretty obvious. First, read widely enough that you’re basically familiar with several genres of fiction. If you love reading, this is not necessarily hard. Then, write one of your six novellas at a time. Read particularly deeply into the genre of the one you’re writing as you go along. After you have your six separate pieces, split them apart and sandwich them together, 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1. It’s not a simple process, but it’s not mindblowingly difficult to understand how he did it. It’s not like authors sit down at page one and write straight through until they finish page 510. The narratives are nested like matryoshka dolls, but someone in Narrative n+1 is always reading Narrative n, so the stories frame each other backwards, like an inside-out Arabian Nights. Each protagonist gets into some sort of trap, and as the net tightens, they find ways to escape: execution, suicide, rescue, triumph.

Part Six: Post-Apocalyptic, Neo-Prehistoric Fantasy

Zachry is a teenager living on Hawaii, the last remaining bit of land that hasn’t been poisoned by ecological disasters so far in the past they’re forgotten. People can live here, so they do. Zachry’s people are fairly peaceful, but the warlike Kona are always threatening their existence. There’s almost no technology, and most children have severe birth defects that prevent their living long, like Zachry’s son who was born without a mouth or nostrils. There’s another group of people on a distant island who retain an understanding of advanced technology, and they come around twice a year to trade. One of these Prescients stays for a half-year to study Zachry’s people, and while he resists at first, he eventually grows close to her. They take a heroic journey up Mauna Kea, and she reluctantly tells him how the world became so fucked up:

Eerie birds I din’t knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. The Prescient answered, Old Uns tripped their own Fall.

Oh, her words was a rope o’ smoke. But Old Uns’d got the Smart!

I mem’ry she answered, Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.

More what? I asked. Old Uns’d got ev’rythin’.

Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ‘nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison soil with crazed atoms an’ donkey ‘bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an’ babbits was freakbirthed. Fin’ly, bit’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an’ the Civ’lize Days ended, ‘cept for a few folds’n’pockets here’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.

I asked why Meronym’d never spoke this yarnin’ in the Valleys.

Valleysmen’d not want to hear, she answered, that human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too. I know it from other tribes offland what I stayed with. Times are you say a person’s b’liefs ain’t true, they think you’re sayin’ their lifes ain’t true an’ their truth ain’t true.

Yay, she was prob’ly right.

Zachry’s people believe in a goddess Sonmi, who watches over and protects them. They have an Abbess who interprets Sonmi’s will for them – useful sort of a person, I suppose. The Prescient, however, knows that Sonmi was a real person who lived a few hundred years before, and Zachry finds a recording of Sonmi, which forms the next part.

Part Five: Hi-Tech Sci-Fi Tragedy

Think Arthur Clarke, or Isaac Asimov. Much of the world has been deadlanded, or rendered unfit for human habitation. This makes it clear that the devastation in Zachry’s world isn’t from a nuclear war; it’s the natural, gradual evolution of the type of system we already live in. Korea hasn’t been destroyed yet, but corporations have taken over the government, and to some extent the language. Spelling is simplified to levels that are occasionally hard to understand, and most products have been renamed with a brand name, so all cars are called fords and all films are called disneys. Sonmi-451 is a clone worker for not-quite-McDonald’s; she and her ‘sisters’ work for nineteen hours a day for twelve years, engineered not to ask questions or desire anything more in life. Sonmi begins to develop higher brain function, so she’s removed for further study. Over time, she realizes that she’s the victim of a plot much more devious than she had originally thought. As she’s running from the corporate police, she meets a small commune outside the city, where people resist the corporations.

I said how all purebloods have a hunger, a dissatisfaction in their eyes, xcept for the colonists I had met.

The Abbess nodded. If consumers found fulfillment at any meaningful level, she xtemporized, corpocracy would be finished. Thus, Media is keen to scorn colonies such as hers, comparing them to tapeworms; accusing them of stealing rainwater from WaterCorp, royalties from VegCorp patent holders, oxygen from AirCorp. The Abbess feared that, should the day ever come when the Board decided they were a viable alternative to corpocratic ideology, “the ‘tapeworms’ will be renamed ‘terrorists,’ smart bombs will rain, and our tunnels flood with fire.”

I suggested the colony must prosper invisibly, in obscurity.

“Xactly.” Her voice hushed. “A balancing act as demanding as impersonating a pureblood, I imagine.”

After her adventures in running from society, Sonmi writes a series of Declarations that oppose the current system, gets labeled a terrorist, and while you know what will happen to her, her Declarations spread and become the ruling doctrine for the majority of (what’s left of) humanity. But while she’s running, she watches a film about a little old man who gets trapped in a retirement home.

Part Four: Gothic Suspense.

Think Ann Radcliffe or Franz Kafka, but in roughly contemporary England. Timothy Cavendish is a small-time vanity publisher who gets into big trouble when one of his books becomes an accidental success. Running from goons in London, he goes to borrow even more money from his brother, who sends him off to an address in Hull. The address is for an old-folks home taken straight from Ken Kesey, complete with a Nurse Ratchet type overlord. She is prepared to take every necessary step to keep the senile dears from hurting themselves or others, including cutting off all communication with the outside world and confiscating all keys and valuables. Cavendish makes a few friends who still have some sense, and they plot their escape.

“Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back.” Veronica settled herself in a rattan chair and adjusted her hat just so. “We – by whom I mean anyone over sixty – commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.”

“Veronica’s parents served life sentences in the intelligentsia,” put in Ernie, with a dash of pride.

She smiled fondly. “Just look at the people who come here during visiting hours! They need treatment for shock. Why else do they spout that ‘You’re only as old as you feel!’ claptrap? Really, who are they hoping to fool? Not us – themselves!”

Ernie concluded, “Us elderly are the modern lepers. That’s the truth of it.”

How is this part of the decline of civilization? Cavendish’s UK is full of policies that benefit corporations but make life unnecessarily difficult for individuals. Outside Aurora House, he’s constantly being bullied and expected to wait in lines or wait for trains that unexpectedly stop short of their destinations and leave him stranded. Conformity and patience are expected everywhere, and as people age, their tolerance for this type of institutionalization fades, so we lock them in special homes “for their own good.” Didn’t someone somewhere say that the true measure of a civilization is how it treats its elderly?

Among the things not confiscated is the manuscript of a mystery novel that he was to have considered for publication, Half-Lives, the first Luisa Rey mystery.

Part Three: Hard-Boiled Detective Story, Environmental Edition

Think Dashiell Hammett, but in 1970s California. Actually, skip that and think The Pelican Brief. Luisa Rey is a small-time reporter for a disreputable magazine who finds out that the local nuclear power plants are not actually that safe, and that her town is ready to go Chernobyl. The company that runs it, backed by the government, does everything in its power to destroy all the evidence so they can go on making money until central California turns into a Thalidomide baby factory. Luisa makes friends with one of the top physicists on the project when the two get trapped in an elevator during a power outage. She tells him about a very brief interview she once had with Alfred Hitchcock:

He didn’t answer my questions because he didn’t really hear them. His best works, he said, are roller coasters that scare the riders out of their wits but let them off at the end giggling and eager for another ride. I put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well, that’s . . . the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe – but only our toes. Hitchcock’s response was […] ‘I’m a director in Hollywood, young lady, not an Oracle at Delphi.’

With Luisa, we get to see the corporate evil up close, almost as clearly as we do with Sonmi, but more realistically because it’s set in a time that we’re familiar with. Luisa also ends up with a set of letters that her physicist friend keeps with him at all times, from his only true love.

Part Two: Modern Art

Think Virginia Woolf, or D. H. Lawrence, or E. M. Forster. Robert Frobisher is an impoverished composer, recently removed from Cambridge without earning a degree. He dashes off to Belgium in 1931 to work as a scribe for an aging big-name, and to hide from his English creditors. He calls his physicist friend the one true love of his life, but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping around with men and women of all types.

Next I found a backstreet church (steered clear of the tourist places to avoid disgruntled book dealers) of candles, shadows, doleful martyrs, incense. Haven’t been to church since the morning Pater cast me out. Street door kept banging shut. Wiry crones came, lit candles, went. Padlock on the votive box was of the best. People knelt in prayer, some moving their lips. Envy ‘em, really I do. I envy God, too, privy to their secrets. Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again. Did my best to think beatific thoughts, but my mind kept running its fingers over Jocasta. Even the stained-glass saints and martyrs were mildly arousing. Don’t suppose such thoughts get me closer to Heaven.

Frobisher is a joy to read, but I think I would have a hard time being around him if he were real. His boss starts stealing his material, so he decides to go on his own, despite threats of being ruined. He writes a sextet for piano, flute, oboe, cello, clarinet, and violin, which by all accounts is very beautiful, but I doubt I’ll ever get to hear it.

Like Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal, it might seem hard to place this in the context of corporate destruction, but Frobisher does experience the snobbish philistinism of those who made their fortunes in trade. He also goes to visit his brother’s grave – Adrian died in The Great War. While there, he chats with a diamond merchant who tells him that the only constants in human life are war and diamonds, and that the end of it will be the destruction of the race, which is a bit more prophetic than either of them realize.

Frobisher spends some time at his employer’s house looking for rare books to steal, and he comes across one of those old South-Sea journals.

Part One: Nineteenth-Century Travelogue

Think Herman Melville. Lots and lots of Melville. Adam Ewing is a notary from San Francisco on a long journey home from Australia. He’s naïve and devout, which leads to frequent conflict with the captain and crew. He does get to witness firsthand how religion is put to use, enslaving the natives for corporate gains in the name of God. In the end, I think that his last page gets right at what the book is all about:

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, […] If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.

Our belief both reflects and shapes the world we live in. I believe this very strongly, which is why I often ignore my friends’ advice to be canny and careful and end up in the scrapes of the naïve. I want the world to be a good place, so I insist on believing it is so. I want people to be good, so I assume they are better than they are. And I doubt I’ll stop, because I want to make the world a better place, and this is where I choose to start.

Ewing imagines his father-in-law mocking him:

He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

And he replies:

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

One person can make a difference. I don’t know what my lifelong legacy will be; if someone were to write an eighty-page story that sums up me, I don’t know what he would choose as the turning point, where I make an irrevocable decision that sets my course in a firm new direction. But I’ll do what I can, and let history account for me as it may. One ignorable drop in an ocean of hope.

Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return comes back here. The implication is that the six protagonists are really one person, reincarnated several times. Similar patterns emerge, similar choices must be made, similar thoughts are thunk. Like these bits about the title:

Zachry:

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

Cavendish:

Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides . . . I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.

And of course, Frobisher’s composition is called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Characters remember events from past lives, end up living in the same places, and even run into people with similar names. The genre changes, the situations are often different, but the details are somehow the same. Like that comet-shaped birthmark they all have.

I’ve been wondering why my subconscious is sending me to so many books about historical recurrences, and I think it’s a warning. This summer I vacationed in the place I think of as home, and I’ve been really tempted to move back. It’s a wonderful place to live, and my current situation is unsatisfactory. But. What kind of life would I have? Working more than sixty hours a week divided between two part-time jobs, still only paying my bills with more luck than foresight, hoping for a romantic connection with someone whom I barely know? That’s no life at all. If I were assured of full-time employment (or full-time romance), it would be different. But things being as they are, it would be completely daft of me to try it. I remember how depressed I was, even in that paradise. In this case, I’m going to try to approach the next step in my journey with more logic than sentiment. An atypical approach for me, but we’ll see how that works.

Oh, and there was a movie, too.

I think this is probably the best possible film that could be made based on this book. Each of the stories is twisted a little, some a lot, but film is a different medium with different constraints, etc. The six stories are all mixed up together instead of being arranged tidily, so instead of matryoshka dolls it becomes scrambled eggs. They reuse most of the actors in each story, which drives home the reincarnation theme and the déjà vu feel, but it’s not obvious most of the time; aside from dramatic differences in makeup, many of them also change gender. Being a film, it’s often more dramatic and more violent than the book; it also has more romance. Zachry the teenager and Meronym the fifty-year-old Prescient are an unlikely couple, but if you cast them with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, it suddenly makes more sense. With this plot omelet, any gesture toward making sense is welcome. I also love what they do with Old Georgie, Zachry’s hallucination of the devil. This movie is filmed beautifully, but I think that you really ought to either read the book or watch the film several times to be able to follow it. Considering how many times you might need to watch the film, it’s probably more time-efficient to read the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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