Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the famous novel about nineteenth century Nigerian society and Colonialism’s impact on it. The book was written in 1958, in English. 

This short novel follows Okonkwo, an important man in Igbo society.  The story covers a swath of Okonkwo’s life. He is wealthy, respected  and successful. The tale explores the people that he has relationships with, including his multiple wives, children and friends.  When he accidently kills a man he is sent into a seven - year exile to his mother’s home village. During this time European government and missionaries move into the area. The newcomers disrupt the life of the Iocal people. Okonkwo family and friends are divided as some convert to Christianity at the urging of the newcomers. There is violence between the Igbo and the Europeans. At its height, an entire Igbo village is massacred.

This book works on several levels. The author delves into Igbo culture and society. Many pages are devoted to customs and folklore. The story covers such diverse topics as food, religion and marriage, just to name a few. 

The philosophy and message of this book is complicated. The story exposes the arrogance and wrongness of Colonialism. The Europeans bring death and chaos to the local society. 

There is also something ugly going on among the Igbo.  Okonkwo is a brutal man and a murderer. He physically abuses his multiple wives. He devalues woman. Throughout the text, the author seems to be reminding us that within this society there is a streak of brutality, violence, a devaluating of the feminine. We find out that when twins are born they are left in the forest to die. These horrors reach a low point when Okonkwo murders the young boy that he has taken in as son. All of Igbo society is indicted as the killing was ordered by a religious leader.  

At one point, Nwoye, who is Okonkwo son, is shown to be enjoying the stories told be his female relatives. But sexism and the glorification of violence leads him to reconsider. 

“That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his father wanted him to be a man. And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories. And when he did this he saw that his father was pleased, and no longer rebuked him or beat him. So Nwoye and Ikemefuna would listen to Okonkwo stories about tribal wars, or how, years ago, he had stalked his victim, overpowered him and obtained his first human head…”

It seems that the author is criticizing both European and Igbo society and actions. This book contains strong anti - violence and anti – misogynistic themes. The tale accomplishes this by shedding light upon the malignant effects of violence and the harmful affects of degrading women. 

There is a lot to recommend this work. In addition to the themes mentioned above, this is a wonderful examination of the positive aspects of Igbo culture. The commentary on Colonialism and religion is also complex and deserves a separate blog post.  Okonkwo, despite his flaws, is a brilliantly crafted character. I recommend this book to those who appreciate serious literature as well as anyone who may be interested in learning about the Igbo culture. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This post contains spoilers. 

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is the story of Maggie Tulliver. It is a brilliant character study. The tale starts during Maggie’s childhood. She is very close to her brother, Tom. The relationship between the two siblings plays a key role in this story.  At the book’s beginning, Maggie’s father, a fairly prosperous mill owner, is embroiled in a legal battle with a neighbor, Mr. Wakem, the result of which leaves him ruined. The balance of Tom and Maggie’s adolescence is spent in financial straits.

Maggie is sensitive. She is a free thinker who appreciates art and culture. She is different from those around her. Much of the tale illustrates how her gifts and virtues are underappreciated. This lack of appreciation stems from the unfair way that women and girls are viewed, as well as the fact that the people around her are unimaginative and lack understanding. 

Tom grows up to be dull, cold and unappreciative of culture. At times, his behavior is terrible. He takes advantage of Maggie’s great affection for him and uses these feelings to control her. For her part, Maggie has an almost unnatural connection and love for Tom.

Philip Wakem, a character who suffers from physical deformities, is a member of the rival Wakem clan. He is extremely intelligent and sensitive. He and Maggie develop a great affection for one another. Their relationship falls short of romantic love and can best be characterized as spiritual love. Their potential marriage is opposed by Tom, who forces them to separate.

Later in the story, Maggie and Phillip reestablish contact. But they continue their relationship in an unrequited manner. When wealthy Stephen Guest appears on the scene and establishes a romantic connection with Maggie, the situation becomes very complicated. Much of the balance of the book is devoted to the conflict between Maggie’s spiritual feelings for Philip and her romantic feelings for Steven. 

This novel is a great character study. Maggie is a wonderful literary creation. The book is also filled with wisdom that comes served on platter of delectable writing. In the below passage, the mundane character of everyday life is compared to the old days when things were supposedly grandeur,  

“Journeying down the Rhone on a summer's day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god, sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils, and making their dwellings a desolation. Strange contrast, you may have thought, between the effect produced on us by these dismal remnants of commonplace houses, which in their best days were but the sign of a sordid life, belonging in all its details to our own vulgar era, and the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine, which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps that they seem to have a natural fitness, like the mountain-pine; nay, even in the day when they were built they  earth-born race, who had inherited from their mighty parent a sublime instinct of form. And that was a day of romance; If those robber-barons were somewhat grim and drunken ogres, they had a certain grandeur of the wild beast in them,– they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending, not the ordinary domestic grunter; they represented the demon forces forever in collision with beauty, virtue, and the gentle uses of life; they made a fine contrast in the picture with the wandering minstrel, the soft-lipped princess, the pious recluse, and the timid Israelite. That was a time of color, when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners; a time of adventure and fierce struggle,– nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm; for were not cathedrals built in those days, and did not great emperors leave their Western palaces to die before the infidel strongholds in the sacred East? Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry; they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an echo. But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone oppress me with the feeling that human life– very much of it– is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception; and I have a cruel conviction that the lives these ruins are the traces of were part of a gross sum of obscure vitality, that will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers."

The writing is so good in the above passages. The imagery of the monumental things and people of the past is very impressive. It makes such an effective contrast with the more modern “dreary” and “ruined” villages. In the above quote, even the villains were magnificent, they were  “demon forces forever in collision with beauty” and “they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending.”  The prose also creates such an effective contrast between the mundane aspects of life and the awe-inspiring parts of human existence.

Eliot goes on to observe that the giants of the past also overshadow the story’s current characters. 

“Perhaps something akin to this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragi-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons, irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith; moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime; without that primitive, rough simplicity of wants, that hard, submissive, ill-paid toil, that childlike spelling-out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish, surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build; worldliness without side-dishes.”

The Tullivers and Dodsons mentioned above are Maggie’s maternal and paternal families. Her aunts and uncles are often jealous, vindictive, braggadocios and constantly bickering. While her father is not without his virtues, he becomes obsessed with vengeance upon the Wakems. Tom can be cold and controlling. He becomes work obsessed. He holds no romantic thoughts at all. 

I think that the above quotes are a key to this novel. Maggie’s life can be viewed as the exact opposite of the “sordid life” lived by her relatives. Her relations often live a “a “narrow, ugly, groveling existence.” These passaes come early in the book. In retrospect, Maggie’s story seems to reach the level of magnificence embodied in the past as described here. Her relatives are often vulgar, but she is not. She strives for sublime principles and experiences romantic visions. She has a strong faith and tries to do what is right. Almost everything mentioned in the above paragraph characterizes positive things about Maggie and negative things about her relatives. One cannot help but to think that Maggie would be better suited had she lived in the times of romance, robber barons and drunken ogres. It is a testament to just how much her character shines and that one could picture her among such heroes and villains. 

The angry, destroying god” that made  “their dwellings a desolation” also foreshadows a terrible flood that eventually sweeps away much of the world depicted in this story. 

This book is also filled with ideas, philosophy and observations on human nature. These ruminations are often tied to the story’s themes. Like Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” this work brims full of references to various art forms. 

The plot develops very slowly. Eliot is more interested in developing characters and ideas than in moving things along. Those looking for a plot driven narrative might be bored with sections of this novel. However, the thoughtful and patient reader will be rewarded. 

There is so much to this book. At its heart, it is a great character study told in magnificent prose. In addition to Maggie, it is also filled with complex and well wrought out characters. It is full of philosophy, wisdom and culture. It is an interesting story. Ultimately it is a brilliantly written exploration of characters and ideas. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

My Comments Section

I want to share a few thoughts about my blog. In particular, I want to talk about my comments section and what it has grown into. On multiple occasions in the past, I have written about how wonderful the book blogging community is and how grateful I am for all the folks who come here and comment on this site. What my comments section has grown into is something truly special.

People come to this blog and leave many comments. Many if these comments are detailed. Many folks clearly think about my posts and put thought into their responses to them. Many introduce a diversity of ideas that surprise me at times. Sometimes folks will come back and continue conversations. 

There are several regular commenters who visit and will challenge my ideas. They will occasionally disagree with me, or they will present ideas counter to mine. As I alluded to above, some come back multiple times and continue to discuss these issues. I not only am fine with this, I am delighted that this goes on. Echo chambers are bad. They foster a form of closed mindedness and are often an impediment to truth and wisdom. I always wanted my blog to be about the exchange of ideas. Any productive exchange must include the questioning and examination of ideas. I will at times delve into controversial subjects.  I am not afraid to express my opinions. I welcome comments that also delve into controversial areas and that express divergent opinions. 

That civility and politeness are keys to good discussion goes without saying.  You all have been extremely civil and polite. This is true even when there is disagreement. This is true even when we have delved into controversial or sensitive subjects. I do not think that there has been a single instance of a regular commenter here issuing an uncivil comment or impolite remark. 

So one again, I want to thank everyone who has ever commented on this blog. I appreciate and value each and everyone who has done so. As I spelled out above, the level of comments and discussion here has been intelligent, reasoned and thought provoking. I look forward to great discussions in the future. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Triton by Samuel R. Delany

This post contains major spoilers. 

Triton, sometimes titled Trouble on Triton,  by Samuel R. Delany  is an odd book by any measure. First published in 1976, this is reread for me. A Google search finds that this book is still talked about a lot. Some consider this a science-fiction classic. Others find it enigmatic and frustrating.  After this reading, I understand both reactions. 

The novel’s main character is Bron Helstrom. Bron is a recent immigrant to the human settlement on Triton. Neptune’s moon is one of many moons within the solar system that has been colonized. The protagonist becomes enamored with a brilliant street theater producer known as the Spike. Much of the book concerns itself with Bron’s interactions with the Spike, friends and work associates. Toward the end of the book, an interstellar war between the solar system’s moons on one side, and Earth and Mars on the other, heats up. The results are destructive, bloody and tragic. At the same time, Bron’s relationship with the Spike disintegrates, leading Bron to take some radical actions. 

Delany’s writing style is unusual. The book falls firmly within the definition of postmodernist literature. The descriptions of objects and people are dense, colorful and, at times, bizarre. 

At one point, a street performance directed by the Spike  is described, 

“Windy, on a large contraption like a rodent’s exercise wheel, bells fixed on his wrists and ankles, rotated head down, head up, head down: A target was painted around his belly button, rings of red, blue, and yellow extending far as circling nipples and knees. The guitar started. As though it were a signal, two men began unrolling an immense carpet across the ground— another mural: This one of some ancient fair with archaic costumes, barkers, and revelers. Verbal disorientation, he thought, listening to the surreal catalogue of the lyrics: The melody was minor, this time rhythmic, more chant than song. “

As the subject of this story is a society that exists more than a hundred years into the future, the weird nature of his imagery makes sense to me. 

There are also numerous references to art, literature, music and philosophy. These references are sometimes obvious, but at other times obscure. There is a heavy bias toward postmodern philosophy and art.  They often tie into the book’s themes. At one point, a calculus formula is included in the text. There are also many references to science, particularly to physics and biology. At times, this becomes extremely technical.  The book includes several appendages that further elaborate on the philosophy and technical aspects of the story.  There is a lot of humor in the book. The absurdity of Bron’s character flaws as well as humanity is poked at. However, there are no stream of consciousness passages that are typical of the Post Modernist style.

The prose also includes a striking number of parentheses. In fact, the author uses more parentheses than any other author that I have ever read.

The early chapters are fairly light on plot. They include a lot of character development, philosophy and prose filled with symbolism and thematic elements.

The later chapters include a horrible escalation of the interplanetary war. They also include Bron making the absurd decision to become a woman and having his sexual preference reoriented from a heterosexual man to that of a heterosexual woman. This decision has nothing to do with the often-cited, twenty-first century motivation of being a woman stuck in a male’s body. His reasoning is irrational and ludicrous. 

There are many things going on in this book. First, Delany is trying to portray what he believes is a better society than our own. He and others have described it as a utopia. In fact, the author has stated that after reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, he revised his draft of this book to present an alternate version of a utopia. I should note that neither this work nor Le Guin’s portrays a utopia as I understand the term. Instead, these works propose societies that their respective author’s believe to be an improvement upon our own.

The world of Triton is strongly libertarian leaning. This is manifested in many ways. People get to choose different options in life. Some enter associations where they pay high taxes and receive a lot of public services. Others pay little taxes and receive little government services. There is an enormous array of family structures and sexual preferences. There are communes of heterosexuals, gays, bisexuals and asexual individuals as well as mixed groups. Monogamous relationships exist, but they are the exception. People are able to change gender, sexual preference and physical characteristics almost at will. Many take advantage of this ability to metamorphose, but many do not. Delany foresaw medical advances that have brought about the current day ability for people to undergo gender reassignment surgery relatively routinely. In this area, he seems prescient. 

Likewise, religion and spiritualty are characterized by profusion of beliefs in this hypothetical society. Sects based on spirituality are everywhere on the colonized moons. These groups range from the benign to the destructive. Diverse belief systems and philosophy abound. 

Much of the philosophy related in the book seems to champion a level of thinking that transcends standardized logic. This is a complex work, and this set of ideas is both advocated and criticized. Bron’s profession is a metalogician, which, as per the story, is the study of ways of deducing truth that goes beyond formalized logic. 

There is a strong feminist theme in this book. At one point, Bron decides that he is the kind of man who is a protector of society. In his own mind, he links this tendency to being insensitive and uncaring to others, particularly women. Furthermore, he expresses his frustration that most women are unable to appreciate this virtue in men. At one point he ponders,

“real men (because there’s no other way to have it; that’s part of what I know), really deserve more than second-class membership in the species . . .” Bron sighed. “And the species is dying out.” “I also know that that kind of man can’t be happy with an ordinary woman, the kind that’s around today..”

The ridiculousness of these views is highlighted when Bron’s friend Lawrence reminds him of the outrageousness of his claims and that the kind of brave men that Bron is championing just killed billions of people in an interplanetary war. 

These ideas are further developed when Bron decides to transform into a woman. He does so because he believes that there needs to be more of the kind of woman described above. The results of his transformation are, predictably, not good. 

There are many other philosophical and thematic threads to this story. There is also a lot more going on with the characters. I have only scratched the surface above. 

This is a challenging book. The writing style makes it a little difficult. Though full of ideas, they are presented in enigmatic ways. Some of the philosophy, science and other aspects of the story are impossible to decipher. In interviews, Delany has said that some of it is indeed intentionally baffling nonsense. Bron is an unlikable character who does all sorts of bad things. Sometimes, he causes harm to others. He is amazingly self-centered and self-deceptive. He is an unreliable narrator. 

There is so much going on in this book. Its style is strange but creative. It is an effective and unique character study of a narcissistic personality. With that, this novel is not for everyone. It is difficult, and many of Delany’s ideas about society and people are debatable. However, this novel of ideas is not afraid to present and examine all kinds of beliefs. Reading it is like taking a trip through an intellectual fun house. I recommend this book to adventurous readers. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Noble Treason by Richard Hanser

A Noble Treason by Richard Hanser tells the story of a vitally important act of rebellion against tyranny.  The book is a chronicle of what has become known as The White Rose Rebellion. For those unfamiliar with the White Rose group, it consisted of students and one professor who attended and/or taught at the University of Munich during World War II. In 1942 and 1943, the group published a series of anti Nazi protest tracts. They covertly distributed thousands of these leaflets through the University, greater Munich and eventually all of Germany.  The group eventually began to organize a network of resistance groups based in universities and elsewhere. This was one of the few instances of organized resistance within Nazi Germany during World War II. When caught, most of the group was executed. At the heart of the organization were siblings Sophie Scholl and Hans Scholl.

The core members of the group maintained their values up until the moment that they met their deaths on a Nazi guillotine. Even throughout their interrogations, trials and as death’s approached, several members of the group, particularly Sophie Scholl, bravely left us with vital statements and proclamations exhorting the world to fight tyranny and promote decency and liberty. 

There are many striking things about the story of The White Rose. Since most of its members were very literate, most kept diaries. Hanser was able to mine these diaries to paint a picture of the members and their lives, as well as the political and philosophical underpinnings of their movement. One point that stands out is that they were all moderates. This was not a group of radicals. They were not Marxists or followers of any extreme ideologies. They were all immersed in literature, culture and art.  Most were Catholics or admirers of Catholic doctrine. They all looked towards moderate interpretations of Christianity.

Hanser writes,

"They made a highly implausible band of rebels and subversives. All of them came from the same bourgeois background; all of them, in their own idiom, were aus gutem Haus (from a good family); and there was not a political radical among them. They were all well-mannered and properly brought-up children of the middle class, where conservatism and submission to authority were rooted attitudes, especially in the place that bred them, Germany. Yet they had chosen to reject the prevailing values of their society, to cut themselves off from the convictions and enthusiasms of their peers, to make themselves aliens in their own land, and to put their lives in jeopardy rather than accept the mores that a brutal despotism was determined to impose on them. They were oppressed and appalled by the feeling that the Nazi system was robbing them of their heritage, that they were being plundered of their past and their future at the same time.”

In their journals, private conversations, and in their anti-Nazi proclamations, the group continually referenced philosophers, authors, Christian doctrine and Eastern philosophy. 

The leaflets themselves were a condemnation of Nazism and totalitarianism. They often cited literature, history, theology and philosophy. They championed civilization over barbarism. They specifically condemned the murder and oppression of Jews and members of other groups and castigated the German people for being silent on the issue. 

What is also striking is that aside from Professor Kurt Huber, all the group’s members were in their early twenties. The maturity, depth and integrity contained in their writings and public statements reflect wisdom beyond their years. 

An example from the first leaflet, written mostly by Hans Scholl,

“If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass - then, yes, they deserve their downfall. Goethe speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now - the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability - are waiting to be hounded to their destruction….

…if everyone waits until the other man makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon. Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism”

Hanser also builds a stark picture as to what it was like living in Nazi Germany for everyday Germans. He explains what it was like for literate folks who hated the Nazis but who had no recourse to do anything about it. He builds a picture of a police state that tried to impose a state of terror that permeated into everyday life. 

Hanser writes a compelling story. He holds the reader’s interest. He devotes many pages to the philosophical, historical and literary influences of the group. The book has some flaws, however. At times, the author seems a little too enamored with his subjects. He often gushes over their nobility. This is so understandable based on the circumstances of this history. With that, the book would have been stronger had the author been more unbiased.  

One can argue that The White Rose did nothing to hasten the end of the war. They may not have saved any lives. However, at the very least, they have given us a narrative of resistance to tyranny. It is a narrative of courage and basic human decency. It is narrative of reason and literacy in the face of pure evil. It is a narrative that can be deployed against tyranny and one to inspire those who oppose it.  

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II, tyranny or to those likely to be inspired by this story. Even those who choose not to read this book might be interested in learning more about the White Rose Group. The English translations of their leaflets can be found here. Their story is worth knowing. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Love And The Platypus by Nicholas Drayson

This post contains spoilers. 

Love And The Platypus by Nicholas Drayson is a historical novel. It is based on real events. Its main character, William Caldwell, was the real life zoologist who ultimately determined that platypuses lay eggs. This is a quirky, out of the box book that works on several levels.

Set on 1883, it is the story of Caldwell’s expedition to Australia to study the mysterious mammal and to determine if the creature truly does lay eggs. Along the way, the protagonist encounters a host of characters. Among them is Ettie Brown, a blind woman who turns out to be a romantic interest for Caldwell.  Mary Brown is Ettie’s adapted sister who is of Indigenous Australian descent. Ben Fuller is a local outdoorsman who initially seems benign but eventually shows himself to be malicious. 

The early part of the book takes the tone of a light adventure with romantic touches. As the narrative progresses however, this playful mood becomes intertwined with some very dark developments. 

The novel is full of observations relating to the natural world, zoology, evolution as well as animal and plant reproduction. There are multiple passages in the book that depict natural processes, often involving reproduction and often involving references to Charles Darwin or evolution. 

Caldwell is a science and nature enthusiast. He sees great wonder in the natural world. He is a proponent of Darwin as well as the theory of natural selection. 

This book operates on multiple levels. On the surface, and for many pages, it is charming travelogue - like account of a scientific expedition. A little romance is thrown in as are a host of likeable characters. Simultaneous to this lighter fare is an exploration of a natural world and its wonders. The fact that the animals and plants encountered are driven by evolution and reproduction is highlighted. There is an odd symmetry between the book’s many observations of reproduction in the natural world, and the budding romance between Caldwell and Ettie.

However, there is something terribly dark going on. In its quest for knowledge about the natural world, Caldwell’s expedition is slaughtering hundreds of animals, including many Platypuses. The incongruity of all this becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses. This is illustrated in the below passage about Caldwell’s observation of a bird that is then shot. 

“another piece of Rainbow detached itself from a branch high above William and glided towards him on sharp triangular wings. As it banked and turned William could see blues, greens, oranges and yellows…The bird snatched a flying termite from the air with a beak like a pair of fine curved forceps and returned to its perch. Now William could see a long tail and a face masked like a dancer at a fancy – dress ball. The bird tossed the insect back into its throat and immediately flew off, upwards this time, to catch another. William could here the click as the two half’s of its beak snapped together. But before it could regain its perch there was a much louder bang. The beautiful bird fell from the air in a fumble of feathers, and William turned to see Ben Fuller lowering his gun… William was finding it difficult to think of the right words to speak. Only moments ago the bird had been a living miracle of light and color. Now it was a bundle of dead feathers in Ben Fuller’s hands.”

Even worse, the past tragedies of The Brown sisters are very slowly revealed in horrifying detail. Mary’s entire family was brutally murdered by white settlers. Her mother was raped. Ettie’s mother was infected by syphilis that Ettie now carries. Ben Fuller is discovered to be a murderer and a rapist and is now further menacing the Brown women.

The incongruity between different parts of this book is striking.  What is one to make of this? Many of The charming and humorous passages in this book seem genuine and continue to the end.  The wonder expressed at the natural world also is depicted in a sincere way. Yet the horrors that lurk beneath it all are all too real.

I think that Drayson is trying to portray world a where there is a lot of good and joy to be found. However that good and joy exists simultaneously with horrible things. The natural world is a place of wonder where truth, and sometimes wisdom, can be found. Yet, we are reminded that parallel to the good is also malevolence. Much of this evil is deeply ingrained in our belief systems and culture. Our quest for knowledge and our enthusiasm for science is often tied to the destruction of the environment and to cruelty. Underneath our civilization, despite its good points, is something barbaric. There is violent streak that manifests itself in racism, brutality and murder.

Drayson has packed a lot onto this book. Its contrasts are some ways disorientating. It is at times charming and full of wonder. At other times it is shocking. In the end, I found to be an accurate depiction of the real world and its contradictions. I recommend this to anyone who likes original and quirky stories that try to dig into the nature of people, science and culture. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

My Thoughts on The Koran

For this  rereading of the Koran, I read the A. J. Arberry translation. All quotations below are from that version. 

Scholars, politicians, theologians, Muslims and non – Muslims, etc. debate the meaning of the words in The Koran. A look at the way in which this book and other Islamic texts are interpreted by different individuals and groups reveals an amazing diversity of practices and views. Some argue that the Koran is a book of peace and tolerance. Others use it to justify violence and the oppression of others. There are theological disputes that are complex. Both Muslims and non - Muslims have joined in on the discussions. There is a tendency for folks to label interpretations that they do not agree with as “not real Islam”. This argument seems like it is designed to stifle communication and disagreement and to whitewash what are undeniably troubling verses in this book. 

It is common to hear folks tell non - Muslims not to draw their own conclusions about the Koran and to “ask a Muslim”. However, an examination of what Muslims throughout the world have to say about this text reveals vast disagreements. Listening to the views of Muslims is vitally important and useful, but it is not the end of the discussion. 

I am not going to explore the entire cornucopia of views out there.  Instead I am going to paint a picture of my interpretation of this book. Of course I am no expert. But I am capable of reading and drawing my own conclusions. With that, I believe in examining my own conclusions and questioning them based on the views of others, both Muslim and non - Muslim is necessary.

I read the text of The Koran as a particular viewpoint that describes the Universe. Like many other philosophical and religious works, it is an interpretation of reality. It is an attempt to make sense of the world in which we live in.

The ubiquitous underlying message behind this book is that both Old and New Testaments are the word of God. In fact, a large percentage of the Koran consists of a retelling and commentary of Bible stories. There is a particular emphasis on the destruction of cities and their inhabitants.  It is repeated over and over again: the people of various cities and regions were sinful and who ignored the prophets, they brought destruction on themselves. The stories of Lot, Noah and others are referred to numerous times as the text continually to come around to them again and again.

Jesus, who was the product of a virgin birth, was an important prophet but he was not the Son of God. The concept of the Trinity is specifically referred to. Many words are devoted to refuting it. At the same time Jesus is praised as an important prophet. 

It is important to understand the Koran’s view of Christians and Jews. The text refers to both groups collectively as “People of the Book.” 

There is another group mentioned, They are referred to as unbelievers. A simple Google search reveals that there is debate over who should be included as unbelievers. The term clearly refers to people who are neither Muslims, Christians or Jews. But does it also include Christians and Jews? In other words, does it also include People of the Book? 

The text treats unbelievers and People of the Book very differently. Thus I conclude that they are distinct groups without overlap. 

Christians and Jews are usually talked about with some respect, 

“some of the People of the Book are a nation upstanding, that recite God's signs in the watches of the night, bowing themselves, believing in God and in the Last Day, bidding to honour and forbidding dishonour, vying one with the other in good works; those are of the righteous.”

Unbelievers are talked much more negatively. In fact, the text is venomous towards them. Over and over again the text lays out the horrible punishment that they will face on the day – of -  judgment. The below passage is very typical, 

"And thou shalt see the sinners that day coupled in fetters, of pitch their shirts, their faces enveloped by the Fire, that God may recompense every soul for its earnings; surely God is swift at the reckoning."

When not burned in fire the Non – Believers are exposed to boiling water, 

And those who disbelieve — for them awaits a draught of boiling water, and a painful chastisement, for their disbelieving.”  

Muslims are instructed to not even associate with unbelievers,

"Let not the believers take the unbelievers for friends, rather than the believers — for whoso does that belongs not to God in anything” 

The text seems to be somewhat obsessed with unbelievers  They are mentioned scores of times, usually in similar ways to the above. 

A question arises, does this text require that Islam be forced on everyone? A famous quote seems to answer that question clearly,

"No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error."

However, another passage, which refers to adultery seems to contradict this, 

"And when two of you commit indecency, punish them both; but if they repent and make amends, then suffer them to be"

A Google search indicates that there is some dispute in regards to the above words. Some translations specifically call for flogging in the case of adultery. Either way, this is a demand for punishment for cases of adultery. How does this reconcile with the earlier passage that admonishes no compulsion in religion?  It seems that the text is specifying that no one should be forced to be a Muslim, but the rules of as specified in The Koran be enforced throughout society, through coercion. 

So much has been talked about the Koran and women. There are multiple passages that clearly declare that men are superior to women. From inheritance to court cases, women receive less benefits, less credibility and less respect then men. 

Ultimately, men are to rule over women and may use violence to control them as the below passage indicates, 

“Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God's guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; “

Obviously, there is no place for the above in a free and equitable society. 

There are certainly positive moral points about this work. There are numerous admonitions to be charitable. There is a lot of talk about war, but Believers are usually urged to only wage it defensively.  Infanticide, particularly involving girls, was a practice that was apparently widespread in the region in Mohamed’s time. It is mentioned at several points and is condemned and forbidden.

The Koran is a rich work that is well worth reading. It sometimes encourages its adherents to act ethically.  However, it also urges Believers to engage in immoral activity. As I have illustrated above, it is no guide to morality.  

Of course The Koran is a complex work. I have oversimplified it in the above commentary.  A survey of both serious scholarship and more casual interpretations illustrates a wide range of interpretations. Some of these opinions are not congruent with the views that I have expressed above. Thus, while the above the above is analysis of the Koran not an analysis of Islam as a whole. With that, in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, repressive regimes do use some of these morally untenable beliefs to oppress people. 

The theocrats in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran not withstanding, many folks who call themselves Muslims would likely take issue with the above interpretation. Many would disagree with my take on this text. In the end, I urge everyone to read this book and draw their own conclusions. 

Islam is a vitally important force operating in our world. Despite various interpretations of this book, The Koran is the basis of a belief system that billions of people follow.  A reading of this text is vital for anyone who wishes to begin to understand Islam.