Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

I first attempted to read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann about twenty years ago. I stopped reading about ten percent of the way in. I felt that I was not ready for it. I wanted to go in understanding the underlying ideas a little better. This time around I felt a little better about taking on this novel. Though the book threw a dizzying array of ideas at me, I found it to be a brilliant and fulfilling work. First published in 1924, this is an enormous, dense and challenging book that is bursting with ideas. The novel is a mix of serious and parody. I read the John E. Woods translation. This is a long work. My copy was 700 pages long. These were long and dense pages. The book goes slowly. Mann takes his time in getting anywhere.  A book that was formatted differently may have contained about a thousand pages. Despite some difficulties, I ultimate found this to be a superb novel. In fact, this was one of the best reading experiences that I have ever had. 

The plot of the book is fairly simple. During the years preceding World War I, Hans Castorp, a young German man, visits his friend Joachim Ziemssen, who is staying at the Berghof tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland. Originally planning to stay only three weeks, the young protagonist ends up staying 7 years. During this time, a host of characters who live and work at the sanitarium are introduced.  These characters spend a lot of time discussing philosophy, social issues and life in general. In fact, the novel is driven by these musings.   Characters include Lodovico Settembrini, who is a humanist and seems to get the most philosophizing in. Professor Naphta is a strange Jesuit priest who is also a radical in every way. Castrop’s friend Joachim is a military man who emphasizes values of duty and loyalty.  Mynheer Peeperkorn is a rich and hedonistic man with a magnetic personality. Clavdia Chauchat is Castrop’s love interest and seems to embody eroticism. Ellen Brand may have some kind of psychic powers and appears to represent spiritualism. 

I generally do not read too much commentary on a book until after I have written my post on it. However, I read a little on this one as I felt that I needed a little grounding. The consensus among critics is that the Berghof sanatorium and its guests are a microcosm of pre-World War I society with emphasis on intellectualism. Furthermore, Castorp is on a kind of quest for ideas. The book is highly symbolic with many of the places and characters having mythological analogies. How Mann felt about the various belief systems explored here is open to debate, as he was apparently elusive about this point. At times, he seems to be making fun of ideas, and at other times, he seems to hold some of them in reverence.  Time is also a recurrent theme. Its passage is noted, observed and analyzed throughout the narrative. As the novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanitarium, death and illness is also an important theme. Various characters try to analyze illness in the context of religion and philosophy. There seem to be parallels between the sickness of the patients and the sickness of Western thought that led to World War I. Through all of this, Castorp observes and takes it all in as he occasionally participates. 

The book is sprawling and at times chaotic. What I mean by this is that the story does not present organized debates and discussions by people with clearly defined belief systems. Instead the chapters jump from one topic to another, and then revisit topics. There is also a lot that goes on in between discussions, delving into the day to day activities of Castorp and the others involving eating, romantic connections, medical issues, explorations of nature, playing games, etc., much of it infused with meaning. Sometimes ideas are represented by a character’s actions rather than their speeches. Some of the characters are not clear-cut representatives of particular belief systems or lifestyles and are sometimes all over the place. Mann also goes down some obscure philosophical directions. The characters often act in silly and over the top ways. The effect is often very funny. 

There are strange things going on in this book. People get drawn into life at Berghof. Many are promised that they will be cured in a few months but instead stay for years. The institution pulls people in. When Castrop’s uncle James Tienappel comes to visit, he is nearly pulled into staying long term in the same way that Castorp was and barely breaks free.  There is in place a bizarre system where sicker patients are almost looked at as more virtuous and have higher social status than their less ill peers. A rift forms between patients and their family and friends back home. 

I find the quest aspect of all of this very interesting. The entire searching through ideas that Castorp is engaged in throughout the novel is in some ways akin to my philosophy when it comes to reading.  That is, take in different ideas as well as their counter arguments. Try to approach these concepts with an open mind. However, in the end, one must assess and make judgement about these ideas.

Settembrini and Naphta spend a lot of time debating their respective belief systems. As they do so, it seems that they engage in this activity for the benefit of Castorp. 

Frequently they did not speak to one another, but instead each would turn to Hans Castorp to deliver his views, lecturing him, while pointing a head or thumb at the real opponent. Hans Castorp was trapped between them: turning his head back and forth, he would agree first with one, then with the other, or he would come to a stop, bending his body backward and gesticulating with a hand inside its fur – lines goatskin glove, and offer some opinion of his own – some highly unsatisfactory comment
  
Once again, I find that the above is somewhat akin to writers who are aiming their prose at readers. The fact that they debate one another is not so different from authors and philosophers who are often in a kind of conversation and debate with one another.  

As someone who also loves philosophical and other types of musings, I loved this book. Despite being unusual and at times enigmatic, I feel that I was treated to a feast of ideas. Sometimes the ideas grappled with the great questions that humans have grappled with for centuries, and at other times, it went off in some unusual directions. Thus, Mann rarely fails to interest and delight. 



Some thoughts about  Nihilism and World War I (The Below Contains Spoilers)



There is so much going on in this book. This work will lend itself to rereading. I would compare it to a giant buffet of ideas. I just want to focus upon one idea that I had about one aspect of the story. As per above,  I read some commentary on this work before composing this post. However, the below musings are entirely my own.  I have been thinking about the fate of Professor Naphta and Lodovico Settembrini. 

There is a confrontation near the end of the book. Throughout the narrative, Settembrini and Naphta have debated their ideas. Settembrini is a humanist who is optimistic about human progress and the future. Naphta is a radical and a nihilist. He is described as a terrorist at several points. Naphta has gone as far as to welcome war and destruction. Towards the end of the novel,  Naphta challenges Settembrini to a duel. The reader suspects that the nihilist has decided that he wants to kill Settembrini once and for all. For his part, Settembrini declares that he will not kill and in fact shoots into the air at the commencement of the dueling.  To everyone’s shock Naphta does not shoot into the air nor does he  shoot Settembrini. Instead, he turns his pistol on himself and commits suicide. Settembrini survives the duel, but he seems to be left damaged. He grows weaker and sicker. He stops writing and stops participating in the intellectual circles of humanist Europe. 

Naphta represents chaos, nihilism and destruction. It seems to me that Napata’s suicide did to Settembrini what World War I did to optimistic humanism. That is, the war demoralized many of its adherents and left it, as the belief system, a shell of what it was before. At the very least, this seems to be Mann's view. 

As he is portrayed as being ethical and reasoned, it seems that Mann may have been sympathetic to the humanistic views of Settembrini. Yet, he understood what the cataclysm of World War I did to such an optimistic outlook. 

At the novel’s conclusion, Castorp gets pulled into the combat of World War I. Mann reminds us of the horror of it all as well as of the scientific and technological connections.

He has thrown himself on his stomach at the approach of a howling hound of hell, a large explosive shell, a hideous sugarloaf from the abysses.  

Laden with horror, this product of science gone beserk.

Optimistic, pro - science and technology humanism seems to have failed and instead led to horrific cataclysm. This was the view of many following the catastrophes and slaughters of the first half of the twentieth century. Settembrini’s fate seems symbolic of all this.  Eventually, decades later, optimistic humanism did bounce back and seems to be at something of a high point right now. I count myself as one of its cautious adherents. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

This post contains some spoilers.


Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is an exploration of race, bias and power in AmericaIn this work the author attempts to paint a picture of a world based upon critical race theory in a way that is not just unconvincing but that in my opinion damages the entire book.  The strong part of this novel is its characters which are often portrayed in a powerful and complex ways. The book also has an interesting plot that is at times very affecting. This novel was first published in 2016. I recounted the story of why I choose to read it here.  

Ruth Jefferson is at the center of the story. She is an African - American maternity nurse who works in a Connecticut hospital.  Brittany and Turk Bauer are parents of a newborn, Davis Bauer, who is in Ruth’s care. The Baurs are hardcore, violent, white supremists. They bully the hospital into removing Ruth from the case because of her race. When the baby stops breathing, Ruth attempts to save him despite her orders. Unfortunately, the child dies and Ruth is unfairly charged with murder. Kennedy McQuarrie is her public defender attorney. The story is told in first person from three alternating points of view between Ruth, Kennedy and Turk.


Eventually Ruth goes in trial. Much of the narrative involves a learning curve for the characters. During the trial Ruth and Kennedy start off believing that most white people are not racist and that racism is a problem with a limited number of individuals. In the end, they both come to the realization that, at least in the world of this book, that racism is pervasive in society. Turk, who is shown to be a brutal thug throughout most of the book, eventually finds redemption. 

It is important to understand some of the tenets of critical race theory in order to comprehend much of what is underlying this novel. As of late I have been reading about this and related  ideologies and engaging in some discussions with strong adherents to the theory.  I cannot help to recognize how these beliefs are infused into this story 

The themes are fairly obvious, of course the white supremacy is terrible and it is a violent and hateful ideology. However, more importantly, though they do not initially believe it, Ruth and Kennedy both come to the conclusion that most whites are subtly racist. This soft racism is present everywhere and represents power.  Eventually Kennedy admits that most white people benefit from racism and that most whites are in some way racist. A key theme is that while most white people are not hardcore white supremists, their soft racism hold up white supremacy. As I understand it, these are key tenets of critical race theory. 
  
I am fine with books that advocate for particular ideologies, even if I disagree with those ideologies. What is a serious flaw in this book is that the author fashions a world in order to fit the theory. Most of the poor and lower middle-class whites are white supremists. Most of the upper and middle - class whites, including the sympathetic ones, are racially insensitive beyond all sense of credibility. The white people in this book cannot get through a single conversation with a person of color without making a racially charged comment. The author is attempting to illustrate subtle racism and soft bigotry.  The problem is that there is nothing subtle about the clueless white people in this book.  Obviously, there are racially insensitive folks out there.  However, every single white person in this book acts like they have no idea how to talk to fellow human beings who happen to be people of color. At one point, Kennedy is trying to reassure Ruth,

“I know. Listen, I’m going to do my best. I have a lot of experience in cases with people like you.” [Ruth] That mask freezes her features again. “People like me?”
  
Later a hospital administrator describes Ruth as “uppity”

For those not familiar with the American culture, these are obvious, racially insensitive gaffes that few people would use in conversation. The word “uppity” was a way to disparage African Americans who stood up for their rights that went out of style in the 1970s. I emphasize, there are undoubtedly white people who speak like this, but almost every single interaction between a white person and an African American in this book includes such dialogue. 

There are other unrealistic elements that are used to build the world within this book.  Just to name a few: the hospital risk management attorney is so incompetent that she actually advises Turk to sue Ruth, who is a hospital employee for his son’s death; The police conduct an investigation into the death of the infant without even trying to question Ruth.  Ruth’s medical license is arbitrarily revoked without a hearing. Turk is able to easily manipulate the police and the press and no one besides Ruth really questions his background or motives. 

This book is based upon a real - life incident. In reality, the African – American nurse was taken off of a case of caring for an infant because the white supremacist parents’ insistence. The baby did not have medical complications, did not die, and there were no charges filed against the nurse.  The nurse sued the hospital for discrimination and won her suit. I think that it is significant that the plot of this book took an actual incident, that did indeed involve racism, and changed it to fit with the framework of a particular belief system based upon implausible events.

Outrageous and bizarre things do happen in real life.  However, this string of implausible events mars the entire book. Realism is important in a novel like this. All these unlikely events help to build a world where everything conspires to oppress black people. The author is trying to show how racism and bias operate. Unfortunately, this cartoon - like world created here is no template for reality. This lack of plausibility destroys the novel’s themes, took out any suspense in the plot and hurt the characters. Once again, this version of the world is consistent with critical race theory which postulates that all structures in society are set up to oppress people of color.

Critical race theorists also argue that many, or all, social interactions promote oppression of the marginalized by the privileged. We see this in almost every interaction between a white person and a black person in this book. The theory labels these interactions “microaggressions”. Furthermore, according to theory, language is a major source of oppression, with the privileged unable to see or understand the oppression of the marginalized.  Thus, the importance to these conversations as part of the narrative. Another aspect of the theory is that many marginalized people are unable to see their oppression because they have been socialized to accept such. Hence, Ruth’s “awakening” and realization that prejudice has been around her all along as well as the nature of white people. The belief system postulates that almost everything that happens in society is a means to perpetuate oppression. Thus, the construction of the implausible reality in this book. Another aspect of various postmodern belief - systems such as critical race theory is that oppression, racism and bias is a zero - sum game. Thus, the privileged will need to give things up and lose some sort of benefit in order for real equality to happen. At one - point Ruth is talking to Kennedy and says,

white people would have to buy into being equal. Who’d choose to dismantle the system that makes them special?

Kennedy reacts,

” Heat floods my neck. Is she talking about me? Is she suggesting that the reason I won’t buck the system is because I, personally, have something to lose?

In the later part of the story the concept of white people needing to give up benefits for equality to be realized is mentioned several times. 

Finally, critical race theory leans heavily on what is being popularly called blank slatism. That is the idea that humans are entirely the product of culture and that there is no such thing as human nature. 

At one point Ruth is observing newborn babies and muses,

Babies are such blank slates. They don’t come into this world with the assumptions their parents have made, or the promises their church will give, or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don’t like….I wonder how long it takes before the polish given by nature gets worn off by nurture.

I strongly believe that racism and bias aimed at people of color is real. Racism is outrageous and unfair, deserves condemnation and drives justifiable anger. Furthermore, I believe that racism is one of the root causes of multiple social problems that disproportionally affect people of color. This is a terrible ill that society needs to combat.  It sometimes involves subtlety and complexity.  It is valid and important to examine it in fiction. This book does not do that, instead it creates a world to fit theory. I fear that folks who are skeptical about racism will read this book and become more skeptical. There are indeed many instances in this work of realistic racism and rings true. However, this realism is overwhelmed by the all the rest.

I am not unaware of potential arguments against my point about the reality described in this book.  I talked and read opinion pieces number of adherents of critical race theory and related  postmodernist ideas. A pure postmodernist argument would be that I am a white person and that I should have nothing to say about racism. This argument does not even bring up the issue of bias. Things like bias are beside the point, only members of certain races, genders and sexual preferences are capable of knowing the truth and are capable of discussing certain subjects. I have talked to read fair number of people who argue as such. 

A more coherent argument might say that as white man I am biased and cannot evaluate these issues fairly.  My response to this is that my arguments are based on reason. One must apply a little common sense as well as logic to this. If white people talked and acted the way they do in this book on a nearly universal scale one would have to be near delusional not to see it. In my workplace if anyone spoke like white people do in this book they would be told that they must stop.  If they continued they would be fired. The book implies that both white people and people of color who have not yet become “woke “and are blind to what is going on. This is an ad hominem argument that basically says if one does not agree with critical race theory, even if one is a Person of Color, that one is deluded. I could make such an argument to support almost any worldview no matter how preposterous. 

I am also a diversity facilitator. Diversity programs have gotten a bad name in some quarters, perhaps because some of them now seem to be pushing some controversial ideologies.  I must note that the program that I am involved in is about celebrating diversity and not stereotyping people. It is also about letting everyone, with all types of opinions, express their views on these issues such as racism, sexism, bias, discrimination, etc. Our program is based upon rationality and ethics. As a facilitator I listen to the views of scores of People of Color every year. I have certainly taken these views into consideration when formulating my own opinions. I find that I my views are in line with the majority of people, of all backgrounds, that I have listened to. 
                                                       
As for critical race theory itself. I have major disagreements with it. There is no rational basis to contend that all white people are racist or that society is a network of oppression. This contention is partially based upon implicit bias studies, which have been more or less refuted in the past few years. 

I especially disagree with the belief that white people will be giving something up in order to alleviate racism. That is not how the world works. A society with less bigotry and bias benefits everyone. I also think that blank slatism is a denial of obvious aspects of human nature.  So much of what we do, good and bad, comes from our genes. I will have more to say about all this when I post about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility

Despite my objections I want to note some very positive things about this book. Ruth, Kennedy, (despite her tendency to say idiotic things when talking to People of Color) and Turk are very complex.  The portrayal of Turk is near brilliant. His views and actions are shown to be monstrous. At the same time he is humanized as he is shown to love his family, is shown to be intelligent and shown to have had a bad childhood. I believe that his transformation is based upon interviews with real ex – white supremacists that Jodi Picoult engaged in. It is a believable change.

Jodi Picoult also inserts complexity into a lot of aspects of the story. Sometimes very biased characters often show surprising insight and humanity. Similarly, the African American prosecutor who leads the case against Ruth is shown to be bigoted towards African Americans who have light skin. The book is filled with such interesting nuance. I also found that Jodo Picoult’s portrayal of trauma and pain to be very effective and moving. There are several passages about parents who lose newborns that are heartbreaking.

I wrote in my introductory post that I expected to agree with this book’s main propositions more then I ended up doing.  I thought that the ideas here would be a little closer to traditional liberal and anti – racist ideas and less towards critical race theory. I generally will not dislike a book whose ideas that I disagree with. However, the distorted view of reality presented here a fatal flaw. It gets in the way of so much. With that, anyone who wishes to understand how postmodernism and critical race theory can be applied to viewing the world would be interested in this book. I think that it is a good way to understand these belief systems without actually reading theory. I found just reading about a world where all these ideas were bouncing around to be interesting. Whether one loves these ideas or hates them they seem to be gaining in popularity. It is not a bad idea to be familiar with them either way. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Some Books on Racism

I will be  posting about pair of books that center upon racism in America. Because the books involve hot button social issues, and the stories behind me reading seem noteworthy, I wanted to put up an introductory post so as not to distract from commentary on the actual books. 

For the last couple of months, I had been planning on reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The reason that I chose to read this book is that the work has influenced many people that I encounter on social media as well as articles, blogs and other commentary that I read. I will add that I usually find myself in disagreement with these folks. Obviously, this book gets to the heart of various contentious issues. It is at the center of the so - called culture war. From what I understood about this book, it strongly espoused what myself and others have been calling postmodernism or some variation on the term.  This particular set of principles, though not really new, seems to be gaining in popularity as of late. This is beside the fact that its principles are in direct conflict with a host of other belief systems. 

Though it did not really start out as such, what I am calling postmodernism, at least in terms of current social debates, involve classifying every single individual into one of two categories. Those categories are “privileged” or “marginalized”. According to what is coming from this belief system, almost everything in the world is based on power relationships with the privileged holding all of the power. When a group is considered privileged the basic rules of avoiding stereotypes, hearing diverging viewpoints, freedom of speech are turned off for them. "Whiteness studies” is now something that some academics are studying. "Whiteness" is viewed as a societal ill. I believe that whiteness studies is covered in DiAngelo’s book. Many postmodernists will argue that privileged people should not even have an opinion about issues that affect the marginalized. Therefore, certain groups should not even comment upon oppression, even in the developing world.  Furthermore, privileged people should not create art that depicts marginalized people. For instance, several writers have recently come under heavy criticism for depicting so called marginalized people in their books. The initial group that was most known for its privilege was white men. However, one can now find opinion pieces in major publicans arguing that white women, Jews, gay white men, light skinned African Americans, non – Transgender gay people, among other groups, are privileged. Many, but not all, postmodernists have also called for censorship of ideas and speakers.  Postmodernism also calls into questions the basic principles of science and reason itself. In all fairness I did not know for certain which, if any, of these arguments that D’Angelo supports. This is one reason why I decided to read her book. 

I have read arguments that the current crop of postmodernists have completely misinterpreted and distorted the belief system. I will be eventually reading Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who helped to found postmodernism at which time I will have more to say about this. Either way, I think that I have described what is coming from the postmodernists at this time. Of course, it is difficult to talk about this without generalizing.   There are many people who agree with certain postmodernist principles without being dedicated postmodernists. A good example is the very popular term “white privilege”. Lots of people use and accept it while rejecting many other tenets of postmodernism. Also, it is important to remember that not everyone who does hold many postmodernist beliefs holds all of them. For instance, I think that many people who adhere to many of these views are against the censorship part. I have also only provided the barest hodgepodge summery above. It is based on what is coming out of late. This belief system also seems to be changing relatively quickly.

In general terms I identify with what I call the humanistic left. I am a liberal in the traditional American sense of the term. I also agree with the tenants of liberalism in the broad and more general sense of the term. Many of my beliefs are in direct  conflict with postmodernism. I believe that both racism and sexism are problems that need to be fought. In fact, combatting these ills is a great and noble endeavor.   However, classifying everyone as "privileged" or "oppressed" is simplistic and often distorts truth. I also believe in freedom of speech, the scientific method, the importance of not stereotyping individuals, that violence and oppression are harmful no matter who perpetuates them, etc. It is vital that we treat individuals equally. The  last trends in postmodernism are in conflict with these values.  “Humanistic left” may sound a bit fancy, but I have found that most people including classical liberals, moderate conservatives, moderate religious folks, people who do not like labels, etc. share similar values.

I will refrain from posting more detailed arguments in this post. I recently posted about several books whose subject involved postcolonialism. At least in part, postcolonialism is a postmodernist belief system (the conglomeration of postmodernist ideologies, such as postcolonialism, intersectionalism, queer theory, critical race studies, etc. is sometimes referred to as "Critical Theory" or “Theory”.)  I expressed my views in those posts. I also posted commentary on Russell Blackford’s The Tyranny of Opinion here. That book delved into some of the excesses of the postmodernist movement in some detail.  I will of course share more opinions when I read DiAngelo’s book and another book that I will mention below. 

On a very related topic, the other book that I will posting about, before DiAngelo’s work, is Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. I had a disagreement with Jodi Picoult on Twitter over her use of the term “white privilege”. As I hinted above I do not agree the premise of the term or the ways that it is commonly used. She responded to a Tweet that I sent disagreeing with her. We had a Twitter conversation about the issue. I found her to be very polite and she attempted to make her points using reason. While we still did not agree on the use of the term, I found that we agreed on a lot of related topics and I found her to be very moderate. She suggested that I read her Small Great Things to better understand her views.  Thus, I decided to give it a go. 

I try to read everything with an open mind, however,  I went into the reading expecting to mostly disagree with DiAngelo’s book. I expected to find it very interesting. I think that it is important to read things that we disagree with. Though Jodi Picoult’s book is a novel, I suspected that it contained lots of underlying ideas concerning race and similar topics.  From what I had heard, and based on my impression of Jodi Piccoult herself, I expected that I would mostly agree with the direction that she has taken in this book, but I would find that I disagreed with some of her ideas. 

More to come on both of these books and on these issues. 

My Blog editing and posting is a little behind. I wrote the above before I started reading these books but have since delved into both works. Except for spelling and grammar corrections and changes from future tense to past tense I have not changed anything above since I started reading. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby is the story of the title character. This is a novel that in some ways is very much typical of Dickens but varies in other ways from many of his other works.  I found it to be a funny, entertaining and brilliant novel.

Nicholas is a young man of about twenty-one years old.  Early on, when his father dies, Nicholas, his sister Kate, and his mother are torn from their middle-class lifestyle and thrown to the mercies of Nicholas’s uncle, Ralph. This uncle is miserly, cold and vindictive. Disliking Nicholas, he sends him away from London to work as a teacher. Though Ralph finds nearby employment for Kate, he tries to set her up for romantic entanglements with his lecherous and immoral business associates. 

Throughout the book, Nicholas alternates his time between various employments that he finds both inside and outside of London.  Along the way, he works at a boarding school for boys that is horribly abusive and neglectful of its charges. There, he befriends Smike, a mentally handicapped and horribly abused boy who becomes Nicholas’s loyal ally throughout the story. Unfortunately, the pair are also pursued by the evil and cruel headmaster, Wackford Squeers, who is trying to regain custody of Smike.  Later, Nicholas and Smike join a company of stage performers and meet all sorts of colorful and amusing characters.  Later still, Nicholas settles in working for the kindly Cheeryble brothers. Throughout the narrative arc, Nicholas’s fortunes gradually rise. The protagonist eventually falls in love with a young woman named Madeline Bray. Madeline is ensnared in a moneymaking plot involving Ralph and the girl’s father, aimed at marrying her to the wretched and immoral Arthur Gride. Of course, Nicholas devotes his efforts to derail the scheme. Newman Noggs, a former gentleman with odd habits, who is now impoverished, attempts to aid Nicholas and his family throughout the book. 

I have read a lot of Dickens over the years. This book was the most Dickensian of them all. What I mean by that is that this novel had the common features that characterize the author’s work in the greatest abundance. The malicious characters were the most over the top. They represent high levels of both villainy and hilarity.  The good characters were almost ridiculously virtuous. The oversentimentality flowed in torrents. The implausible coincidences seemed more abundant than usual, even for Dickens. I do not consider these attributes to be flaws. Reading Dickens over the years, I have come to appreciate these apparent excesses as elements of a surrealistic and brilliant universe that Dickens paints in his novels. The author builds these strange worlds like no other writer has ever done. The book is also filled with Dickens’s marvelous, at times surrealistic descriptions. There are fabulous portraits of people, cityscapes, country scenes, etc. 

Nicholas, and to some extent his sister Kate, are a little different from many other Dickens protagonists. In modern language, they would be called “effective.” The siblings are very assertive. Nicholas in particular uses both physical force and the power of language without hesitation to counter the malevolent acts of others.  The physical force that he employs is often justified and is often used to stop violence that is directed at weaker people. It all starts when he saves Smike from a brutal beating being administered by Squeers. As he does this, he administers a thorough thrashing of Squeers himself. As a young man in his prime, he is able to effectively and decisively apply this force. Furthermore, Nicholas usually articulates his positions and his reasoning with great effectiveness.  The assertiveness is not surprising. His ability to apply force is not surprising. His tendency to act virtuously and stand up for those weaker then himself is not surprising. However, I found that sometimes Nicholas is too good of an orator for a young man of his age. For instance, in the below passage Nicholas is trying to convince Madeline not to enter into what will clearly be a disastrous marriage with Gride.

‘I speak of this marriage,’ returned Nicholas, ‘of this marriage, fixed for tomorrow, by one who never faltered in a bad purpose, or lent his aid to any good design; of this marriage, the history of which is known to me, better, far better, than it is to you. I know what web is wound about you. I know what men they are from whom these schemes have come. You are betrayed and sold for money; for gold, whose every coin is rusted with tears, if not red with the blood of ruined men, who have fallen desperately by their own mad hands.’

As noted above, I find this level of speechmaking a little implausible for someone of Nicholas’s age. On the other hand, the loquaciousness is entertaining and adds drama to the story. 

Despite Nicholas’s positive attributes, I think that Dickens was trying to show that Nicholas can be a bit too overbearing and aggressive at times. At one point in the book, he takes it upon himself to lecture his own mother on virtue. Later, he nearly provokes an unnecessary fight with a playwright whom he dislikes. 

At one stage of the story, Nicholas and Smike are journeying through the countryside. Here, Dickens’s picturesque descriptions and Nicholas’s strong character both come into play,

The ground seemed elastic under their feet; the sheep-bells were music to their ears; and exhilarated by exercise, and stimulated by hope, they pushed onward with the strength of lions.

Onward they kept, with steady purpose, and entered at length upon a wide and spacious tract of downs, with every variety of little hill and plain to change their verdant surface. Here, there shot up, almost perpendicularly, into the sky, a height so steep, as to be hardly accessible to any but the sheep and goats that fed upon its sides, and there, stood a mound of green, sloping and tapering off so delicately, and merging so gently into the level ground, that you could scarce define its limits. Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side, bounded the view in each direction; while frequently, with unexpected noise, there uprose from the ground a flight of crows, who, cawing and wheeling round the nearest hills, as if uncertain of their course, suddenly poised themselves upon the wing and skimmed down the long vista of some opening valley, with the speed of light itself.

I find the above passage particularly interesting. It seems to embody much that is typically Dickens, but also the uniqueness of Nicholas’s character.  It is bursting with Dickens’s usual powerful descriptions as the Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side. I find that prose here to be sublime. 

But Nicholas and Smike are also compared to lions with a steady purpose. One gets a sense of Nicholas’s young strength in this passage. As noted above, Nicholas does embody many aspects of a lion with a steady purpose in his character. This does not seem like typical Dickens to me. His protagonists usually do the right thing, but few, if any, embody the strength and decisiveness of the lion like Nicholas does. One can make an argument that Samuel Pickwick in the Pickwick Paperswas equally strong and assertive in his own way. However, Pickwick was a much older man who had previously lived a life filled with both financial and social successes. 

Like most Dickens books, this work was published in installments. This fact seemed more apparent here than in other Dickens novels that I have read. The work feels episodic. At several points, long before the end, it feels like the story has wrapped up and is heading for its conclusion. I think that a tighter structure would have made this a stronger novel. 

In the end, this is another brilliant portrait by Dickens. As I have written before, I do not read this author for a realistic portrait of the world. Instead, I look at his works as an exaggerated but brilliant reflection of reality. Along the way, there is much for a reader to absorb and to enjoy. Though perhaps not up to the level of Bleak Houseor David Copperfield, this book is very much worth the read for Dickens fans. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity by Chandra Mohanty

Those who have followed my previous posts know that I have decided to read a series of books on the subject of colonialism. As part of that, I wanted to include some books that fall under the category of postcolonial theory. Chandra Mohanty’s Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity is on almost every postcolonial reading list and is often cited as an important source. I wanted to also read one take that was dedicated to the women within the belief system known as postcolonialism. This is the fourth nonfiction book that I have read that can be considered a postcolonial source. I am also interested in feminist thought and theory, so the book is of interest to me in several ways. It will probably be the last book that I read, at least for awhile, that centers on the belief system known as postcolonialism.  I will likely move on to more moderate and conservative writers who write about colonialism.  

 Mohanty is a Professor of women's and gender studies, sociology, and the cultural foundations of education and humanities at Syracuse University. She originally hails from Mumbai, India. In this book, she talks a lot about her background. She has written numerous essays and books on the subject of colonialism, feminism and the developing world. She is often cited as an important postcolonial thinker.

This book is actually a series of essays that Mohanty has written over the years. The essays were originally penned between 1986 and 2003. Her most famous piece, Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, is included. The essays have been assembled here in an attempt to present a coherent picture of Mohanty’s philosophy as it pertains to colonialism and feminism. 

Several factors make writing about his book tricky. First, Mohanty delves into numerous issues that are in and of themselves enormous and are the subject of large scale and complex controversy and debate. The issues include Capitalism, Marxism, Postmodernism, identity politics, intersectionality, humanism and, of course, feminism and colonialism. I could devote numerous blog posts to any one of these issues.  In fact, I have already written a lot about colonialism and feminism several times.  With all these hot button and complex issues addressed in this book, I cannot “boil the ocean” in this post. Instead, I will try to really focus upon just what the author has written with a few references to these larger issues. 

Second, Mohanty can be maddingly unspecific. She tends to wade in halfway on an issue and does not provide specific examples, commentary or possible solutions. This makes it really difficult to discuss her arguments in depth. Complicating all of this further, some schools of thought, such as postmodernism and intersectionality, have been somewhat dominated or at least infused by extreme views in the past few years. Mohanty’s tendency to not dig too deeply makes it difficult to know if she advocates for these extreme views or not.  I will give an example of what I mean by this below. 

This book is essentially a philosophy book. The author lays out her view of the state of women in the developing world as well as women of color in the developed world. She labels all these women, even those who live in the United States and Europe, as Third World women. She goes on to state what she believes are the primary problems that women face worldwide and ways to raise them out of what she identifies as oppression. 
  
Mohanty describes herself as an anticolonial, antiracist, anti-capitalist feminist. She espouses several main points in her various essays. One of the main themes of this book is Mohanty’s criticism of what she calls western feminism or white feminism. She argues that such feminism is actually a manifestation of colonialism and that it is an attempt to impose harmful values, such as economic empowerment of women.  The  author labels the economic empowerment of women as Western value that does not apply in the developing world. Through this criticism, the author brings many concepts such as capitalism and universalism in dealing with human issues under scrutiny.  She further argues that western feminism, as well as the western world in general, has developed a false representation of women in the developing world that is inaccurately uniform and based upon stereotypes. This line of reasoning is similar to and partially derived from the writings of Edward Said. My commentary on his book Orientalismis here.

Another major theme is what the author calls anticapitalism. Mohanty contends that capitalism, as well as globalism, is harmful to women all over the world. She ties capitalism to racism and misogyny. Mohanty views Marxism as a preferential system. She calls capitalism and globalism the results of colonization and what she labels recolonization that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, she refers to the changes that she advocates as decolonization. 

She writes, 

The critique and resistance to global capitalism, and uncovering of the naturalization of its masculinist and racist values, begin to build a transnational feminist practice.

Here, Mohanty displays the frustrating vagueness that I refer to above. She gives a few seemingly obscure examples of why she believes that capitalism is harming third world women, but that is all. She also never really explains what she advocates as her version of Marxism. 

Another important theme here is the author’s argument for a change in the higher educational system in developed nations. Once again, her lack of specificity is an obstacle to understanding and analyzing her writings. She advocates for including more ethnic diversity in college staff and reading material. She is clear about that point. She also seems to be advocating something of a revaluation of the methods used to ascertain truth. Thus, she calls for the decolonization of the educational process.  

 Mohanty writes,

a public culture of dissent entails creating spaces for epistemological standpoints that are grounded in the interests of people and that recognize the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination.


The above quotation may seem a little obscure, but I have run into similar language in postmodernist readings and have even run into it with people who advocate for postmodernist or postcolonial belief systems. If I am reading this correctly, spaces for epistemological standpoints seems to call for different ways of finding truths beyond what is often cited as reason, logic and science. Recognizing the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination seems to be calling for the use of different methods based upon the background of the truth seeker. 

A further clue to what the author is talking about comes when she refers to 

The contrast between Western scientific systems and indigenous epistemologies and systems 

 This all seems to be indicative of the postmodern belief that absolute methods of finding the truth, such as logic and science, are not entirely valid or at least not the only ways to find the truth.   Thus, the call to decolonize education.  I should note that in one essay, the author does state that she does not consider herself a postmodernist but that she is sympathetic to many postmodernist ideas. 

The author also advocates intersectionality, that is, the belief that all oppressions, such as sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry, overlap and are related. When an individual is looked at, all the various oppressions must be examined. In addition, power structures that are responsible for oppression are also related. Some branches of intersectionality contend that almost every interaction and action can be viewed within the framework of power and oppression. 

I disagree with the anti-capitalism, anti-globalism and Marxism here. As I have written elsewhere, I agree with criticism of a lot of capitalistic practices. I agree with the author when she advocates for worker’s rights and the need to organize labor movements in the developing world. I am well aware that capitalism, especially in unregulated forms, has led to, and continues to lead to, misery. However, I think that capitalism, with sensible regulation accompanied with government support of economic and social fairness, is the best way to get to a more prosperous and just society. In the long run, it is in capitalist societies where women and minority groups have made the most gains. 

I also disagree with Mohanty’s call to decolonize education. The tenants of reason, logic and science are some of the things that have driven human progress and that have alleviated suffering and injustice. I also do not believe that these methods and values are exclusively Western. Once again, societies in all corners of the world that have embraced these values have seen the greatest gains for women and minority groups.

Though, as I wrote above, I cannot delve into every controversial issue that this book raised, I want to mention intersectionality. As noted above Mohanty advocates intersectionality. This belief system has somewhat evolved in recent years. It is a big topic, and I cannot really examine it thoroughly in this post other than to make one point about Mohanty’s views. Recently a branch of intersectionality has become extremely preoccupied with white men and the supposed oppression meted out by white men. This extreme branch has gone further and has been accused of, I believe rightly so, of minimizing, excusing and sometimes even justifying violence and oppression committed by non-whites. As mentioned above, this is too big of a topic to address comprehensively in this post. However, in regards to this book, I should note that Mohanty does not make excuses for oppression and violence committed by non-whites.  She is highly critical of oppression in the developing world (Mohanty explains how she prefers the term “Third World”). She rightly condemns both racist and violent Hindu Nationalism, of which she writes that some of her family members advocate, as well as the theocracies in Saudi Arabia and Iran. As I have observed in some advocates of intersectionality, she does not place blame on developed nations or upon white men for the ills perpetuated by these movements and governments. With all of that, it seems clear that Mohanty finds capitalism and globalism to be much bigger problems. 

The fact that this book is so esteemed within both the postcolonial thought system and some branches of feminist thought make it important. Many people that I discuss these issues with adhere to postcolonial and /or intersectional beliefs that seem to have originated or at least were developed by Mohanty. I disagree with many of the author’s conclusions, but I also think that it is vital to read writers who have diverse opinions, even if we disagree with them. Thus, I am glad that I have read this book. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

This post contains spoilers. 

Circe by Madeline Miller was first published in 2018. This is an account of the Greek Goddess’s life from her own point of viewI found this book to be extraordinary. Though I have not read a lot of Twenty – First Century fiction, this was probably my favorite fictional work  that I have read that has been published this century. It is a book that works on many levels.

Though much of the story is drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, many other Greek and Roman mythological sources are drawn into the story including Ovid’s Metamorphosis as well as what is known about the lost Ancient Greek epic poem The Telegony. One of many strengths to this work  is the way that Miller has managed to weave these sources together seamlessly.

Circe’s story is told in the first person. The book picks up in her youngest days. She is the daughter of Helios the Sun God. The young Goddess is not very powerful and is surrounded by Gods and Goddesses who show little humanity or ethics and who often bully or take advantage of her.  Early on she encounters and aids Prometheus who is being persecuted and tortured by the other deities for aiding humanity.  Unlike most of the other gods, Prometheus possesses principles. His aid to humanity  seems to be symbolic of humanism which is a theme throughout the book.  This encounter has an impression upon her that resounds throughout her life. 

As time passes Circe and her siblings discover a new power that has been previously unavailable to the Gods. This is the power of witchcraft and involves the use of herbs and the casting of spells as a way to exert power. Circe is a mostly sympathetic character but she shows serious imperfections. At her worst moment she uses her newfound power to turn her romantic rival Scylla into a monster. Most of her fellow deities have no conscious, but Circe does. Thus, this act haunts her for the remainder of her life.  Though her immoral fellow gods are not much bothered by Scylla’s fate, the discovery of witchcraft causes a rift in the balance of power between the gods. When Helios and Zeus strike a deal to keep the peace, Circe is sent into exile to the island of Aiaia. 

Over the years Circe encounters many famous Gods, mythological creatures and mortals including Hermes, Athena, Medea, Daedalus, Jason, the Minotaur and others. Her infamous habit of turning ship’s crews into pigs is shown to be a defensive strategy to protect herself against gang rape. Eventually Odysseus shows up. He appears to be sensitive and thoughtful person who is also very imperfect and has also committed many wrongs. He and Circe begin an affair. After a year he departs. A pregnant Circe eventually gives birth to Telegonus. The book covers Telegonus’s youth and adolescence. Circe struggles to use her powers to protect him against a murderous Athena. Eventually he sets off for Ithaca to find his father Odysseus. 

At Ithaca Telegonus finds an Odysseus who is cruel and is growing paranoid. Odysseus is killed when he attacks Telegonus. Odysseus’s wife Paleopole and his son Telemachus are more or less relived by the hero’s death and flee with Telegonus back to Circe on Aiaia. There, the four grow close as they encounter further challenges. 

There is so much going on in this book. First, it is a great character study. The portrait of Circe is so well drawn. She begins the story as an unassertive and vulnerable person. Her parents, siblings and early romantic interests often belittle and take advantage of her. She slowly learns to assert herself. The entire book, from the first pages to the last is a kind of an arc where Circe develops her self - worth in the face of narcissists who seek to diminish her. The story has a lot of feminist themes as it presents a girl and later a woman who slowly finds liberation as she faces people and society who try to disregard and exploit her. I found this aspect of the book realistic and I thought that Circe’s experience and personality evolution applicable to both  women and men of a certain personality type.  As noted above, along the way Circe does not always behave with perfect morality. Despite this, she does develop something of her own ethical code as the story goes on and mostly behaves sympathetically. Miller pits a lot of nuance into her. There are other great characters including Telegonus. 


The story is also filled with keen observations about life and the human condition. Like all deities, Circe is immortal. The narrative frequently contrasts this with the mortality of humans.

At one point Circe is thinking about her mortal son,

Even if Telegonus survived Athena, even if he made it all the way to Ithaca and back, still I would lose him. To shipwreck or to sickness, to raids or wars. The best that I could hope for would be to watch his body fail, limb by limb. To see his shoulders droop, his legs tremble, his belly sink into itself. And at the last, I would have to stand over his white-haired corpse and watch it fed to the flames. The hills and trees before me, the worms and lions, stones and tender buds, Daedalus’ loom, all wavered as if they were a fraying dream. Beneath them was the place I truly dwelt, a cold eternity of endless grief.

At another stage she observes, 

It was their fate… the story that they all shared . No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant , no matter the wonders they made , they came to dust and smoke . Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

In the above quotations death is portrayed as  dark event and a tragedy. This theme is developed throughout the book. It is ultimately worked out as it becomes apparent that it is death that gives people humanity and that ironically, mortality is a strength. Death is interwoven with the humanistic themes very elegantly.  

Like an epic poem, there are also observations upon parents and children, love of various kinds, courage and more.

The book is written in prose full of metaphors in the style of epic poetry. In this way and in others Miller’s writing is poetic. The words also flow very well. This all adds up to writing that is artistic and excellent.

I would throw one yellow flag out to readers. Though I think this book can work on some levels as a standalone story, I would recommend that one be familiar with the Odyssey and maybe a little bit of mythology surrounding Circe from other sources before reading this. This is less of a retelling of these stories as  it is more like Miller has filled in a lot of blanks from other stories. The author has combined ancient themes with modern ones. The effect is very impressive. 

I loved this book. It contains outstanding story, characters, themes and prose. It weaves together timeless elements with Miller’s interpretation. It is a marvelous edition to established mythology. I highly recommend this book.