Sunday, March 17, 2019

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

This post contains some spoilers. 

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling is the fifth book in the series. I thought that, while slow in its early parts and a bit on the long side, the book was very good and that it ended on a very strong note. I found that Rowling displayed some of her best writing and characterization in the last part of the book. 

During the first two thirds of the story, very little new happens. The narrative mostly consists of Harry’s day to day interactions at Hogwarts. The evil Voldemort is still hovering around the edges of the story. He seems be establishing a psychic connection to Harry. A group of adult wizards, known as the Order of the Phoenix, has reformed and is dedicated to fighting Voldemort.  The order consists mostly of Harry’s adult friends who are at odds with other wizards that are in denial about Voldemort’s return. This time around, Harry’s enemies at school have gained in power and are making life miserable for the young protagonist. Even Harry’s friends seem to be underappreciating him. Harry reacts with some resentment and lashes out a bit. Though he encountered bullying and really bad treatment from both his peers and adults in all of the books, the escalating and constant parade of bad treatment and even abuse that Harry suffers in this book is a major plot point.

Things pick up in the latter third of the book.  There is an epic battle between Harry and his friends and Voldemort’s supporters that becomes brutal.  Harry’s surrogate father, Sirius Black, is killed. Some of his friends are seriously injured, and Harry is exposed to other shocks. Harry responds by displaying serious grief, anger and perhaps some signs of post -traumatic stress syndrome. 

As in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, the story has turned darker. Tales of Voldemort’s torture and murders abound. Malicious teachers and students begin to run rampant at Hogwarts. The authoritarian Professor Umbridge wrests control of the school from the benevolent Albus Dumbledore and begins meting out physical abuse upon Harry and others. 

This is the longest novel in the series so far. The book does seem long. At times, the plot feels like it is meandering on. I agree with what I have heard from others that this novel would have been better if it was shorter.

I thought that the book got a lot better in its last third. First, Rowling introduces several interesting ideas. One particularly intriguing concept involves bullying and the way in which people fall into being the perpetrators of it.  Throughout the series, Harry and his friends are targeted by bullies on every level. Harry’s family, his school peers and some teachers are merciless bullies. In this book, these folks find that their power to be on the rise and the vitriol that they direct at Harry is redoubled. Things take a further ironic turn. At one point, Harry, gains access to Professor Severus Snape’s memories. He is shown a vision of Hogwarts twenty in the past where he sees that his father, James Potter, as well as the beloved Sirius Black, were themselves bullies and tormented an adolescent Snape. Harry observes as Snape is targeted, 

Snape’s wand flew twelve feet into the air and fell with a little thud in the grass behind him. Sirius let out a bark of laughter. 

‘Impedimenta!’ he said, pointing his wand at Snape, who was knocked off his feet halfway through a dive towards his own fallen wand. 

Students all around had turned to watch. Some of them had got to their feet and were edging nearer. Some looked apprehensive, others entertained…
 ‘How’d the exam go, Snivelly?’ said James. 

‘I was watching him, his nose was touching the parchment,’ said Sirius viciously. ‘There’ll be great grease marks all over it, they won’t be able to read a word.’ 

Several people watching laughed; Snape was clearly unpopular. Wormtail sniggered shrilly. Snape was trying to get up, but the jinx was still operating on him; he was struggling, as though bound by invisible ropes. 

‘You – wait,’ he panted, staring up at James with an expression of purest loathing, ‘you – wait!’ 

‘Wait for what?’ said Sirius coolly. ‘What’re you going to do, Snivelly, wipe your nose on us?’ 

Snape let out a stream of mixed swear words and hexes, but with his wand ten feet away nothing happened. 

‘Wash out your mouth,’ said James coldly. ‘Scourgify!’ 

Pink soap bubbles streamed from Snape’s mouth at once; the froth was covering his lips, making him gag, choking him  

In the present day, Snape is now a bitter and angry character who bullies Harry to the point where it can be described as verbal abuse. (Snape’s  character is much nastier in the books as opposed to how he was depicted in the films). However, in the above passage, Harry comes to understand why Snape has come to hate the Potter family.

Later, Harry confronts Sirius about the incident. Sirius guilty explains that it occurred a long time ago and attempts to rationalize it in other ways. It seems that Rowling is saying that there are a lot of people who did very questionable things in the past. Even those who we idolize are imperfect. She also seems to be observing how easy it is for some to fall into the role of a bully. I thought that this plot twist was very well done and added depth to this story. 

This book continues the somewhat dark trend and introduces some more complex themes that are in line with what I wrote about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire here. I think that Rowling continues to draw parallels with her wizarding world and the real world. At one point, Dumbledore observes how non-human creatures, such as elves, giants, goblins etc. have been terribly treated by human wizards throughout the centuries. Some of these creatures are now joining Voldemort.  This situation seems akin to the treatment and ensuing consequences of non-Western peoples by the West.

As noted above, the novel ends very strongly. The interesting and complex themes that I mention above come to the forefront. There is a magical battle between Harry and his friends on one side and Voldemort’s followers on the other. The fight is superbly written and conveys the chaos and violence that is inherent in a real-life street fight.  This fracas is one of the highlights of the novel. 

Though this book starts out a bit tedious and unoriginal, it eventually gets very good.  Some interesting themes are also introduced. Rowling also displays some of her best chops towards the ending. This is another entertaining entry in the series. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Orientalism by Edward Said

I am doing some reading on the subject of colonialism. As part of this larger project, I am including some key books that are part of the viewpoint known as postcolonialism. Orientalism by Edward Said is often cited as such a source. Some describe it as the most important work of postcolonial nonfiction. I found it to be an interesting but esoteric argument concerning bias with some postmodernist views thrown in. 

This book was originally published in 1978. My edition contained additional material written by the author in 1994 and 2003.  Some comments that I have read contend that the book is out of date. However, it is still considered a key text in regards to postcolonial theory. In addition, much of the book is an analysis of writers and thinkers who were active during the early twentieth century and earlier. The added essays by the author also try to bring the book up to date. 

Said was a was a professor of literature at Columbia University. He wrote numerous books. Multiple sources credit him as one of the founders of postcolonial theory. He died in 2003. 

The basic preposition of the work is that in Europe and America, a basic view and body of work has arisen over the past several hundred years known as Orientalism. That body of work is dedicated to understanding and analyzing Asian history, culture, ideology, etc.  Said contends that Orientalism is based on all sorts of false propositions and is biased. Furthermore, the entire field of Orientalism has aided and abetted the domination of colonized nations by Europeans. The author contends that Orientalism is based upon stereotyping and a false sense of European superiority, that it is not based upon evidence, that it represents an unchanging picture of the orient, and views the region and people of Asia as a threat to Europe and America. The author, and many theorists who followed him, contend that these conclusions can be extrapolated and applied to Western interaction with other parts of the world. 

Said takes all sorts of writers and intellectuals to task. He writes,

a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on.

Said devotes pages and pages to analysis of writers and thinkers. He covers such prominent people as Karl Marx, T. E. Lawrence, Richard Francis Burton, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc. He also covers a lot of fairly obscure thinkers such as Gustave Flaubert, François-René Chateaubriand Louis Massignon, H.A.R. Gibb, Ernest Renan, Silvestre de Sacy and many more. The author piles up copious evidence, references and analysis to prove his points. 

Said argues that this bias and misrepresentation is not trivial. The body of knowledge known as Orientalism has driven colonialism, domination and all sorts of other bad actions and decisions by European powers and the United States. 

Said goes on.

My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West

Said has certainly convinced me that there has been a lot of bias and bad scholarship out there. Furthermore, some of it was influenced by, and has itself influenced, unethical and ill-advised actions of national governments. 

Said leans heavily on the writings and belief systems laid out by Paul-Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. He often cites postmodernist theory but also occasionally criticizes it. 

One of Said’s ultimate conclusions is postmodernist. That is, he questions the very nature of truth. The author goes beyond the contention that the Orientalists were biased. Instead, he contends that a true representation of this sort is impossible for anyone.  He writes, 

the real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representor.

I disagree with the above. This gets to the heart of the disagreements that I have with postmodernist theory. I will not say more about this in this post, but I do plan to read both Foucault and Derrida soon. Stay tuned.  Despite my opinion on the above, Said does make a convening case that at least some of the Orientalists were extremely biased and were not really on the trail of truth. 

I have also read a few articles and pieces by Said’s critics. There is a general contention among many of them that while Said is on to some truths, he overstates his case and he cherry picks his evidence. 

Robert Irwin has written here that,

Orientalism amounts to a sustained libel on the past.

Irwin has written his own book, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, which I have not read. I understand that Irwin argues against many of Said’s contentions in his work. At this point, I do not know enough about these subjects in order to evaluate what I think about these arguments. 

However, it seems that, based upon my reading of some criticism of Said, despite the enormous number of thinkers that Said examines, he leaves many important writers out of his analysis. 

While I found it to be interesting, this work is filled with fairly arcane knowledge and arguments. It is not for everyone. However, is a vital read for anyone interested in postcolonial theory. Even many of Said’s critics seem to agree that he sheds some light upon a lot of bias here.  Even if one disagrees with Said, this book is important because of its status as one of the key works that make up postcolonial theory. 

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

The Red and the Black by Stendhal is the story of Julien Sorel, a young Frenchman of middle - class origins. The tale centers on his love affairs and his attempts to socially advance himself in a mostly aristocratic world.  I found this to be brilliant book and character study. The novel worked on several levels. 

The work was first published in 1830 in French. I read the Burton Raffel translation of this novel. As is the case with many famous books, there is a lot of disagreement  about the quality and accuracy of translations. Thus, as I went, I reread some passages from the Horace B. Samuel translation to try to get a little better feel for the original.

Julien is a carpenter’s son. His father and brothers are abusive to him and his family does not understand his bookish ways. Early on, he develops a strong desire for social advancement. While still only eighteen, he begins an affair with Madame de Rênal. She is a woman married to an insensitive and boorish man. She is trapped between her love of Julien and guilt over the affair. 

When the affair is discovered and runs into other difficulties, Julien flees and enters a seminary. He does not do this out of religious devotion as he has no faith. Rather, he believes that a religious occupation is the only way that a man of little means can advance in the world. As he romanticizes the recent past, he often laments that in Napoleon’s time, he would have been able to advance in the military. Thus, some interpret the book’s title to relete the black to the clergy and red to the military and glory. 

Julien finds corruption and petty jealousy at the seminary and thus, after about a year, leaves for a clerical/religious position working for Marquis de La Mole, a wealthy nobleman involved in politics. Julien becomes trusted assistant to the Marquis. He makes friends and earns the admiration of people in the highest echelons of society.  He also begins a clandestine affair with the Marquis’s daughter, Mademoiselle de La Mole. This young woman has a volatile, changeable personality. Her character is also complex and marvelously well drawn.  The relationship undergoes a lot of ups and downs. When Mademoiselle de La Mole’s father discovers the affair, Julien runs into terrible trouble due to his non - aristocratic origins. 

Julien is a marvelously drawn character. However, he is often unlikable. Early on, his prime motivation is to climb in the world socially to the exclusion of all else. He enters a seminary despite that fact that he has no faith because he believes that the religious life is the best way for him to achieve social and financial success. However, when he begins to fall in love, he does begin to humanize and show a few positive virtues. 

Julien romanticizes the previous Napoleonic era. He laments the fact that in that era, a young man of modest means could have achieved great success in the military, a path now only open to the aristocracy. He also professes to believe in Republican ideals. This is a key facet of his worldview and personality. 

The portrait of Julien is interwoven and works well with Stendhal’s tone and prose style. The narrative is third person but often gets into the minds of the characters, especially Julien and his girlfriends’, by placing their thoughts into quotations.  

The prose is playful and lively. It is surprisingly so, especially for a book that was written in 1830. One reason that I delved onto the Samuel translation, which is much older than Raffel’s version, was to try to ascertain the true tenor and tone of the original writing. Though the Samuel translation seems a little more restrained then Raffel‘s, both exhibit a certain amount of playfulness and cynicism that I assume is inherent in the original French. The narrative is full of criticism, sometimes light and humorous, of the society that Julien finds himself in. 

At one point Julien attends a dinner party also attended by a host of intellectuals,

"The dinner was mediocre; the conversation irritating. “It’s a bad book’s table of contents,” Julien thought. “They proudly tackle all the important themes of human thought. But after you listen for three minutes, you have to ask yourself which stands out more clearly, the speaker’s sheer bombast or his abominable ignorance.”"

I believe that in the above passage, Stendhal is taking shots at the dinner party guests and Julien’s tendency to be a smart alack. 

Conventions, ideas and religion are also poked at. Later, when Julien is contemplating death,

"“if there is another life? Oh, if what I find is the Christian God, I’m ruined. He’s a despot, so He’s obsessed with revenge: all His Bible talks about is atrocious punishments. I’ve never loved Him; I’ve never even wanted to believe anyone honestly loved Him. He’s utterly devoid of pity (and here Julien remembered several passages from the Bible). He’ll punish me with abominations.”"

The above illustrates a lot about the way in which Julien thinks. He tries to punch holes in the universe. He does often so irreverently. 

This book is also an examination on love. Stendhal wrote a work of philosophy called On Love. I have not read that work, but a little research indicates that the author identified four types of love in it:  physical love, love as a social game, vanity love and passionate love. Julien and his two lovers seem to transition between all three forms throughout the narrative. I would need to devote a separate post to this subject in order to do it justice.

A basic knowledge of late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century French history will be helpful to readers of this novel as much this history is intertwined with the book’s plot, characters and themes. Julien is obsessed with the past. He also rubs noses with a lot of political and religious figures who are very involved with political and social situation in France during the period known as The Bourbon Restoration.

This book is a brilliant character study. It is also an interesting examination of relationships. It is a lively social commentary. In some ways, it seems very much ahead of its time. I highly recommend this to those who like the above attributes in novel. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling is the fourth book in the series. Like the previous entries, I enjoyed this novel a lot. The plot is interesting. It is full of fun characters, places and situations. Things get darker here and some interesting themes are introduced. 

Harry and his friends, as well as some enemies, are back for a fourth year at Hogwarts. This time, the evil Lord Voldemort is slowly gaining strength and hovering around the edges of the story, threatening Harry. At the same time, the Triwizard Tournament has come to Hogwarts. This is a magical competition between young wizards. Each participant or champion is chosen by a different magical school and represents that school in the competition. Despite the fact that he never intends to enter, Harry is maneuvered by unknown interests into becoming one of the champions from Hogwarts. Harry and the other participants are presented with a series of difficult and dangerous hurdles to overcome. Harry and the other champions are tasked with getting past dragons and dealing some ornery Merpeople as well as engaging with a host of other frightening creatures in their quest for the cup. Things turn a bit ugly when Harry ends up in a fight to the death with Voldemort himself. 

I have commentated that in previous books, the series had settled into a certain routine. This book continues some of the patterns of the last three. The narrative mostly consists of Harry and his friends’ day to day adventures. There is a whole host of entertaining passages to read about characters and creatures thrown in for good measure. Harry and his friends are getting older, so they are starting to become interested in dating. There is ball that diverts the interest of the students of Hogwarts and their guests from other magical schools. On the periphery, as usual, Lord Voldemort is sneaking around and is plotting to do bad things to Harry and the world at large. The magical competition and its mini adventures are similar to the magical encounters from previous books. Despite its familiarity, I found all this fun and interesting to read about. 

Rowling does begin to throw in some new and interesting elements here. The realities of the universe that the author has built begin to present themselves here. This world of Harry Potter consists of a worldwide community of wizards and other magical creatures that exist in parallel to the nonmagical, known as the Muggle, world.  This magical world hides its existence from the nonmagical world through the use of magical means. This world of magic has its own government, educational system, social customs, etc. This society is mostly a free one, it has elections, laws, a system of ethics etc. Throughout the series, we have seen that the society is flawed however. In this book, the flaws become a lot more apparent. We see that people, such as Harry’s Godfather, Sirius Black, are sometimes falsely imprisoned, the authorities sometimes impose death sentences on magical creatures based upon false pretenses, and the government is shown to be sometimes corrupt. 
Furthermore, around the time of Harry’s birth, a savage war raged between the government, which was controlled by the forces of light magic, and Voldemort’s and his dark wizards known as Death Eaters. Sirius Black tells Harry how during the worst of times, when Voldemort was murdering and torturing people and targeting his opponents’ families, many of the wizards on the light side resorted to unethical tactics and compromised their ideals in order to fight Voldemort. This seems an accurate representation of how free societies and individuals sometimes behave when under existential threats such as war. 

Perhaps the worst societal ill depicted involves magical species known as House Elves. These creatures are in a condition of slavery. They are bound to particular families and are controlled through magical means.
Harry’s friend Hermione decides to take up the cause of the House Elves. She comments, 

"You know, house-elves get a very raw deal!" said Hermione indignantly. "It's slavery, that's what it is!... Why doesn't anyone do something about it?" 

Later she observes how the oppression is covered up and that even in a book, Hogwarts, A History, that she admires, the existence of House Elves at the school, is omitted,

"House-elves!" said Hermione, her eyes flashing. "Not once, in over a thousand pages, does Hogwarts, A History mention that we are all colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves!" 

Hermione decides to do something about it and begins a campaign to free them and provide better living conditions for them.

I think that Rowling is depicting an interesting dynamic here. We see a flawed magical society, that contains some oppressive and harmful institutions, that is threatened by the outside forces of Lord Voldemort, who have no morality and are completely malevolent. 

It seems that Rowling is portraying a magical world with parallels to the real world. Our modern democracies have been, and continue to be, imperfect. There is injustice and oppression in places. Yet, in the past and present, there are malevolent forces that are much worse, that are trying to destroy all of society. I will use a World War II example because it tends to work well.  During World War II, in the United States, there was terrible discrimination and violence aimed at people of color. It was the time of Jim Crowe, the mass lynching of black men and the internment of Japanese Americans, to name just a few of the terrible wrongs. Yet, outside, there was Nazism. Despite everything that was wrong inside of America, there was no moral equivalence between the two systems. I am not saying that there is not injustice and wrongs in modern day democracies, or that there are not malevolent forces lurking on the outside, but the situation that existed during World War II and afterward just makes for a clear-cut example. Many of the same dynamics, in less dramatic form, still exist. 

Hermione, as a friend and ally to Harry Potter, has positioned herself on the side of civilization, against the forces of barbarism as exemplified by Voldemort. Yet, she realizes that within the civilization that she is defending, like our own, there exits terrible injustice. She does not give up and try to overthrow her civilization, but she tries to reform and improve it. She attempts to do so by using peaceful means.  I think that this says a lot about the way our world and history has worked. Existential threats like Nazism and Communism were eventually defeated through the use of force and threats of force. The horrors of Jim Crowe, mass lynching, etc., have ended by people using peaceful, democratic means. There is still a ways to go, but the past offers valuable lessons. Rowling seems to be trying to mirror some of this in her world. 

It may be obvious in what I wrote above that this book takes the turn into darker storytelling than I have talked about in previous posts. References to torture and other nasty things that Voldemort and his allies engage in abound. Voldemort also murders several characters in this novel. Harry begins to show real pain at the loss of loved ones. Though I am sometimes skeptical  of the overabundance of dark fantasy and science fiction that seems to be vogue these days, Rowling does not go too overboard here. Also, the series did need some variation. 

This book continues all the motifs that led to the success of the previous novels. However, Rowling does add these more serious plot points and themes. I find that they add to the story in a positive way. Despite this, the novel is still a lot of fun and I enjoyed it a lot. I will likely continue with the series.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

As I have written previously, I have decided to read a few books on the subject of colonialism. To start, I have decided to read a few books that are considered important to the belief systems known as Postcolonial theory.  Written in 1952, Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon is one such book. This was originally written in French. I read the Charles Lam Markmann translation. 

Fanon was a native of Martinique, which was a French Colony. During World War II, he joined the Free French forces and fought in combat against Axis forces in both Africa and Europe. Fanon was wounded, and he was decorated by the postwar French government for his service. Later, he became both a psychiatrist and a philosopher. His background had a great effect upon his ideas. 

This work is a philosophical condemnation of racism and colonialism.  It is also Fanon’s analysis of the psychology and sociology behind racism and colonialism. He examines both the perpetrators and the targets of racism here. 

This work is written in an unusual way. At times, the prose reads like a conventional essay. At other times it lapses into a stream of consciousness and seems almost poetic. This was a translated work so it is difficult for me to tell for sure, but Fanon’s prose seems powerful as well as sincere. The author includes a fair amount of literary analysis, and the text is heavy with quotes from novels, philosophical works and poetry. Fanon quotes thinkers and authors as diverse as postcolonial theorist and poet Aimé Césaire to Sigmund Freud to Georg Hegel.

Fanon first describes the terrible and ubiquitous racism that he and other black people have experienced throughout the world. He next tries to formulate a psychological and cultural theory that explains both those who hold racist views as well as those who are targeted by them. He believes that the concept of “black” had become ingrained in the psyches of all people of all races.  This image was synonymous with all the racist stereotypes attributed to black people. He writes a lot about how culture has placed the concept of “blackness” and black people as “the other.” Thus, “black” had come to mean uncivilized, stupid, violent, lazy etc. Black people themselves had internalized these views. 

Fanon writes,

White civilization and European culture have forced an existential deviation on the Negro. I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact.

Furthermore, the concept of whiteness had come to mean civilization, intelligence, nobility in the psyches of most people of all races. 

As a result, most black people throughout the world had developed an inferiority complex. In addition, most black people identified more with the image of “whiteness” than of “blackness.”

Fanon goes on to say,

There is no help for it: I am a white man. For unconsciously I distrust what is black in me, that is, the whole of my being.

Ultimately Fanon calls for the world to move past racism and the concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness,”

He writes,

To us, the man who adores the Negro is as “sick” as the man who abominates him. Conversely, the black man who wants to turn his race white is as miserable as he who preaches hatred for the whites. In the absolute, the black is no more to be loved than the Czech, and truly what is to be done is to set man free.

Fanon was a psychologist. He used the theories behind psychoanalysis to further formulate his own theory. He develops something of a psychological profile for black men, black women, white men and white women.  He draws heavily on such theorists as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Thus, the author finds that racism and its effects are akin to psychological illnesses. In the end, Fanon admits that he does not have all the answers but advocates for a world where the concept of whiteness and blackness are eliminated. Along the way, Fanon suggests that something similar, but not identical, goes on with all oppressed and colonialized peoples. He draws both parallels and contrasts between racism aimed at black people and antisemitism.  He also mentions that he believes Marxism is one way to bring about what I would call a colorblind world. 

I think that Fanon’s description of racism throughout the world is hard hitting and sometimes infuriating.  Of course, the world has changed since this book was written. That is important. It is also significant, as racism and oppression are still with us. His call for the world to move beyond racism is, of course, spot on. 

As for Fanon’s psychological theories, I think that this is a bit of a mixed bag. His description of racism and how its targets are made to seem like “the other” seems to be a true reflection of reality. I think that this process can be applied to any group that is the target of bigotry and oppression anywhere in the world. Without a doubt, some oppressed people develop an inferiority complex. Yet, I am not sure that this inferiority complex was as universal as Fanon portrayed it to be, even in in 1952. 

Fanon does a lot of generalizing about black people and white people as well as about men and women. Perhaps this is par for the course for the time this is written. However, in my opinion, such generalizations are not a way to get to the truth. I also find many of the psychanalyst-related theories, especially those that relate to Freud, unscientific and unsubstantiated. Once again, such theories were all the rage when this was written.  Nevertheless, I found this part of Fanon’s reasoning lacking. Finally, I disagree with Fanon’s advocacy of Marxism. 

Based upon what I have read online, this book is highly esteemed in many circles.  It had, and still has, a great influence upon post-colonialist thinking. For this reason alone, it is important. Fanon’s writing is also unique and distinctive. It is also an eloquent and powerful indictment of racism, stereotyping and “othering” as well as being a powerful call for equality. I found the psychological theories, which are the basis of the book, to be questionable however. With that, I recommend this for those interested in these subjects. 

My commentary of Colonialism/Postcolonialism by Ania Loomba is here.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is known as story about infidelity. I found it to be about a whole lot more. The novel was first published in 1878. This is the first work that I have read by Leo Tolstoy. After a bit of research on the various translations available for this book, I chose the Louise and Aylmer Maude version. My copy of this novel ran 710 pages. Within these pages, Tolstoy has packed a lot in terms of drama, characterization, philosophy and more. I found that the result was brilliant but uneven.

This novel basically tells two parallel stories. First, there is the tale of Anna herself. The title character is a beautiful aristocratic woman. She is married to Count Karenin, a high government official. She meets and begins an affair with Count Vronsky, a young cavalry officer. Anna subsequently leaves her husband and son as she runs off with Vronsky. Much drama ensues as several issues continue to percolate, including the question of Karenin’s willingness or unwillingness to grant Anna a divorce, Anna’s distraught feelings over the estrangement from her son, Anna’s very mixed feelings towards Karenin, etc.

The other plot thread involves Konstantin Levin, a Russian landowner. Levin is an independent thinker. He courts and eventually marries Princess Katerina Shcherbatskaya, known as “Kitty.” Levin is focused upon the future of Russia, especially as it concerns the peasantry and agricultural policy. The ups and downs of Kitty and Levin’s relationship make up much of the narrative.

There is a third couple, Stepan Oblonsky and Darya Oblonskaya, known as “Dolly.” Stephan is Anna’s brother, and Dolly is Kitty’s sister. This pair is something of a link between the other two stories. Stepan is a serial philanderer, which is one of several reasons that the couple is unhappy. 

Almost every character in this book is marvelously fleshed out and complex. I could write pages and pages about almost every one of them. Both Anna and Levin are particularly complicated. Anna does many questionable things, including abandoning her son. She is unlikable, yet she is humanized and, at times, pitiable. Levin is likable and mostly virtuous but unusual. He is also a deep thinker who suffers from several inner crises. 

Much of the narrative involves high drama leading to tragedy in regards to Anna and her affair. Her interactions with her lover, her husband and her son reach a sublime level, and all four are shown to be complex and nuanced characters. 

Levin and Kitty’s story is also interesting, but the parts of the book about Levin also contain many pages of philosophizing between Levin and his friends as well as within Levin’s own mind. Levin’s musings include the nature of work, life’s meaning, death, relationships, the role of government, agriculture, war, religion and more.  Toward the end, he has an epiphany involving God that ties in thematically with the dark place that Anna finds herself in. Though I tend to like such musings, and I did enjoy some of this, other parts became a little dull, especially some long segments about labor and agriculture, even for me. These segments also seemed to not mix all that well with the drama in the book. All of this gives the novel a kind of irregular feel to it. 

The book is, in part, a study in relationships, as the famous opening lines indicate,

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Though a little online reading indicates there are varying interpretations on this subject, Levin and Kitty’s relationship, despite some ups and downs, ends up mostly happy. This is contrasted with every other romantic relationship in this book, which are unhappy and, in the case of Anna and Vronsky, lead to calamity. 

There is so much going on within these pages that it is impossible to examine even just the major points with a single post.  Instead, I am going to share a few thoughts about one particular aspect of Tolstoy’s writing style as it relates to characterization.  Much of the narrative is told in third -person. However, at many points, Tolstoy lapses into stream of consciousness for several of the characters. Unlike many other examples of this style that I have read, the stream of consciousness here is relatively straight-forward and follows a linear stream of thoughts. Thus, it is not all that different from conventional first-person narration. It seems that Tolstoy was one of the first authors to employ this technique, and his pioneering use of it may be the reason that it is fairly basic here. 

Tolstoy has a knack for getting into characters’ heads. He does this using this stream of conscious as well as more conventional third-person narration that heavily focuses on a particular character for multiple paragraphs.   At one point, Tolstoy even peeks into the mind of Levin’s dog, Laska.  When Levin and his brother interrupt their concentration during a hunting trip to talk about life matters, Laska becomes annoyed that they will miss the birds that they are hunting, 

Laska , with ears pricked up , was looking upwards at the sky , and reproachfully at them . “ They have chosen a time to talk , ” she was thinking . “ It’s on the wing . . . . Here it is , yes , it is. They’ll miss it”

A melding of the magnificent characterization found in this novel and this style occurs with Anna. At several points, Tolstoy uses this style to really get into her head and to convey emotion. For instance, after living with Vronsky for over a year, she finds herself unable to obtain a divorce from her husband. At the same time, her relationship with Vronsky is deteriorating due to her own instability and unfounded jealousy. She begins to suffer from wild mood swings and paranoia. Tolstoy gets into her head very effectively here, 

Some noisy men were quiet as she passed them on the platform , and one whispered something about her to another — something vile , no doubt . She stepped up on the high step , and sat down in a carriage by herself on a dirty seat that had been white . Her bag lay beside her , shaken up and down by the springiness of the seat impudent conductor slammed the door and the latch . A grotesque - looking lady wearing a bustle ( Anna mentally undressed the woman , and was appalled at her hideousness ) , and a little girl laughing affectedly ran down the platform .

At this point, Anna is unreliable. The reader is not sure if the young men were whispering something vile or not. She is showing hostility toward not just them, but to the conductor and to the woman who is described as grotesque. Her thoughts about mentally undressing this woman seem particularly nasty. The laughing little girl seems to add to the funhouse-like scene that is running through Anna’s mind. 

At another slightly more lucid movement, Anna contemplates the deteriorating relationship between herself and Vronsky;

“My love keeps growing more passionate and egoistic , while his is waning and waning , and that’s why we’re drifting apart . ” She went on musing . “ And there’s no help for it . He is everything for me , and I want him more and more to give himself up to me entirely . And he wants more and more to get away from me . We walked to meet each other up to the time of our love , and then we have been irresistibly drifting in different directions . And there’s no altering that . He tells me I’m insanely jealous , and I have told myself that I am insanely jealous but  it’s not true . I’m not jealous , but I’m unsatisfied.

Anna is also not completely seeing reality above. Vronsky’s attempts to “get away” from Anna is him just straining against Anna’s stifling behavior. She seems to realize that her jealousy is a problem, but then pulls back from that revelation. I think that the above quotation illustrates how Tolstoy is able to craft such subtle and nuanced characters and plot. 

As noted above, I found this novel both  uneven and brilliant. The parts that involve emotional human interaction and extremely well thought out characters are interspaced with Levin’s ruminations about nearly everything under the sun.  Yet, much of the work was grandly written with sublime characters and a story that touched upon all sorts of important issues involving life and the universe. A reader should approach this work knowing that Tolstoy will be taking them in a lot of directions, some of them very unconventional. I highly recommend this to anyone prepared for such a ride.