Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev was first published in 1862.  I found this to be a compelling philosophical novel populated with well crafted and complex characters. I read the Constance Garnett translation. 

This is the story of two young men, Yevgeny Bazarov and his friend Arkady Kirsanov. Bazarov is a nihilist. Arkady is a follower who has embraced Bazarov’s beliefs.  Nihilism, which was a thought system spreading through Russia at the time, is a key concept explored in this book. It is described by Arkady as follows, 

A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in. 

As such, Bazarov is critical of most societal conventions, government, tradition and conceptions of beauty and art, among other things. 

The narrative follows the travels of Bazarov and Arkady as they visit several households in Russia. First, they visit Arkady’s father Nikolai Kirsanov. Nikolai is a liberal landowner which, at the time, made him someone who favored moderate reform in Russia. His political and social beliefs are at odds with the radical nihilism of Bazárov and Arkady. Nikolai’s brother, Pavel, is also on hand. Pavel is also a liberal who spends some time debating Bazarov. 

Next, the pair visit a widowed noblewoman, Anna Odintsova, and her sister, Katya.  Anna’s psyche is delved into by Turgenev in some depth. She is a woman who is somewhat obsessed with order and not rocking the boat. She is an interesting character in her own right. Bazarov begins to fall in love with her. These feelings cause his nihilistic beliefs to fray a bit. Arkady is likewise attracted to Katya. The young men's attractions to these women make up a major thread in the narrative through the end of the book. 

The pair also visit Bazarov’s parents. Bazarov’s father, Vassily, is also a liberal Russian. These political and social differences, as well as other issues, also put a strain on the relationship between Bazarov and his parents. This all plays into a major theme of the book as Turgenev explains the tensions between different generations. 

The two young men bounce back and forth between the three households throughout the story. Eventually, Bazarov’s tearing down of everything that Pavel values leads to Pavel calling out Bazarov to a duel.  This ends with Pavel being wounded, but also with the two more or less reconciling. In what I thought was some of the best writing in the book, Pavel comments on Bazárov’s degeneration of art and nature,

Nikolai Petrovitch’s head sank despondently, and he passed his hand over his face. “But to renounce poetry?” he thought again; “to have no feeling for art, for nature ...” And he looked round, as though trying to understand how it was possible to have no feeling for nature. It was already evening; the sun was hidden behind a small copse of aspens which lay a quarter of a mile from the garden; its shadow stretched indefinitely across the still fields. A peasant on a white nag went at a trot along the dark, narrow path close beside the copse; his whole figure was clearly visible even to the patch on his shoulder, in spite of his being in the shade; the horse’s hoofs flew along bravely. The sun’s rays from the farther side fell full on the copse, and piercing through its thickets, threw such a warm light on the aspen trunks that they looked liswallows flew high; the wind had quite died away, belated bees hummed slowly and drowsily among the lilac blossom; a swarm of midges hung like a cloud over a solitary branch which stood out against the sky. “How beautiful, my God!” thought Nikolai Petrovitch, and his favourite verses were almost on his lips;

I like the way, in the above passage, that Turgenev transitions from Pavel’s objection to Bazarov’s beliefs to his own musings upon the beauty of nature, to his own love of poetry and thus ends with  

his favourite verses were almost on his lips.

Turgenev was himself a moderate who rejected both the far-right reactionaries and the radical nihilists.  Both of these extremes were gaining popularity in Russia at the time that this was written. Bazarov’s character, however, was tame and moderate compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s psychotic and malevolent nihilistic characters, such as Verkhovensky in The PossessedDostoevsky’s nihilists also tend to gather around them a cult like following. Instead, Bazarov is somewhat likable and sympathetic. He has persuaded Arkady to embrace his cause, but he does not end up convincing anyone else. For his part, Arkady easily breaks free of Bazarov’s influence when he falls in love and becomes engaged to Katya. 

Though there was apparently some controversy at the time when this was published as to Turgenev’s view of nihilism, a little online searching makes it clear from Turgenev’s other writings and statements that he meant to be very critical of nihilism in this book. Bazarov is, however, a complex character.  He has flaws but he also has appealing traits. His philosophy is portrayed as terrible. At the same time, he is shown to be both charming and brave as he conducts himself with courage and honor in his duel with Pavel.  I would have liked it if there was more of Bazarov’s philosophizing included in the text. What there was of it, I found it to be interesting. At one point, he muses,

I think; here I lie under a haystack.... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be.... And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something.... Isn’t it loathsome? Isn’t it petty?

As the above illustrates, Bazarov thinks about the big issues. With that, his ultimate outlook is incredibly negative. 

I found this to be very good book.   The characters are well drawn. If they are not brilliant they do posses a lot of subtlety and nuance. The themes, particularly that of differences between generations, are well presented and interesting  I liked the political and social moderate change that Turgenev espoused here. The Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy works that I have read seemed to tell bigger stories about bigger characters. Nonetheless, this book worked well in its own way. The plot and characters are very well crafted and are likely to hold the attention of readers who like such stories. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys philosophical and character based novels. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

This post contains major spoilers. 

Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling is the sixth book in the series. I found this to be one of the most entertaining entries of the bunch. Rowling also throws in some particularly interesting elements into the mix here. 

Harry and his friends are back for their sixth year at the magical school of Hogwarts. In this installment, war has broken out between the law-abiding wizarding community and the evil Lord Voldemort and his allies. People are dying.  Voldemort has also hatched a plot to kill Hogwarts headmaster and great wizard Dumbledore. 

Harry also comes into position of an old textbook that someone owned years earlier. The person called himself the half-blood prince and had written all kinds of helpful spells and tips in the book. Harry uses this information to excel in his classes and conjure up some unique spells. Harry’s friend Hermione suspects that the Half Blood Prince might have been evil and that Harry is looking for trouble by using the book. 

The climax of the story arrives when Voldemort’s allies, known as the Death Eaters, invade Hogwarts in an attempt to kill Dumbledore, and an all-out magical battle erupts.

There is a something of a pattern contained within these books. The first two -thirds or so involve Harry’s day to day activities over the summer and then at Hogwarts. Rumors and hints that the evil Lord Voldemort is engaging in nefarious activities abound. The last third of the books usually advance the plot and develop the characters and sometimes reveal some neat surprises. This book more or less follows that pattern but throws in some distinctive touches early on. In what I found to be some of Rowling’s best writing, Voldemort’s origins and his young life are illuminated. Dumbledore has a magical memory device called a pensieve, on which he can replay people’s memories. The great wizard has been digging into Voldemort’s origins and past. He uses his pensieve to show Harry Voldemort’s story through other people’s memories. We see how Voldemort’s parents met when his mother bewitched his father with a love potion. When his mother died, Voldemort, originally named Tom Riddle, was abandoned and left in an orphanage. A few years later, a young Dumbledore, who had discovered that Riddle had magical powers, brought the young Riddle to Hogwarts. Riddle is depicted as a cold, narcissistic and cruel boy who develops a cult-like following. Passages in which Harry views his various life stages are chilling. At one point, Harry watches a young Dumbledore come for Tom top take him to Hogwarts, 

It was a small bare room with nothing in it except an old wardrobe and an iron bedstead. A boy was sitting on top of the gray blankets, his legs stretched out in front of him, holding a book. 

… He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale. His eyes narrowed slightly as he took in Dumbledore’s eccentric appearance. There was a moment’s silence....

“I am Professor Dumbledore.” 

“‘Professor’?” repeated Riddle. He looked wary. “Is that like ‘doctor’? What are you here for? Did she get you in to have a look at me?” 

He was pointing at the door through which Mrs. Cole had just left.

“No, no,” said Dumbledore, smiling.

“I don’t believe you,” said Riddle. “She wants me looked at, doesn’t she? Tell the truth!” 

He spoke the last three words with a ringing force that was almost shocking. It was a command, and it sounded as though he had given it many times before. His eyes had widened and he was glaring at Dumbledore, who made no response except to continue smiling pleasantly. After a few seconds Riddle stopped glaring, though he looked, if anything, warier still. 

“Who are you?” 

“I have told you. My name is Professor Dumbledore and I work at a school called Hogwarts. I have come to offer you a place at my school — your new school, if you would like to come.” 

Riddle’s reaction to this was most surprising. He leapt from the bed and backed away from Dumbledore, looking furious. 

“You can’t kid me! The asylum, that’s where you’re from, isn’t it? ‘Professor,’ yes, of course — well, I’m not going, see? That old cat’s the one who should be in the asylum. I never did anything to little Amy Benson or Dennis Bishop, and you can ask them, they’ll tell you!” 

“I am not from the asylum,” said Dumbledore patiently. “I am a teacher and, if you will sit down calmly, I shall tell you about Hogwarts. Of course, if you would rather not come to the school, nobody will force you —” 

“I’d like to see them try,” sneered Riddle. 

“Hogwarts,” Dumbledore went on, as though he had not heard Riddle’s last words, “is a school for people with special abilities —” 
“I’m not mad!”

“I know that you are not mad. Hogwarts is not a school for mad people. It is a school of magic.” 

There was silence. Riddle had frozen, his face expressionless, but his eyes were flickering back and forth between each of Dumbledore’s, as though trying to catch one of them lying. 

“Magic?” he repeated in a whisper. “That’s right,” said Dumbledore. “It’s... it’s magic, what I can do?” “What is it that you can do?” 

“All sorts,” breathed Riddle. A flush of excitement was rising up his neck into his hollow cheeks; he looked fevered. “I can make filings move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to.” 

His legs were trembling. He stumbled forward and sat down on the bed again, staring at his hands, his head bowed as though in prayer. 

“I knew I was different,” he whispered to his own quivering fingers. “I knew I was special. Always, I knew there was something.” 

“Well, you were quite right,” said Dumbledore, who was no longer smiling, but watching Riddle intently. “You are a wizard.” 

Riddle lifted his head. His face was transfigured: There was a wild happiness upon it, yet for some reason it did not make him better looking; on the contrary, his finely carved features seemed somehow rougher, his expression almost bestial. 

“Are you a wizard too?” “Yes, I am.” 

“Prove it,” said Riddle at once, in the same commanding tone he had used when he had said, “Tell the truth.” 

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. “If, as I take it, you are accepting your place at Hogwarts —” 
“Of course I am!” 

“Then you will address me as ‘Professor’ or ‘sir.’“ 
Riddle’s expression hardened for the most fleeting moment before he said, in an unrecognizably polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir. I meant — please, Professor, could you show me —?” 

I find the above to be well written. Many aspects of Riddle’s character are illustrated here. Riddle is a psychopath. Rowling depicts a young man who is inwardly seething with malice. There is a reference to the fact that Riddle has hurt people before, how he is angry at those around him, how he craves more power, and how he is able to change his behavior in an attempt to fool those around him. 

Within the story Rowling has begun to weave in the contrast and compare theme between Voldemort and Harry. There are many similarities, both are orphans, both are special children surrounded by people who have trouble understanding them etc. The two are connected psychiclly. However, unlike some other fantasy series however, Harry is not tempted by the dark side. He does at times show imperfections as he becomes understandable angry at people who try to torment him or who he thinks are manipulating him. It is not in his nature to succumb to malice.  

Several people have pointed online that Riddle was conceived via an act of deception as his mother used a love potion on his father. Thus, he was the product of “fake love.” This idea rings true to me. It seems to ease very well into the personality that Riddle and Harry each developed. 

The book also ends strongly. The magical battle within Hogwarts is very well written. Furthermore, Dumbledore has been killed in the battle and as the result of events in other books, many of Harry’s other strong adult protectors are dead. Harry’s realization that he must now take on Voldemort’s without them is powerful and effective. 

And Harry saw very clearly as he sat there under the hot sun how people who cared about him had stood in front of him one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him; but now that was over. He could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort; he must abandon forever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one: that the shelter of a parent’s arms meant that nothing could hurt him. There was no waking from his nightmare, no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all in his imagination; the last and greatest of his protectors had died and he was more alone than he had ever been before. 

I find that the above is another well written passage. In light of everything that has happened in the series before, it is dramatic,  stark and effective. The books have obviously turned more serious. It seems to me that Rowling has managed the transition in a believable and effective way. 

I liked this book a lot. Because of the above strengths, it may be my second favorite book after the first in the series. It is an enjoyable read, it is full of cleverness and engrossing developments.  The characters, while not all that complex, continue to be fun to read about. There were some serious and interesting aspects woven into it all. I have one more book to go in the series. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham

The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham was published this year. In it, the author explores the evolutionary origins of violence, cooperation and altruism in humans. Wrangham is a renowned primatologist and has written several books on human and animal behavior. As someone who is interested in big picture questions about humanity, I found this book to be enlightening and fascinating. 

Wrangham identifies two types of aggression that manifest themselves in both humans and other animals. Aggression and violence can be classified as proactive or reactive. Reactive aggression is unplanned. Proactive aggression is planned. The author goes on to explain that there is considerable evidence that these two different types are triggered by different processes and parts of the brain.  Humans and other animals practice both types of behavior. 

In people, reactive violence leads to the majority of individual murders and assaults. In some primate species, such as chimpanzees, it leads to near constant violence where alpha males prey upon other members of their groups and females are exposed to beatings on a near constant basis. What humans would call rape also occurs among chimpanzees and some other species due to reactive violence. 

In humans, proactive violence manifests itself in everything from state-controlled police activities to preplanned wars. Proactive violence and the threat of it are not always a bad thing. When manifested by moderate and just systems, it prevents society from descending into chaos and even worse violence. In primates, wolves and other animals, it manifests itself in conflicts between groups and packs. Chimpanzees actually engage in small scale warfare between groups. 

However, it turns out that compared to primates and other types of animals that hunt in groups, humans show a lot less reactive aggression and a lot more proactive aggression. The author writes,

overall tendencies are clear: compared with other primates , we practice exceptionally low levels of violence in our day-to-day lives , yet we achieve exceptionally high rates of death from violence in our wars . That discrepancy is the goodness paradox.

Wrangham spends a lot of time looking at the behavior of humans, various ape species, wolves and other animals to illustrate the differences in behavior. He even looks at Neanderthals ad other extinct species and examines available evidence. The book also covers the behavior of domesticated species, such as cats and dogs, to show how humans have bred reactive aggression  out of them in a process that is called domestication. 

Of particular interest are bonobos.  These primates look similar to chimpanzees, but they are a lot less violent. In fact, they are some of the least violent primates. Observation of them shows that coalitions of female bonobos police their social groups and quell the violence of very aggressive males. Furthermore, violent, antisocial males are ostracized to some extent, making it difficult for them to mate and pass on their genes and violent behavioral tendencies.

In regard to humans, the book looks at hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural societies as well as modern society. In all of these societies, Wrangham finds similar patterns regarding the two types of violence. Humans are relatively low, as compared with other social animals, on the scale of reactive aggression and very high on the scale of proactive aggression. The difference has had an enormous effect on human history and culture. 

The author then looks at the various theories as to why humans are not so reactively aggressive and very proactively aggressive. The mechanism that occurs with bonobos does not seem to apply to human societies. He explains the theories in very understandable ways. Some theorists believe that human behavior is simply attributable to higher intelligence. The author believes that something else has happened, however. 

Wrangham is an advocate of something called the execution hypothesis. That is, the extremely dominant and violent alpha-male type rarely becomes the leader of human communities, regardless of whether the community consists of hunters and gatherers, agrarian farmers or more modern societies. It turns out that, in the remote, perhaps pre-human past, this type of super-bully would try to dominate the community, as they successfully do among chimpanzees.  In human society, a coalition of other males would often end up killing the super aggressive males when they began to become too powerful. Furthermore, this tendency to eliminate such violent narcissists has led the human species to be less reactively aggressive, more altruistic and eventually enabled us to develop a system of ethics. Wrangham calls this self-domestication.

On the flip side, this tendency to execute these super bullies has led humans to evolve to be more proactively aggressive. In order to eliminate the alpha males, the tendency to plan aggression and work together is enhanced. 

The author writes, 

A coalition of militant egalitarians was in a position to cut them [the super violent individuals]down. Selection would accordingly have favored those whose spontaneous generosity and noncombativeness protected them from such a risk by minimizing their selfish urges and increasing their tendency to help others

There is a downside to all of this. What Wrangham calls coalitionary proactive aggression led to the rule of groups of men who were egalitarian but tended towards proactive aggression. While they imposed certain benefits on society, they also imposed their own tyranny upon women, anti-conformists, etc. If accurate, the impact of all of this reverberates through present times. 

Near the book’s conclusion, Wrangham tries to look to the future. He argues that despite our genes, humanity has been getting less violent over time as culture changes and is optimistic that this will continue. He discusses both the promise and pitfalls that the future holds. I should also note that the author makes it a point that he is against the death penalty, even though he believes that it played a key part in human evolution. 

Wrangham has convinced me that there are indeed big biological differences between reactive and proactive aggression. Furthermore, most primates show a lot more reactive aggression than humans. Proactive aggression is much more common in humans than in any other species. In addition, I agree that violence, as well as altruistic and cooperative tendencies, are to a great extent the products of evolution. I am not so sure about the execution hypothesis. The killing of super aggressive individuals in the past may have had an impact upon human evolution, but I suspect that many other factors played a part in formulating human nature. Perhaps the super aggressive males were also shunned and had a harder time surviving and reproducing. The idea that coalitions of individuals helped to tamp down the super aggressive bullies may very well be true. I am not sure that execution was the primary driver of this, however. 

Either way, this is a fascinating book. Even if one does not agree with Wrangham’s theories, the observations of animal behavior contained within these pages are interesting and valuable. I think that even if one does not follow all of Wrangham’s conclusions to their endpoint, the book is still full of important observations about aggression and violence. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in evolutionary science, human nature, culture and history. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Talking About Disagreement

I do not hesitate to post about controversial issues. Though I mostly keep my posts on this blog to the subject of books, I tend to read some books that cover contentious topics. I read books on the subjects of race, gender, politics, religion, etc. Even books whose focuses are not on these issues sometimes touch upon them. For instance, sometimes history books delve into the issue of colonialism, race, gender, etc.  Those who know me on Twitter also know that I do not shy away from controversial issues there. 

Sometimes bloggers write or tell me that they stay away from posts about controversial topics. However, since books touch upon all of these things, it would be impossible to properly write about them without commenting on these issues. Likewise, on other social media, I tend to freely express my opinions. Expressing myself is one of the great joys of life. 

There are many reasons that folks stay away from such topics. Online, there is always the possibility that one may receive hateful or at least angry comments.  With that, these are fairly uncommon when it comes to book blogs. I think that for many, there is more of a fear that people may disapprove of their opinion. People sometimes fear that a difference of opinion means someone will not think well of them as individuals. 

I find that there is a fear to disagree with one’s own tribe. In other words, liberal folks will tend to shy away from criticizing folks on the left, conservative folks will likely shy away from criticizing folks on the right. On issues of race and gender there is often the fear that one will be seen as racist or sexiest if one takes certain positions. It is possible that bias may creep into even a well-intentioned person’s discourse. Thus, I think one should think carefully about one’s opinions on these sensitive issues, listen to other people's points and employ logic, ethics and empathy.  At that point,  one should not shy away from speaking their minds if one truly believes something. There will always be people who agree and there will always be people who disagree. 

There is a larger issue of social media harassment and mobbing. The political and social right and the left seem to have their own sets of really bad people out there. I will be posting more about that in the future, but I want to keep this particular post restricted to general disagreement and the hesitancy to express opinions. 

This brings me to the main point of this post. It is OK to disagree as long as you do not get nasty and as long as you do not engage in personal attacks or even worse behavior.  Issues relating to politics, religion, race, gender, etc. are very complex. People also have their own experiences which often help to shape their opinions. Unless two people are ideologues, it is impossible for any two individuals to agree on everything. I disagree with my friends, my family, even my wife on multiple topics.  I am a traditional liberal in the American sense of the word. However, I am also critical of various trends that I see emerging on the on the left such as postmodernism, an extreme form of identity politics, etc.  I am also an atheist who does not agree with the generalizations that I often hear about various  religions, whether those generalizations are good or bad. However, I  also strongly defend those who criticize religion. It is impossible to imagine any one person agreeing with me on everything, especially with my mix of views. 

Disagreement is often the source for finding the truth or coming over to more reasoned positions. Thus, as I have written before, if I take a position that anyone disagrees with, they should feel free to tell me in the comments section. 

I generally do not read books that are too tied to current events. I try to read books that I think will be relevant 50 or 100 or 150 years from now. In my original draft of this post I had written that I was thinking of reading The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford. That book delves into the pressure that modern society exerts against those who speak opinions that are unpopular. I am a fan of Blackford’s Tweets as he expresses opinions somewhat similar to those that I have expressed above. In the meantime I have actually read and finished the Blackford's book. I will be posting about it in the coming weeks. I want to note that I have not changed anything in the preceding paragraphs as a result of reading that book, as I wanted to present this post as it was originally intended, before wading into Blackford's ideas. 

There will always be people who shy away from disagreement. There will always be people who embrace it. Social media raises all sorts of new questions and issues that relate to it.  I will continue to try to use my blog as a vehicle for opinions while trying to be open to the views of others. 

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.