Friday, August 24, 2012

Too Open Minded?

On the surface it may seem that I am too open minded about books and authors. A sentiment often heard is that a person cannot be too open minded about things. It turns out that I actually do not agree with that line of reasoning. I have from time to time heard people state something akin to – “I like all music equally” or “all books are good.” I believe that such views are untenable. Please do not try to tell me for instance that JRR Tolkien (An author that I love) is aesthetically equal to William Shakespeare. Furthermore, there is art, literature, film, music, etc. that on every level is absolutely vile. I believe that a thinking person must express some aesthetic judgment.

Yet, a reader of my blog will observe that for almost every book discussed, I have a positive impression. Furthermore, I write about everything that I read. Indeed, I would contend that I am very open - minded.  If I perceive that a work or author has something important to say about the world, or if the story, characters or philosophy are presented in a way that is either aesthetically pleasing or original and innovative, I usually take great joy in the work. This is true even if I disagree with the authors’ opinions or views, unless such views are very offensive. Still when I look at the vast majority of books on bestseller lists as well as what I observe what most people are reading, I think that there is a great deal of literature out there that I would dislike.

So why do I like such a high percentage of what I read? I believe that this is the case because I am very selective regarding my reading material. I am an adherent of Harold Bloom’s assertion, spelled out in his The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, that there are so many worthy books out there, and a very limited amount of lifetime available to read them, and that time wasted on trivial and bad works is unaffordable. I feel that it is important to mention that my own list of worthwhile books is much, much larger and more diverse than Bloom’s controversial and somewhat restrictive Western Cannon. Of course this just makes the problem worse for me! The result however, is that I tend to read things that I judge to be culturally, historically, philosophically, aesthetically or scientifically significant.

I am not trying to get through a list. I take immense pleasure in mining books for interesting and important ideas. It is enormous fun for me to find connections between what I find in literature, philosophy, history and science. In a way, I feel as if I am sitting before an immense jigsaw puzzle called “Human Thought” and I am slowly putting the pieces in. I am having a grand time working this puzzle! This analogy is limited; a more accurate description would be a multidimensional puzzle that is constantly growing. More fun still!

As I seem to have chosen well, I very rarely read works that I do not like.

People will occasionally ask me if sometimes I would rather “relax” and read something with no meaning, no strong characterization or little aesthetic value. While I think that it is fine to read in such a manor if one wants to do so, I have no desire to ever do this. I find that reading for meaning and aesthetic perception is one of the most soothing activities that life has to offer. It does not seem like work, it is pure relaxation for me. In fact, I sometimes lull myself into sleep at as I think about the stories, characters and ideas that I read about during the day.

In a nutshell, I like or love almost everything that I read. I am very carful about what I pick. For me, it is all about exploration and digging deep. This is one of the most fulfilling of life’s activities. Of course the question was rhetorical -  I am NOT too open - minded.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi Week

Caroline is organizing the Antonio Tabucchi Week coming September 17 – 23 2012. Tabucchi was an Italian writer and academic who died this year.

Though his books have won international renown I have yet to read him. As a writer who seems to have plugged into world history and culture he appears to be a novelist right up my ally. I am very exited at the prospect of venturing into Tabucchi’s works for the first time. It will also be fun reading what many other bloggers have to say about this writer during the week.

I have chosen It's Getting Later All the Time as the book that I will read and blog about. I have already obtained my copy. As it looks fairly short I am thinking about sneaking another Tabucchi book and commentary in for that week. We shall see.

For anyone else interested in joining, more information is available over at Caroline’s blog. She includes a comprehensive list of Tabucchi’s works. Her catalogue should be of help for anyone who needs to decide which work to read.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On the Genealogy of Morals - by Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Genealogy of Morals is the third work by Friedrich Nietzsche that I have read. The edition that I finished is a modernized version of the Horace B. Samuel translation. Nietzsche covers many of his usual themes in this effort. Having read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil several years ago I found that the lines of reasoning found in this treatise were similar, but often presented from different angles.

In some many ways this is a bold and brilliant work. However, I cannot think about this tome in a meaningful way without first pondering Nietzsche’s presentation. The famous philosopher is openly contemptuous, downright nasty and at times personally vituperative of the many belief systems and adherents to those systems that he disagrees with. On the Genealogy of Morals contains scathing attack after scathing attack on religions, philosophies and other forms of human beliefs that Nietzsche opposes. While the assaults are based upon chains of reasoning, they are often childish and hysterical. For instance, the philosopher describes people who act in ways that can be labeled as “Virtuous.”

“These abortions! What a noble eloquence gushes from their lips! What an amount of sugary, slimy, humble submission oozes in their eyes! What   do they really want? At any rate to represent righteousness, love, wisdom, superiority, that is the ambition of these "lowest ones," these sick ones!”  

These incessant rants actually serve as parody of the views that Nietzsche is advocating. He directs these tirades against people who espouse such beliefs as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Nihilism, Nationalism, Democratic values, Socialism and a whole host of other philosophies. He rarely aims his contempt at ethnic groups, however. Oddly enough, he expresses hatred for anti – Semites. He does, however, exhibit an unfortunate streak of misogyny.

With all that said, Nietzsche is an audacious and extremely influential thinker. He takes aim at thoughts and belief systems that are ingrained and part of the foundation of much the world’s cultures and thought patterns, and challenges them head on. His primary goal in this work is to overthrow conventional notions of morality.

Though I disagree with almost all of the philosopher’s conclusions and am horrified by some of his hypothesis, I believe that there is room to question these basic tenets of human thought and culture. If anything, it forces us to analyze and justify some of the fundamental structures of what we call our moral system.

First Nietzsche takes aim at what people consider virtue. As he also espouses in Beyond Good and Evil, he sees the concept of “Evil” as an idea that fits a  “slave morality”. The concept of Evil and its opposite concept of “Good” were created by inferior people in order to sap the power of the strong, vibrant and healthy.  Nietzsche advocates for robust action by the superior and resourceful that should be unencumbered by what he deems “bad conscience”. Concepts such as justice and fairness are factors that are weakening humanity,

“It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, "Those birds of prey are evil, and he who is as far removed from being a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb, - is he not good?"

For much of the work Nietzsche sets his sights upon what he calls “Ascetic Values”. This seems to be a combination not only self-denial, but also religion, metaphysical concepts and abstract values. Nietzsche argues that anything that attempts to direct our thoughts, actions and belief away from hard but wonderful reality is a contemptible denial of life itself. Such thinking is surrender to negativity and depression. Visions, transcendental states, etc. are extreme manifestations of this rejection of the world and thus an abrogation of life.

Nietzsche goes much further; he rejects the idea that scientific thought is anything but an advanced manifestation of the perverse force of Asceticism. According to Nietzsche, belief in truth itself is an abstract and, ultimately, metaphysical concept. The search for truth is a cold and bloodless endeavor that is also a rejection of life. The conflict between superstation and science is false as both systems are part of the same problem!

Ultimately Nietzsche advocates a morality based upon will, strength and individual greatness. He idolizes the classical virtues of ancient Greece and pre - Christian Rome.

I have barley summarized and I have oversimplified the philosophy presented in On the Genealogy of Morals. I have also skipped major arguments contained in the book. My point here is that this work goes way beyond most philosophies presented in the last two thousand years. It challenges our most basic conceptions. I will not try to refute Nietzsche’s beliefs here, as I would assume that the vast majority of readers would easily find their own objections to most of this philosopher’s conclusions.

Nietzsche can be infuriating. When he launches into melodramatic tirades he can also be unintentionally and ridiculously hilarious. Hidden beneath all the venom and ridiculousness is a bold attempt to redefine what modern civilized society deems to be morality. I not only disagree with his belief system, but I find major components of it reprehensible. On the other hand, it is good to have some basic “truths” challenged from time to time.  Although he often falls flat on his face, I must concede some respect for a thinker who takes such a long and crazy leap.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago is a wondrous but challenging read. The book was originally written in Portuguese. Giovanni Pontiero translated it into English.  Saramago was a highly esteemed Portuguese novelist, poet, playwright and journalist. This is the first work of his that I have tried. Saramago died in 2010.

Though my knowledge of literary theory is limited, I would define this novel as written in a modernist style. Saramago uses few traditional sentences. Most of the narrative consists of strings of thoughts, separated by commas. There are no apostrophes indicating dialogue. Though topics are connected, the subject at hand often shifts quickly and, at times, randomly. I would not exactly call the style a stream of conciseness; rather, I would call it a stream of life.  The point of view is generally third person but at times this shifts suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes the narrator seems to be neutral and without character; at other times he seems to be an observer from the far future, at a few points he even seems to be God. This unconventional form seems to be an attempt to portray the world as it happens, without the artificial rules of grammar and traditional writing. I enjoyed this unusual writing style. Certainly I would not want everything that I read to reflect this approach, but I appreciate the creativity involved and it is nice to try something different for a change.

The setting of the book is early eighteenth century Portugal. The plot is very unusual but very imaginative in construction as well as presentation. Oddly enough, this book can be considered an historical novel as many of the characters and events portrayed are real and fact based.

Baltasar is a former soldier who has lost his left hand in battle. Early in the novel he meets Blimunda, a woman with mystical powers.  Blimunda has a host of magical and psychic abilities. She possesses X - ray vision and has some talent for precognition, along with other magical skills. The pair quickly falls in love. The protagonists then become involved with Pardere Bartolemeu Lourenco, a priest who is attempting to develop a flying machine. They participate in the construction and development of the airship, which Bartolemeu Lourenco calls the Passarola. The ship is a mix of engineering innovations and magical attributes. It is levitated with the help of globes, which are filled with human “Wills”. It turns out that Blimunda is able to capture the wills of people at the moment of their deaths. An interesting note, it turns out, is that Bartolemeu Lourenco was a real person who lived during the period and really attempted to construct an airship. Our main characters also meet and interact with the real life eighteenth century composer Domenico Scarlatti.

The tale of Baltasar and Blimunda is interspersed with the story of the king of Portugal, Dom João V, and his family. Tricked by his queen and the religious powers of the kingdom to fulfill a holy pledge, Dom João has ordered that an enormous convent be constructed in Mafra, which is Baltasar’s hometown.

The Passarola is eventually completed and, fleeing from the inquisition, Baltasar, Blimunda and Bartolemeu Lourenco take flight. After a journey across Portugal, the trio crash-lands in a remote and mountainous area. Bartolemeu Lourenco, who has become irrational, flees into the wilderness and drops out of the narrative. After hiding the Passarola amidst brush and scrub, Baltasar and Blimunda are able to walk to Mafra. There they settle down with Baltasar’s family. Baltasar finds work among the thousands of laborers employed in constructing the convent. From time to time the couple returns to the Passarola in order to keep it maintained. Much of the remainder of the story involves the construction of the massive convent, an extremely arduous and dangerous task for the laborers. I will not give away the novel’s conclusion, but the ending seems to come somewhat abruptly. I believe that in writing the conclusion as such, that Saramago is, as he does with his style of prose, attempting to reflect the way that life often goes. Sometimes reality throws us the unexpected and traumatic with little warning.

 As I pointed out in earlier commentary here, Saramago was an adherent of Anarchist communism. This ideology permeates this work. While the prose strongly advocates the author’s philosophy, it is never preachy. Instead Saramago seems to prefer to instruct through storytelling. The belief system rejects government and other sources of authority. It advocates that society is best served when groups of people voluntarily band together into communes and cooperate for the common good. Saramago was also critical of religion and a proponent of atheism.

Again and again, government, hierarchical systems and religion are portrayed as malicious and destructive. One of many examples of this point occurs when King Dom João arbitrarily decides during the middle of construction that the Convent at Mafra is to be much larger than planned. As a result, more of the surrounding area needs to be destroyed in order to make room,

 On a small plot of land situated behind the convent walls lying to the east, the friar in charge of the kitchen-garden attached to the hospice had planted fruit trees and laid out beds with a variety of produce and borders of flowers, the mere beginnings of a fully established orchard and kitchen-garden. All of this would be destroyed.”

Egalitarianism and equality of people and their labor is trumpeted,

All men are kings, all women are queens, and the labours of all are princes. “

Natural human relations and actions, unregulated and uncontrolled by government and religious institutions, are shown to be virtuous, harmonious and morally just. An example is Baltasar and Blimunda’s relationship, which is never formalized with a religious or legal marriage arrangement.

Their union is illicit out of choice, and their marriage is unsanctified by Holy Mother Church, for they disregard the social conventions and proprieties, and if he feels like having sex, she will oblige, and if she craves it, he will gratify her. Perhaps some deeper and more mysterious sacrament sustains this union”.

 The above are just a few examples. Repeatedly, formal authority systems are shown to be oppressive, brutal and cruel. All religious acts are perpetuated for selfish ulterior motives. Royal authority is constantly committing horrendous acts but perpetuating propaganda that justifies such actions as virtuous and selfless. Likewise, the horrors and deprivations experienced by the poor and downtrodden are ironically “explained” by Saramago as being part of God’s benevolence. Religion is again and again shown to be nasty, hypocritical and not based upon rational thinking. Often, the acts of common people are shown to be altruistic and positive.

Nowhere does Saramago suggest a practical way as to how society can get to a place unencumbered by authority and religion. The solution presented is mostly symbolic. Flight of birds as well as Lourenco’s machine seem to represent hope and escape from the oppressive forces besetting humanity. Perhaps the fact that the Passarola is levitated by globes filled with human wills is emblematic of communal cooperation as the alternative to hierarchal injustice.

In terms of theme and philosophy, Saramago presents a lot more than his political and social ponderings. This book is very densely filled with ideas. There are meditations on what makes people human, what gives them identity, and the role of art in elevating the human condition, to name just a few of the points that Saramago explores.

I certainly do not agree with the lion share of Saramago’s philosophies.  His beliefs, however, are presented in a reasoned and non- strident way. In addition, there are many observations presented that I find to be true or that I can at least say that I lean towards. I agree with some, but not all, of what he has to say about religion. Of course, government and other centers of power are often malevolent and destructive. The powerful often explain away malicious actions and intent as justified activities. However, it seems to me that Saramago mistakes what often is, but not always so, a world of universal and absolute rules. I detect very little balance in the way that the author portrays the universe. These flaws lead me to conclude that his ideology is ultimately too simplistic and is without nuance.

Regardless of its flaws this work offers much to recommend. However, this is a book that should be attempted only by the adventurous reader. As I noted above, Saramago’s prose is extremely unconventional and thus can be difficult to get used to. In addition, the plot and storyline vary between harsh realism and whimsical mysticism. I found this to be an odd mix. However, this same unconventional style is innovative and keeps things interesting. In addition, the book contains much aesthetic beauty that is manifested in many ways. Particularly, the way that Baltasar and Blimunda’s love and relationship is portrayed is poignant and meaningful. If one is prepared for something very different, Baltasar and Blimunda can be an entertaining, surprising and thought provoking read.